Chinese public divided on zero COVID approach

Fver the past two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has enjoyed a luxury unavailable to many other leaders: a population almost entirely on board with his approach to COVID-19. But last week, like the censors took their foot off the pedal on Weibo for just a few hours, the extent of Xi’s new challenge became clear.

As case rates in Shanghai reach levels not seen since Wuhan in 2020, the Chinese public must make a new round of calculations, weighing the human and economic costs of some of the world’s toughest lockdown measures. Online, some social media users have blasted a policy that has deprived many Shanghai residents of fresh food, medical care and, in the most extreme cases, their children, as city authorities say there have only been a handful of deaths from COVID-19.

Until recently, China’s zero-COVID policy, enforced by sealed borders and short, tight shutdowns, was an easy sell. While much of the rest of the world was plunged in and out of lockdowns, his government was delivering something that approached life as usual.

The problem is that now, as other countries begin to “live with the virus”, China’s central leadership remains tied both politically and practically to its zero COVID strategy. It’s hard to overstate the political legitimacy that has been put on China’s ability to protect its people from the virus, let alone the two years of high-profile layoffs that have prompted local officials up and down the chain to sue. zero-COVID at all costs. And even if Xi were ready to take the political hit, the health system is simply not up to the challenge: intensive care capacity is only a tenth of that of the United States, and behind Impressive global vaccination rates hide a number that strikes fear into the heart. of any epidemiologist – only 51% of people over 80 are fully vaccinated.

Yet while authorities may be clear about China’s direction, the public is less convinced. The outbreak in Shanghai has highlighted the human fallout from heavy-handed lockdown measures. Many apartment complexes have struggled to access basic goods, while some critically ill patients have been denied access to routine medical care. Most controversial of all has been the separation of children and babies from their parents under a policy of quarantining all positive cases in government facilities.

To be clear, the damage is still far less than letting the virus spread through the population. Jubilant pundits seem to have conveniently overlooked the West’s own death rates in their rush to share videos –some of which are easily proven fakes – which show the supposedly imminent collapse of Xi’s regime.

However, the authorities still have a real problem on their hands. Suddenly, social media users are openly discussing the possibilities of removing some of China’s toughest measures, or even living with the virus. Others are simply venting the frustrations built up over the weeks or months trapped inside. It’s by no means a sweeping U-turn against Chinese politics – there’s still no shortage of fierce zero COVID loyalists – but it still would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

The real risk is that the authorities inadvertently play into this emerging polarization. Consider the incredibly low rate of symptomatic cases in Shanghai – on April 5, as cases soared, only 322 of nearly 20,000 reported cases were classified as symptomatic, compared to an approximate rate of 50% elsewhere in China and the United States. ‘foreign. Mass testing, which detects normally undetected cases, is part of the reason, but also a deliberately high hurdle for case classification. Shanghai authorities’ insistence that only pneumonia-like symptoms count as confirmed symptomatic cases may keep headline numbers artificially low, but in the long run it makes life harder: how do you justify such heavy measures for a disease which, in your opinion, is extremely asymptomatic?

Authorities are facing a similar Catch-22 over deaths. Despite repeated anecdotal reports of deaths in aged care facilities and more than 320,000 cases, Shanghai’s official death rate for this wave still stands at 17. It is no surprise that local authorities have been reluctant to announce the city’s first deaths under their watch but refused the public transparency on the real risks of Omicron will do little to encourage the 17 million unvaccinated over-80s in China to get show up for life-saving bites.

This mixed message is likely to lead to a growing division of public opinion. Already, social media users are beginning to accuse each other of belonging to opposing “zero tolerance” or “coexistence” camps. And while infections in Shanghai may peak, the debate will go nowhere. New outbreaks are beginning to appear across the country, promising new challenges if they spread to underfunded cities and rural areas or to the political center of Beijing.

Local governments across the country will learn from Shanghai’s mistakes, and antiviral drugs will help cushion the blow of new outbreaks, but none will solve China’s underlying problem: a clear lack of an exit strategy. And without a clear plan from the top, local debate and dissent will only grow.

Two years of truly world-leading success means that China, understandably, doesn’t appreciate international moralizing about its approach to COVID-19. But it needs to listen to its own citizens – and it looks like they might be about to head in very different directions.

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