China's ongoing zero-tolerance Covid-19 approach raising questions

China remains the only country in the world still pursuing a "zero Covid" policy with its borders remaining shut. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - A ride-hailing driver has undergone nearly 90 Covid-19 tests in the past seven months. Students have been forced to stay on campus to prevent cross-infections, while shops have been shut for months on end amid an indefinite lockdown.

These are common occurrences in Ruili, a small city in southern Yunnan province bordering Myanmar.

Pre-pandemic, the city, which is home to China's largest jade market, had a population of about 270,000.

In the past year, the city has been in a near constant state of lockdown, the result of China's zero-tolerance approach towards Covid-19.

Much of the rest of the country had been able to go on with their daily lives, until now.

A recent flare-up of infections, which has spread to most of China's provinces, prompting sudden and drastic lockdowns, has triggered a discussion among a weary population on whether the current approach is still sustainable.

Ruili's economy, which thrived on trade and tourism from neighbouring Myanmar, has practically ground to a halt after a constant stream of imported cases.

While the official border has been shut, a military coup in Myanmar meant that some people have fled into China, bringing with them Covid-19 infections. Enforcement has been difficult because of more than 160km of porous borders.

This meant that most eateries and shops in Ruili have been ordered shut, in line with the official policy of trying to achieve zero infections nationwide.

A city official admitted in an interview last month that Ruili's population has dwindled to some 200,000.

A driver for a ride-hailing platform told official media that he paid for 90 Covid-19 tests in the past seven months just to be able to continue driving.

In a country where open dissent by former officials is rare, former deputy mayor of Ruili, Mr Dai Rongli, in a WeChat post titled "Ruili Needs The Motherland's Care", called for more aid for the struggling border town.

The city, Mr Dai said, has now become silent and moody.

"Every time the city is locked down, there are serious material and emotional losses. Each experience battling the virus is an accumulation of grievances," he wrote.

A long-term lockdown has led to "deadlock" for the city's development, Mr Dai said, calling for more support from the central government.

Nearly two weeks after the post went up, it is still accessible on WeChat. Mr Dai, who now lives in Beijing, could not be reached for comment.

Even though Dehong, the county where Ruili is located, boasts a 96 per cent vaccination rate, current officials appear reluctant to ease up on the stringent measures.

The China-Myanmar border gate pictured from Muse, Myanmar, in July, when the Chinese city of Ruili near the border imposed a lockdown after three coronavirus cases were reported. PHOTO: AFP

The central government appears to be doubling down on its zero-tolerance policy, with a senior health official saying last week that, based on past experience, China's strategy of keeping infections out while preventing domestic flare-ups has worked well for the country.

The global situation and that in neighbouring countries have their "ups and downs", Mr Wu Liangyou, deputy director at the National Health Commission, told a press briefing on Saturday, calling prevention work "complicated and severe" as temperatures fall in winter.

"We will continue to adhere to strict epidemic prevention and control measures... forming a solid barrier to consolidate our hard-won results in the fight against the coronavirus," he said.

Across the country, various local authorities have taken a raft of extreme measures: on Halloween, some 30,000 people were locked down in Disneyland in Shanghai when a park visitor tested positive after leaving it.

A similar scenario played out in Chengdu over the weekend when 30,000 people at a mega entertainment centre were rounded up and forced to undergo mass testing.

On Halloween, some 30,000 people were locked down in Disneyland in Shanghai when a park visitor tested positive after leaving it. PHOTO: AFP

China remains the only country in the world still pursuing a zero-Covid-19 policy, with its borders remaining shut even as it gears up to host the Winter Olympics in February.

The approach has started to take an economic toil: Growth fell to 4.9 per cent in the third quarter, the slowest since it bounced back from the pandemic last year.

Part of the slowdown was also attributed to weak consumer confidence, as a population growing weary of sudden and arbitrary lockdowns tires of venturing out. Many still prefer to play it safe.

Beijing-based administrator Cherie Li told The Straits Times that while she was jealous of people overseas who seem to be travelling freely, she had no wish to do so if it meant exposing those around her to Covid-19.

"It's very serious to get the virus, especially if not just you, but your entire social circle has to be in a hospital or put under quarantine. Our government cares for us by keeping us safe and the virus far from us," she said.

But a leading virologist warned that China faces economic collapse if the country continues with this tough approach.

"We don't stand a chance if we pursue a target of zero Covid-19," said Professor Guan Yi, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite TV.

He called for a relook at how effective home-grown vaccines were against new variants of the coronavirus.

"The virus is here today, just like the flu. That's a fact, whether people like it or not," he said.

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