Frustration at China's anti-Covid strategy

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 23 Nov 2021

Nearly two years into a pandemic that has seen China pursue some of the world's most stringent coronavirus measures, some grumbling has started to emerge over the strategy, particularly as other nations learn to live with the virus.

The zero-Covid approach is unrelenting - with border closures, targeted lockdowns and mass testing triggered sometimes by just one case.

The cost and pain of the strategy have been felt especially acutely by the 210,000 residents of Ruili on the border with Myanmar that has endured three major lockdowns and frequent mass testing, leaving many businesses on the brink.

A merchant, Lin, said his jewelry business hangs by a thread, with tourists and customers staying away because of Covid restrictions. "We continue operating but only scraping by."

In a widely shared television interview this month, University of Hong Kong professor Guan Yi questioned China's strategy, arguing it should not conduct mass testing "at every turn" or give out vaccine booster doses without enough data on their efficacy.

While China largely succeeded in stamping out infections in the first year of the pandemic, the Delta variant has proven more difficult to contain. Cases have been detected in more than 40 cities in recent weeks, putting millions under lockdown and disrupting the lives of millions more, though the numbers pale in comparison with many other countries.

Weddings were postponed and mourners told to keep funerals short as schools were closed and flights grounded.

And there was outrage online over health workers killing a pet dog with a crowbar while its owners were in quarantine, with furious social media users complaining about how harshly Covid measures have been implemented.

Those deemed to have failed in controlling Covid are often sacked, driving local officials to increasingly drastic containment measures. One region offered big rewards for information about an outbreak.

Beijing is "facing growing domestic pressures to pivot to a more flexible approach," says Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The desperate saga of one man highlighted the woes some have faced because of tech malfunctions or bureaucratic lags.

After an overnight work trip, the man could not get the "green code" on a health app travelers need, and was stranded.

It sparked an outcry. A baffled colleague wrote on social media that the man was vaccinated, had not traveled to high- or even medium-risk areas, and had a negative test result.

After the incident got attention online, authorities admitted there may have been mistakes in isolated cases. But they are unlikely to relax their approach at least after a top Chinese Communist Party congress late next year, and if more effective vaccines are available by then.

China has given conditional approval to five domestic vaccines, but their published efficacy rates lag behind shots developed elsewhere. And some leading figures have quietly expressed doubts over their efficacy against the Delta variant. There are efforts to shut down debate, with Xinhua insisting it is "simply not right" to question strategy.

Leaders are likely to dig in their heels and dismiss "frustrated citizens as a minority," says Natasha Kassam of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

Meanwhile, the frustration among Ruili residents was laid bare in a WeChat post from former deputy mayor Dai Rongli, who said the measures were "squeezing - the last signs of life" out of the city.

It struck a chord.

"Only those in this situation know how miserable people are feeling," one local wrote in response.

One Ruili toddler has already had more than 70 tests.

With no income, a video maker, Lu, said he was forced to burn through savings just to pay rent for his office space. "I can't hold on for much longer," he says.

Residents have decided they cannot wait for changes.

A jade merchant, Wen, says he left the city with his family after months of struggling, explaining: "There's no business to be done now in Ruili."

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