Those who have been following my blogs (or even just the news) will know that China has had some pretty restrictive Zero covid regulations in place for the past 3 years. Living here has meant that we have felt very safe from COVID-19 at a time when other countries have struggled with rising numbers of cases and fatalities. We watched from behind our bamboo curtain as the rest of the world has valiantly done battle and largely accepted covid into everyday life. Vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna have proved themselves to be 90% effective where vaccination programmes back in the UK, for instance, commenced with the elderly and most vulnerable. Even today most people have had a 4th ‘booster’ shot.
China, on the other hand took a different approach and used their own SinoPharm and SinoVac preparations (which have proved to be only 70% effective) and targetted the working population. Most of us have had 3 shots now. But children and the elderly remain largely unvaccinated. I am not sure exactly why but many old people have refused to get the vaccine. Perhaps they have had poor experiences of previous vaccinations. I know of at least three 70 year olds who claim that their underlying health conditions mean that if they have the vaccine they might have heart attacks. I have no idea how such mis-information is spread in this age-group but this is a very real fear (or an excuse?) I do find it strange because we are in the sort of country where if the government tells you to do something, then you just do it. China is known as the ‘country of good boys’. So clearly there has been no government directive or it WOULD have happened.
While the rest of the wold has accepted COVID and opened up, the strict Chinese Zero COVID policy has put us all under considerable pressure. Shanghai endured the 2+ month lockdown in the Spring and we taught most of the last semester online. Many cities around China have faced a same fate. International travel is still restricted, flights are easily canceled, quarantine facilities have sprung up like weeds, which can cater for 5000 people at a time, all equipped with heat sensors which can detect changes in your body temperature in case you start to develop a fever. Quarantine for travellers has ranged from 21 days to most commonly 10 days. Some quarantine camps are converted shipping containers with a bed, a sink and a toilet (no curtain). These are excessively hot in the summer humidity and freezing in winter. One of our teachers became a ‘close contact’ simply for being in the same restaurant as someone who later developed the virus. She spent a very uncomfortable week in one of these ‘cans’.
On the plus side we have been mask free at school for 3 years and I don’t think that until now, I knew anyone who actually had the virus. We were all trapped in a gilded cage. Safe but still stuck here. Life under zero tolerance became sort of ‘normal’ . Of course we heard about cases of sporadic compound lockdowns, horrific quarantine centres, chemical spraying of apartments of those infected etc but I personally wasn’t subjected to any of these things.
We were however very closely monitored. It was a true Big Brother move as we were all required to present a ‘green’ code to enter pretty much anywhere, the metro, shopping malls, school and even the local supermarket. To get a green code you needed to return a negative PCR test.
Mass testing has been happening since the summer and it has become almost a daily routine. Booths were set up around the city (often with very long lines)
Our compound offered testing several times a week. School specially trained staff so that as we all entered the compound we washed our hands, had a throat swab and then went off to work. What this is costing the planet in terms of single use plastic I dread to think. Interestingly the testing company is owned by a relative of our esteemed leader here… so no vested interest there then!!!
Wherever we went, we scanned an access code on our phones so that if a case did appear everyone who had also been at that location was deemed a ‘close contact’. Going out anywhere was like playing Russian Roulette. You never knew what was going to happen. But, we got used to it and we scanned and scanned and scanned. It became the new normal and we did it automatically. Our local supermarket did close down at one point as a customer tested positive but fortunately I hadn’t shopped there that day, so I escaped.
Schools are actually under stronger restrictions than other places and we had to show a negative test withn 24 hours just to access the campus. Anyone else also had to prove from another tracker that they hadn’t left Shanghai in the previous 48 hours. Woe betide if your code turned red!!! The government swooped down and carted you off. They knew before you did. As covid has mutated the virus is less deadly and the majority of infected people were asymptomatic. I felt that the fear wasn’t so much of getting the virus but of what happens to you if you did. School advised us to have an emergency bag packed ready and they gave us a list of supplies to take with you.
The message from the government was that COVID was still deadly and they were imposing all these restrictions to protect the population and largely, people believed it.
