China’s Covid strategy was ahead of the curve at the start of the pandemic. But in year three, it’s way behind.
Some of its citizens have taken to contrasting the country’s approach – unfavorably – to that of North Korea, with many arguing that in comparison, the hermit nation has shared more “scientific” information about Covid to the public.
China stands isolated from the world in pursuing a zero-tolerance approach that critics say is rooted more in political ideology than science. And when that ideology is so heavily entwined with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s leadership, it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Residents are growing increasingly fatigued, defiant, and mocking of the approach, while experts are questioning how a country that prides itself on cutting-edge technology and scientific innovation could find itself on a course so radically different to the rest of the world.
In China, science-based approaches to the virus are not only being sidelined, but deliberately silenced. The head of the World Health Organization’s comments were scrubbed from the internet after he called China’s Covid strategy “unsustainable.”
In another particularly telling incident, Chinese authorities even censored a North Korean public health video titled “Understanding Omicron”.
The two-and-a-half-minute video released by Pyongyang, itself battling a wave of Covid, is hardly revolutionary; it does little more than explain that most Omicron patients will have mild symptoms and that only the most serious cases will need hospital treatment.
It’s common knowledge in most of the world that infection with Omicron typically causes less severe disease than infection with prior variants. But shifting focus away from the potential severity of the disease runs counter to China’s narrative, and the video was therefore swiftly scrubbed from the Chinese internet.
Likewise censored was the news that North Korea is ready to lift its lockdown restrictions and get on with things.
In contrast, China continues to shut down entire communities and cities over a handful of Covid cases. All positive cases and close contacts are sent to government quarantine, while nearby neighborhoods are often locked down for weeks.
Despite the best efforts of China’s censors, the news seeped out and many Chinese internet users even said the hermit nation was being more “scientific” than China.
There’s of course widespread skepticism around North Korea’s claims that it has Covid under control. The World Health Organization at the start of this month said it assumed that the pandemic situation there was actually getting worse, contrary to Pyongyang’s claims, as the country struggles with a lack of vaccines and health care resources.
But the fact that even the secretive, autocratic government of North Korea is at least sharing internationally accepted information about Covid has many social media users in China incredulous. One put it bluntly: “Suddenly I realized, we are the most pathetic.”
Meanwhile, Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea, was under lockdown for nearly two months, with authorities only announcing the relaxation of some measures earlier this week.
Videos online show Chinese health workers placing what appear to be rows of machines to monitor the air along the Yalu River that separates the two countries. Apparently, China has also ordered nearby residents to close their windows – it fears the wind may blow the virus in from North Korea.
Backed into a corner
Early in the pandemic, such public questioning of China’s approach might have seemed unthinkable. Back then, China’s snap lockdowns, mass testing, and harsh quarantines successfully contained the virus.
Its approach was so effective, in fact, that China has since repeatedly boasted of its superiority to the West, claiming that zero-Covid should be a model for the world. As China’s propaganda machine relentlessly reminds everyone, the country has reported just over 5,000 deaths compared to a million in the United States.
But China’s early successes may be part of the problem. Having backed themselves into a corner with their earlier rhetoric, China’s leaders feel unable to change tack – even in the light of more transmissible variants like Omicron – without an acute loss of face.
So Xi has stuck to his vow to “unswervingly adhere” to zero-Covid and all the officials below him are under pressure to fall in line – regardless of what the scientists or anyone else think. The goal is to keep Covid cases outside government quarantine facilities at zero, no matter the economic or social cost.
“Any voice advocating deviation from the zero-Covid path will be punished … No one from the top really listens to expert opinions anymore, and it’s honestly humiliating,” one official from a provincial-level health commission told The Lancet medical journal recently.
Last weekend, censors quashed debate on social media over whether stringent measures like the months-long lockdown in Shanghai were justified.
