Last month, Wang Lijie intended to spend three days in the Gobi Desert to see the area’s famed poplar forest when the trees became a golden yellow color.
Instead, after officials detected a cluster of COVID-19 cases in a neighbouring city, the Beijing resident has been stuck for more than three weeks, much of it in quarantine. He was one of almost 9,000 visitors stuck in Ejin Banner, a remote section of China’s Inner Mongolia province in the Gobi Desert.
China is pressing down on its zero-tolerance policy as vaccination rates climb in many parts of the world and nations who previously had stringent COVID-containment measures cautiously loosen restrictions.
During the world’s first significant epidemic of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China pioneered that method, which included severe lockdowns, numerous rounds of mass testing, and centralized quarantine. And it’s still going on, despite the fact that it claims to have fully vaccinated 77 percent of its 1.4 billion people and has begun administering booster injections.
In a recent TV interview, Zhong Nanshan, a prominent government doctor, stated, “The cost is actually very significant, but compared to not controlling it, easing (the zero-tolerance policy), then that cost is much higher.”
The limits have a limited — but unpredictable — impact. Unlucky visitors, like the tourists in the Gobi Desert who were bused 18 hours to conclude their quarantine in another city, might find themselves in the wrong location at the wrong time. Beijing residents have expressed their dissatisfaction at being unable to return home after going on a business trip.
The massively famous hotpot restaurant company Haidilao opted to close 300 stores in part because to the epidemic and is cutting back a plan to create 1,200 new ones, demonstrating the impact laws can have even on booming enterprises. Ruili, a city in the southwest that has been shut down many times this year, has felt the burden most acutely.
Controlling the virus, on the other hand, has become a source of pride for Beijing officials, a powerful propaganda tool — and proof, they claim, of a superior style of administration. They frequently brag about how few people have died, especially in comparison to the United States, whose COVID-19 reaction has been dubbed a “complete failure” by a Foreign Ministry official.
China has recorded around 4,600 deaths, compared to more than 755,000 in the United States, a country with a population of less than a fourth of China’s.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, stated, “It’s becoming part of the official narrative that supports that approach and relates it to the supremacy of the Chinese political system.”
Because opinion surveys are infrequent and criticism is frequently banned, it’s hard to know how popular the policies are. Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai doctor who has been compared to top American health official Anthony Fauci, was abruptly shut down by government censure and a plagiarism inquiry after raising the possibility of living with the virus.
However, Gao Fu, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control, recently indicated that the nation may open up after 85 percent of the population has been vaccinated, indicating that the government is aware that at least some people are eager for this.
Wang has undergone 18 COVID-19 tests in the previous three and a half weeks. He isn’t complaining, though. He can work from home and has launched a vlog of his everyday life, in which he interacts with Inner Mongolians online.
“In the face of life, in the face of health, regardless of how much time you sacrificed or how much money you spent, such things are not worth mentioning,” Wang added. “Some people must make sacrifices for everyone’s health and for society to be more stable.”
However, China’s policy sets it apart as many countries struggle to live with the virus, particularly as it continues to evolve and vaccines are unable to completely prevent infection. Most notably, despite a simmering epidemic, New Zealand, which has long enforced a zero-tolerance policy, revealed last month a cautious intention to reduce restrictions. Australia, Thailand, and Singapore have all began to open their borders after imposing harsh travel restrictions for much of the outbreak.
China, on the other hand, reduced the number of international passenger flights permitted into the country by 21% last month, to 408 a week until late March, while boosting cargo flights by 28%.
The number of new cases in Singapore has skyrocketed from less than 100 per day to thousands per day since it began allowing fully vaccinated passengers from specified countries to enter without quarantine. However, the majority of people do not end up in the hospital.
“To believe you can stay at zero is simply impossible,” said Dale Fisher, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s medical school.
However, even if just a tiny fraction of infected individuals find up in hospitals, this may be a problem in China, given its massive population — and it would be particularly difficult for a government that has bet its reputation on keeping numbers low.
“I think what the government leaders, academics, and public health authorities are concerned about is that even a minor opening might lead to much greater epidemics,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ruili, which is bordered on three sides by Myanmar and has battled to keep the virus at bay, provides some of the most striking illustrations of China’s approach.
Videos of a 21-month-old child with round cheeks who was tested 78 times have gone viral on the internet. The boy’s father denied an interview but admitted that he recorded the recordings, which have elicited sympathy but have also been exploited by state media as propaganda to portray Chinese citizens as tough.
One Ruili resident, who only revealed his surname Xu, said he has lost track of the number of tests he has undergone. When he went to throw out the garbage during one lockdown, community volunteers threatened to penalize him.
He must pay for seven days of hotel quarantine to leave the city – all he has to do is travel 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. His firm, which exports Myanmar jade, has been destroyed by the limitations.
In late October, the Ruili administration declared that citizens who had faced difficulty would receive 1,000 yuan (about $150) and that small and medium-sized enterprises would be able to delay loan payments.
Li Hui has been imprisoned in the Xinjiang area of western China for approximately a month in the city of Yili, where a few cases were detected in early October.
His mother, who lives in a nearby town, twisted her wrist, but due to the limitations, she was unable to travel into the city for treatment. He finally got an ambulance to take her to the hospital a week after her injuries after considerable pleading. He is still unable to see her.
“I’m not sure how much more Yili’s people can take,” he remarked. “I just can’t take it any longer.”