Then came the fire in the locked down apartment building in Urumqi killing 10, when the rescue services could not get through the physical barriers surrounding the compound and were delayed for 3 hours. This event became a tipping point and it has been fascinating to watch events unfold. It was history in the making. Many, many people had been suffering the lockdown restrictions with insufficient food or medical supplies. Many more lost their jobs as the economic impacts of the restrictions hit home. Itinerant workers in lockdown were impacted particularly hard and there were instances of people scaling fences to escape from being locked in their factories. It was becoming more and more difficult to impose strict lockdown in some places.
What was interesting to me was the attitude of young people. When the protests started in Shanghai last month, it was among university students. These youngsters had never really experienced the harsh cruelties of an authoritian regieme, indeed they had lived peacefully during the economic boom time for China. But suddenly here was covid and the zero toldrance problems and their patience was wearing thin. I did hear from some of the older generation, that they believed the protests were organised by westerners because they didn’t think Chinese would know what to do. But the truth is simplier. Media here is censored and propaganda is tightly controlled. But with the modern growth in online social media reaching a global audience many young people nowadays do have access to news sources outside China. To access facebook, Google or anything else you need a VPN or Virtual Private Network. These are illegal here but all the foreigners have them and the government turns a blind eye to us as they recognise that we need to keep in touch with folks back home while we work here. What surprised me was how many young chinese nationals also have access. They were seeing the news about what was happening elsewhere in China from western media and it quickly became apparent that it was difficult to control.
I thought that the China had a few choices 1) clamp down hard as they had done in the past. Most of the senior government are older men who are accumstomed to managing political problems in this way. Maybe they could stamp the protests out with harsh measures and fear.
2) There could have been an upswell of feeling against the government. Rebellions often start when enough people feel desperate and we were maybe reaching that point.
Things began along the lines of option 1) In Shanghai youth were targetted by the police and they were asked to hand over their phones. If a VPN or a reference to Urmqi was found anywhere, the young person was carted off (who knows where to …) Police searched youngsters in the main city centre and even on the metro trains. I have a friend who’s son was sitting on a train when this happened. His view was ‘why should they ask for my phone?’ He hadn’t experienced the atrocities witnessed the older generations so his attitude (like others) was more brazen. He did have Facebook on his phone but he quickly deleted it. In the end the police didnt approach him as he was wearing his grandfather’s coat and he hunched himself down and they passed him by. He dodged a bullet there and his mother was greatly relieved.
A few days after this incident the complete U turn on covid policy was announced by the government. No more track and trace. No more scanning QR codes. No more mass testing. It was very swift and very surprising. They have gone for a 3rd option in this unexpected move. We seemed to have swung from one extreme to another almost overnight.
Now COVID is sweeping through the population like wildfire. Most people I know have got it and it is now more a question of when rather than if you will get it. Schools closed and local children are doing distance learning until January 17th which is when their Chinese New Year holidays begin. Our school managed to limp on to the end of term but teachers and students were dropping like proverbial flies. The rules are now that if you test positive then you need to stay home for a week and test on days 6 and 7 but even that is subject to doubt as I also read that symptomatic and mild cases can continue to work.!
Many people are very scared, especially after having COVID built up in their minds as such a big, bad monster. The streets and shops are eerily quiet. Partly because so many are indoors nursing their headaches and coughs but many others are just too scared to come out.
This morning, we came back from the Taiji retreat and it felt like being in an episode from a dystopian movie. For starters all the staff in our hotel were sick (we were the only ones staying there) and the manageress had to serve breakfast. Then the roads were empty for way longer than we expected. It was eerily deserted.
Can the country manage? Well, it remains to be seen if the virus is weaker now and the population bounce back and begins to get herd immunity. Or the health system really will buckle and collapse as the unvaccinated elderly succumb to the virus. Another big change is that the daily statistics of cases are no longer published. So we may never really know what happens next.
What we do know is that you cannot buy paracetamol or cold remedies for love nor money at the moment. In the west the panic buying was toilet paper, here it’s strepsils!!!
We watch and wait.