In China, some tire after two years of tough Covid-19 measures

Security personnel guard a residential compound after a Covid-19 outbreak in Beijing on Nov 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Account executive Li Jie has not been with his extended family since December 2019.

The 28-year-old, who works in a state-owned enterprise dealing in commodities, has not been able to leave the Chinese capital because of company restrictions.

"You have to apply for permission just to leave the city, and have to provide justification.

"My colleagues have tried, but unless they have sick family members and urgently need to go home, (the trip) usually does not get approved," the Shaanxi native told The Straits Times.

He asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals after speaking up against company policy.

"We are all getting very tired," he said.

Two years since Covid-19 emerged in a Wuhan wholesale market, the disease has gone around the world and back.

Much of the world dealt with the pandemic by implementing lockdowns and travel restrictions and are only gradually reopening as more people get vaccinated.

Governments have also shifted their Covid-19 response from trying to completely stamp out the coronavirus, to attempting to live with it.

Except China.

Even as it gears up to host the Winter Olympics in just over six weeks and with 1.18 billion of its people vaccinated, the Chinese government remains adamant that its "zero Covid-19" policy is the only way to go.

Travel restrictions implemented in March 2020 are mostly still in place.

The number of international flights continues to be restricted, and tourists are still barred from the country. Chinese citizens are also largely prevented from going overseas except in special circumstances.

Anyone entering the country must serve between 14 and 28 days of quarantine in a dedicated facility.

Domestically, Covid-19 tests can be conducted only at government-designated locations, to ensure every positive case is flushed out; a confirmed infection triggers mass quarantine of not only close contacts but  also, in some cases, entire city districts; many state-linked companies also have unspoken travel restrictions in place for fear of employees inadvertently getting caught in a lockdown or, worse, getting infected.

But such travel restrictions are starting to take a toll on younger workers like Mr Li and his colleagues.

"In the beginning, everyone accepted this because we were at war with the virus. But now that we have 'won', all these measures are still in place and there is no end in sight," he said.

People leave a quarantine hotel after completing a mandatory isolation after arriving from overseas, in Dalian, China, on Sept 29, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

At a state media outlet in Beijing, employees have been barred from even leaving the city. Staff say morale is at an all-time low, with many complaining of overwork because the high attrition rate has led to vacancies that are not being filled due to the pandemic.

"It's like everyone is on a knife-edge, the entire atmosphere is very tense," said one editor who has not left Beijing for almost three years. He asked not to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

"People lash out over the slightest things, or are unnecessarily aggressive.

"It's unhealthy, but they have little to no outlet."

In a country with little room for dissent, any perceived criticism of the country's Covid-19 management policy is a red line. And even top doctors are not spared.

When the head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) George Gao suggested that locally-made vaccines needed to be  more effective, he came under attack from fellow doctors and netizens.

Dr Gao later walked back his comments.

A prominent Shanghai doctor who suggested learning to live with the virus also became the target of vicious attacks online and shortly thereafter had to defend himself from false accusations of plagiarism.

By and large, though, there is still strong support among the people for the tough measures.

Wuhan butcher Xie Shuixiang, whose daughter is a nurse, firmly believes that China is the only safe place in the world.

"We have a government who gives us vaccines for free, and is even giving them away to other countries. Where else in the world do you have this?" the 47-year-old said.

Referring to videos on social media, Madam Xie is convinced that the virus was brought into China by foreign soldiers during the 2019 Military Games in Wuhan.

The issue has also been highly politicised, with Chinese government officials, including spokesmen for the foreign ministry, peddling conspiracy theories that the virus leaked from a lab in the US, refuting claims mostly in the West that it originated in China, either through zoonotic transmission, or via a leak from a Wuhan lab.

A World Health Organisation-appointed investigation team, which visited Wuhan earlier this year, was not able to make a conclusive finding on the matter.

There were hopes of an easing of travel restrictions following the Winter Olympics next year, and before a twice-in-a-decade political meeting in late 2022,

But the hopes have been dashed with the emergence of the even more transmissible Omicron variant, said Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council of Foreign Relations Yanzhong Huang.

As some countries restored travel restrictions over fears of the new variant, Beijing held them up as vindication of its long-held strategy.

"With the Delta variant, China has shown its track, trace and lockdown measures still work and can contain outbreaks in about four weeks, but the resources used are 10 times more than before.

"Given that the new variant is more transmissible, it would tax resources even more and the cost, be it economic or social, will be much, much higher," Dr Huang said, adding that it would be unsustainable in the long run.

The country is currently battling a flare-up of cases in several provinces, mostly those with popular points of entry, such as Zhejiang and Guangdong. But infection numbers are still relatively low when compared to other nations.

A medical worker conducts Covid-19 swab tests in China's Zhejiang province on Dec 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

On Saturday (Dec 18), the National Health Commission reported 89 new cases, bringing the total number of current confirmed infections to 3,963.

Given that few in the country have acquired natural immunity, coupled with the fact that the type of vaccines used in China, which are based on an inactivated virus, has shown lower effectiveness than the mRNA type, any attempt to treat Covid-19 as endemic would put a massive strain on the country's healthcare system, said Dr Huang.

Furthermore, there are also political considerations, given that President Xi Jinping is likely to seek a third term at the helm during the Communist Party of China's congress next year.

Any policy easing might be seen as a sign of wavering, and even an admission of a mistake, said Assistant Professor Dylan Loh of Nanyang Technological University.

"After people's lived experiences at the start (of the pandemic), the government wants to avoid any veneer of a lack of control," he said.

Yet, for many of the well travelled and better connected, the slew of measures is getting harder to bear.

"I understand the need for mask wearing and trying to maintain good hygiene, but is it that bad just to have a few cases?" said Mr Li.

"When I see posts by my friends who went back to school in Europe and the US and are travelling freely, I feel sad that I can't even see outside of this city."

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