The rise and fall of the zero covid policy

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Alvaro Alfaro |

Beijing (EFE).- China’s “zero covid” policy is facing its biggest challenge these days, with a sharp rise in the number of infections and with people’s patience stretched thin given the heavy restrictions that it implies.

On March 19, 2020, China announced that it had detected no new cases of local transmission the previous day, marking the start of an obsession that would last for years.

country lockdown

A few days later, the Chinese authorities closed the country to prevent the “importation” of cases of a virus which was beginning to wreak havoc in the world: tourist and study visas were no longer issued and only Chinese citizens and a small number of foreigners could enter the country, after which a minimum of 14 days of hotel quarantine awaited them.

The decision, which also included restricting the volume of international flights to and from China, which some saw as temporary, remains in effect today, despite quarantine periods being shortened and entries of students were allowed.

A delivery man walks down an almost empty shopping street in Beijing. EFE/EPA/Wu Hao

The “superiority” of a system

For much of 2020 and 2021, during which the country’s GDP grew by 2.2% and 8.1%, the strategy exploded as the virus claimed thousands of lives in other countries and China has kept deaths to a minimum. .

Sporadic outbreaks, often blamed on products imported from overseas, have been crushed by a combination of lockdowns and massive PCR campaigns in affected areas.

Although many towns on the country’s borders were living under tighter restrictions because they were vulnerable to this importation of cases, the vast majority were leading near-normal lives.

Videos of massive parties with people without masks in Wuhan, the scene of the first outbreak, were circulating around the world at a time when restrictions were foreign and the official press was bragging about Chinese success.

omicron changed everything

In January 2022, the city of Tianjin in the northeast of the country reported a case of the omicron variant, marking a before and after in the history of the pandemic in China.

Despite the fact that this epidemic was contained and even organized the Winter Olympics in Beijing in a bubble in which the athletes had no contact with the population, the spring saw large peaks in several cities, including Shanghai .

The eastern city resorted to a strict lockdown for several months that left problems accessing food and medical care, suicides, the separation of babies from their parents and even the killing of pets. company, causing growing outrage.

Before the contagiosidad de ómicron y para detectar brotes rápidamente, las ciudades instauraron pruebas PCR rutinarias hasta hoy día: toda la población debe realizar varias cada semana para acceder a cualquier lugar público, causando en ocasiones largas colas en las cabinas de ‘tests’ repartidas por towns.

A woman is tested for covid-19 in a mobile booth on a street in Beijing.
A woman is tested for covid-19 in a mobile booth on a street in Beijing. EFE/EPA/Wu Hao

Likewise, the rapid increase in cases has jeopardized the isolation of infected people and their close contacts: when hospitals and hotels cannot cope, cities across China have resorted to makeshift constructions where detainees are crammed together, in some cases in appalling sanitary conditions.

Traveling within the country has also been made more cumbersome by different location-tracking policies and apps.

Death of “covid zero”

Despite the Chinese government’s insistence that ‘covid zero’ has saved millions of lives, the directive has also been responsible, in one way or another, for a number of deaths that have undermined his support.

On some occasions, hospitals have refused access to patients who did not have a negative PCR test, for example causing the abortion of two pregnant women in Xian (center) at the beginning of the year, which caused the public anger.

In September, 27 people died in an accident involving a bus traveling to a quarantine center at dawn, raising questions in society about the need for mass transfers of infected people or close contacts to isolation facilities.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the death of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi (northwest) last Thursday.

Despite the fact that the authorities have denied that the doors have been blocked, it is common these two years that wooden planks or locks are placed on the doors of the homes of confined people, which is very criticized on social networks in because of the risks involved.

The pent-up discontent eventually sparked protests in cities like Beijing and Shanghai last weekend, in which slogans such as “I don’t want PCR, I want to eat” were shouted.

A policeman asks for documents from a participant in a vigil in Hong Kong for the victims of the fire in Urumqi, China.
A policeman asks for documents from a participant in a vigil in Hong Kong for the victims of the fire in Urumqi, China. EFE/EPA/Jérôme Favre

The Government now finds itself in a difficult situation: either change policy, at the risk of a wave of cases which, according to some studies, would lead to a hospital collapse and thousands of deaths, or persist with “zero covid”. , putting it to the test of people’s already weakened patience, and has already caused slower economic growth, disrupted supply chains and rattled financial markets.

Since the start of the pandemic, China has officially reported 5,233 deaths from covid and vaccinated more than 91% of its population with two doses, although the elderly are the most reluctant to get vaccinated.

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