Confusion and anxiety in China as draconian COVID curbs eased

Beijing, China – It’s 3:30pm and I’m doing my best to stay calm. My husband is throwing a suitcase, brand new car seat and a bag of snacks into the back of a taxi while I wrestle a seat belt over my bulbous belly.

The contractions are coming in thick and fast. My baby has decided to burst into the world two weeks ahead of schedule.

Eyes closed I hear the “clack” of my husband’s seatbelt.

“Please drive quickly!” he yells in anxious Chinese.

The driver knows our destination, a hospital 20 minutes away, but is refusing to budge. “Sao jiankangbao!” or “Scan the health code!” he snaps.

Irritated, my husband quickly takes out his phone, opens the Beijing Health App and scans the QR code taped to the back of the driver’s seat. “Her too!” the driver shouts. If I wasn’t focusing so much on controlling my heaving moans I would have laughed. I had no idea where my phone was.

My husband proceeds to melt down, yelling: “She’s having a baby can’t you see?!?”

“Scan the health code first,” is the stern emotionless reply.

It’s funnier now than it was that June afternoon. We made it to the hospital eventually and after additional COVID-19 checks on arrival, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy just two hours later.

China’s zero-COVID policy is based on the principle that one infection is one too many. It has not only created a bubble around China, isolating it from the rest of the world, it has also added layers of regulations and limitations to the lives of the 1.4 billion people living here. And while my medical emergency had a happy ending, the effects of the policy have been devastating and even fatal for many others.

I started reporting on this “mysterious flu-like illness” in January 2020 when it first spread from Wuhan. Since then, there have been countless stories of people with urgent conditions, children, pregnant women, the elderly etc unable to access care because they didn’t have a recent negative nucleic acid test.

Millions more have gone hungry, lost their livelihoods and suffered deteriorating mental health due to extensive lockdowns.

Last month, 10 people living in the city of Urumqi, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, including three Uighur children, died in a residential fire – a tragedy widely believed to have been caused by a coronavirus lockdown that had blocked exits and prevented firefighters from reaching the site in time. The tragedy ignited a wave of disbelief and rage. How could a policy designed to protect people be responsible for such needless deaths? Enough was enough.

What followed was a string of demonstrations in several cities across the country, the most serious acts of public defiance China has seen since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. “We want freedom, not COVID tests!” was a common cry. Some brave souls even demanded the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a call which could easily land them in jail or worse. A blank piece of A4 paper became a symbol of solidarity, mourning and criticism over government censorship.

I was shocked watching it all unfold and even more shocked to see so many contacts posting messages in support of the demonstrations on Chinese social media. Would the opaque and seemingly immovable Communist Party listen? Chinese police nationwide quickly acted to suppress and prevent further large-scale protests and social media was swiftly scrubbed. That seemed to answer the question and we went on with our lives. In Beijing, that meant staying home, leaving only to get tested for COVID every few days.

At the time, much of the city was under “soft lockdown” to control yet another Omicron outbreak. Restaurants were closed for dining in, non-essential businesses shut their doors and people were working from home. The capital of the most populated country in the world was a ghost town (a common occurrence since 2020).

Pandemic workers in white hazmat suits gather in front of a block of flats in Beijing where people are under home quarantine. They are standing in front of blue tents and are about to begin their shift
The appearance of the ‘Da Bai’ or ‘Big White’ pandemic prevention workers has been a source of alarm for many – signalling someone, somewhere has or might have COVID-19 [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

But as I write this, one week later, I’ve been shocked again. This time by the authorities themselves.

China’s strict COVID-19 policy is being loosened – or in their words, “optimised”.

They’ve announced several key changes: Positive COVID-19 cases and close contacts will no longer be forced to quarantine at government facilities and test results won’t be needed for domestic travel or entrance into supermarkets, malls, office buildings or parks.

If a lockdown is imposed it can’t be expanded to entire neighbourhoods, it must be targeted and lifted as soon as possible.

All these changes are to be implemented as upwards of 10,000 infections are being recorded every day. China has finally surrendered to living with the virus.

App-controlled life

For almost three years our mobile phone health app has been our passport to venture beyond our homes.

We whipped it out to scan codes at every building or store entrance. “Lu ma! He suan yi tian!” it audibly sounds to alert the security guard of your health status. “Green code! Covid test completed one day ago!” Scanning means your location and identity are also noted so authorities know who you are and where to find you.

For almost three years we froze up at the sight of the dreaded “Da Bai” or “Big White” the not-so-affectionate nickname for people dressed head to toe in medical white suits and goggles. Their presence meant someone somewhere close was getting dragged to a central quarantine facility (often sparse and unsanitary places) where they would not feel the sun on their skin for days or weeks.

For almost three years, we became used to long testing queues, stocking our freezers with weeks worth of food, stopping non-essential travel and fearing flu and colds because buying any fever-treating medicines was restricted (the rationale being that all people wanting to take Ibuprofen were clearly trying to hide their COVID-19 infection from the authorities).

So how do we feel now that this draconian system is finally coming to an end? Excitement and relief. We’re even daring to dream about being able to fly and visit our family overseas without fuss or quarantine (which is so far still impossible).

People demonstrate against coronavirus restrictions in the city of Urumqi. They are holding up pieces of paper with no writing on them. It's dark.
The relaxations came after a series of protests in cities nationwide after 10 people died in a fire at a residential building that had been locked down because of COVID-19 [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

But aside from that, there is a whole lot of confusion, chaos and anxiety. People are panic-buying medicines and Rapid Antigen Tests. Social media chat groups are flooded with questions. MRNA vaccines, proven to be more effective than Chinese-made jabs, are unavailable here. Millions of people feel totally unprepared to be exposed to the coronavirus for the first time in their lives. We are all hoping the Chinese health system fares better, otherwise, dark days could be ahead.

And unlike international headlines imply, day-to-day life hasn’t dramatically changed yet.

We still need a negative COVID-19 test to access restaurants, entertainment venues, gyms and hospitals, so this thrice-weekly ritual will continue.

The only difference is I’ll be walking to my local testing site a little lighter; grateful that China is finally joining the world in accepting this new pandemic normal and knowing a mobile phone app now has less power over my life.

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