The debate was fueled by a scientific study looking at the severity of Covid-19 among patients in the city’s latest outbreak. Of a cohort of more than 33,000 (largely vaccinated) Covid-19 patients who were relatively healthy and not displaying severe symptoms at the time of hospitalization, the study found only 22, or 0.065%, went on to develop severe illness.
Those 22 were all over 60 years old with underlying health conditions or weaker immune systems and most were not fully vaccinated, according to the study, released online in a Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication.
The rate sparked questions over whether Covid-19 measures were commensurate with health risks to the general population, but by Monday morning, some comments on social media appeared to have been removed. Days later the paper itself was no longer available on the main page of the China CDC website, with the original link turning up an error. China’s health authorities did not respond to a request for comment from CNN on the matter.
“With this rate of severe disease, why are we taking nucleic acid test after nucleic acid test every day, in the end what is it for?” one Weibo user said of the findings, appearing to reference Shanghai’s rigid Covid-19 testing requirements that have continued after citywide lockdown measures were eased.
Meanwhile, China is spending eye-watering amounts of cash to keep the ideology alive.
For instance, China is estimated to have built hundreds of thousands of semi-permanent Covid testing booths, with citizens in every major city required to take a Covid test at least once every 72 hours to enter any public venue. On CNN’s calculations, just one day of mass testing in Beijing costs at least $10 million US dollars.
Zero-Covid is “not cost-effective, and we all know it,” another health official told The Lancet.
It’s not just people that are relentlessly tested: there are viral videos of stray cats, dogs, mail packages, seafood, sewage, and newborn infants being tested too.
It’s a practice that continues even though international health officials question the science behind it.
“The risk of transmission from surfaces is at best theoretical, not even measurable at this point,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“And it really fits into the picture of what we call hygiene theater, whereby doing this kind of testing, it makes one think that you’re doing more to protect the individuals…when you’re really not,” he said.
“It’s useless, meaningless, and distracting.”
For its part, China continues to claim that zero-Covid is the only way to save people’s lives, given that just 61% of its elderly population have been fully vaccinated with a booster and that health resources are lacking in rural areas.
But even considering those realities, many experts say resources would be better spent on increasing vaccination rates rather than building costly testing sites and quarantine facilities.
They also question why China has still not approved any foreign mRNA vaccines – proven to be more effective against Omicron than the inactivated vaccines produced and used in China. (China’s homegrown mRNA vaccines remain in the clinical trial phase).
The answer, many suspect, is also about politics rather than science.
Zero-Covid has “become a measure of the (Communist Party’s) merit and legitimacy, similar to economic growth statistics – proof that it can deliver real results to the Chinese people and therefore has a right to rule,” the Atlantic Council said in a recent report.
A critical moment
If zero-Covid really is a matter of “hygiene theater” then the big question is how long Beijing can keep the show on the road.
“We’re at a critical moment,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Chinese leaders have to decide whether to continue this very costly strategy with diminishing returns.”
For now, they appear intent on staying the course, especially ahead of the Communist Party Congress this fall, when Xi is expected to transition into an almost-unprecedented third term.
But citizens are losing patience.
While Shanghai ended its brutal two-month lockdown at the start of June, many communities are reintroducing confinement measures and the anger is palpable.
One viral video – which has since been removed from Chinese social media – captured a recent protest at a Shanghai compound.
It shows residents crowded along the fence, demanding to be released and imploring authorities to stop sending Covid negative residents to quarantine facilities, just because they live in a building in the vicinity of a Covid positive case.
One of them – who says through a loudspeaker, “We are being illegally imprisoned” – is promptly taken away by the authorities.
As he is being pushed into the police car, he puts his hands in a prayer position and says “thank you” to the outraged crowd, some of whom begin to chant, “freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law” – officially part of the country’s “core socialist values.”
One of the residents sticks up his middle fingers to the Covid rule enforcers in hazmat suits.
It’s a show of brazen defiance that resonates with many, who are desperate for a change in China’s zero-Covid policy.