China doubles its COVID-zero strategy

China doubles its COVID-zero strategy

A vast complex of buildings covering the equivalent of 46 football fields was recently erected on the outskirts of Guangzhou, the bustling metropolis in southern China.
The sprawling three-story building complex contains some 5,000 rooms and is the first in what is expected to be a chain of quarantine centers built by the Chinese government to house people arriving from overseas as it travels from there. forward with its zero tolerance approach to COVID.

The complex is equipped with a “5G communication technology and artificial intelligence” infrastructure, and each room, which can only accommodate one person at a time, has cameras at its door and a robot delivery system. to “minimize human contact and the risk of crossing.” infection, ”according to the introduction to the center released by the Guangzhou government.

It took the construction team less than three months to complete the project – echoing the temporary hospitals in Huoshenshan and Leishenshan which were built in record time in the central city of Wuhan as COVID-19 took hold in the city. early 2020.

But while these hospitals have been greeted with relief, the appearance of the quarantine center almost two years after the Wuhan trauma has left some wondering why China is not loosening its virus strategy now that the great majority of its billion people have been fully vaccinated.

They are building more facilities, but there is no indication that authorities are considering easing restrictions that have effectively ended international travel for people in China.

“On the one hand, you have experts like Zhong Nanshan and Gao Fu who suggest that once the vaccination rate in China reaches over 85%, it’s time to open up,” Yanzhong Huang said. , member of the Council on based in Washington DC. Foreign relations, referring to two prominent public health experts in China. “But on the other hand, all the measures in place seem to suggest that Beijing is going to maintain the zero tolerance strategy. “

After an initially slow vaccination campaign, China completely inoculated about 75% of its total population with its COVID-19 vaccines made in the country (it has not approved any vaccines made overseas).

Closed borders and demanding travel rules and quarantines have left airports nearly empty and thousands of Chinese nationals unable to return home [File: Alex Plavevski/EPA]

But it remains fully committed to eliminating the virus domestically, including strict border measures and mandatory quarantines for those arriving from abroad.

“I live in Auckland and when I heard New Zealand was opening up I thought the same day for China would come soon too,” said Yang Guang, a Chinese national who studies in Auckland, saying reference to the recent statement by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Announces to end the country’s similar zero covid strategy after failing to contain an outbreak induced by the Delta variant.

“It’s been almost two years since I saw my parents, but the ridiculously expensive plane ticket and the prolonged quarantine time make it difficult for me to return home,” Yang lamented of her unsuccessful efforts to try to return to China.

Yang’s sentiment is shared by many people stuck outside the country for months, including Chinese nationals and foreigners who previously held valid visas to enter China.

Test travel rules

Traveling to China is already painful due to pandemic conditions, involving long days of quarantine, strict COVID-19 tests – including two separate PCR and antibody tests that must be performed in different laboratories – and difficult procedures, such as the submission of forms, test results and certain declarations to the respective Chinese embassies to obtain a green code, which is only valid for 48 hours to board a plane.

But while fully vaccinated people have obtained some quarantine concessions in countries like Australia and Malaysia and can avoid it in many European countries, in China it has no consequences. Quarantine rules apply to everyone equally.

Flights are also becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Last year, the government banned people from transiting through a third country to return to China if there was a direct flight from their original place of departure. Coupled with a notorious flight arrangement policy that allows an airline to operate only one flight per week from a specific country aimed at controlling the number of international arrivals, these measures have driven up the cost of travel. by plane.

“Plane tickets cost around $ 150 to fly from Bangkok to Chengdu,” a Chinese national who has been stranded in Bangkok for more than two years and originally from the southwestern city told Al Jazeera. “Now I would qualify as lucky if I could find a ticket for less than $ 3,000. “

Before COVID-19, many Chinese were enthusiastic overseas travelers. Now, with strict border controls and long quarantines, they are spending their holidays at home [File: Roman Pilipey/EPA]

Different destinations in China also apply different quarantine measures: the shortest quarantine is 21 days, in cities like Shanghai, where arrivals are subject to 14 days of centralized quarantine followed by seven days of home isolation. Cities like Beijing require an additional seven days of “health surveillance” on top of the 21-day quarantine.

Additionally, in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, Chinese embassies, which are responsible for distributing the green code, have asked passengers to self-quarantine for 14 days before departure. This means that some travelers could end up spending almost a month and a half in quarantine.

In addition to restricting international arrivals, the government is also determined to prevent its citizens from traveling abroad. The immigration authority issued a “do not travel unless necessary and urgent” directive earlier this year, with the interpretation of “necessity and urgency” varying across border checkpoints.

Under the leadership, the government stopped issuing passports to people without “urgent and necessary reasons” to leave the country; and those who attempt to leave the country “without urgent and necessary reasons” are also barred from leaving.

Beijing’s doubling of strategy inevitably wreaked havoc on many – not just Chinese nationals, but members of the international business community who might live in or do business there.

A similar punitive regime in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong has warned that it could undermine the territory’s status as a global financial hub. It didn’t deter the government there; he insists his goal is to be able to reopen its border with the mainland and on Wednesday removed almost all exemptions on Beijing’s recommendation, according to the South China Morning Post.

“Remember how horrible things were”

The drastic response to contain the virus since Wuhan’s initial outbreak was tamed in April 2020 has yielded impressive results. Despite sporadic epidemics in recent months, Chinese people’s lives have largely returned to normal.

Even with the Delta variant, which is more transmissible, China has still managed to eradicate the epidemics.

Those who live in China and don’t need to go elsewhere remain overwhelmingly supportive of the zero COVID policy and few are willing to give up the gains of the past 18 months in favor of a more open border.

“I hope people remember how horrible things were in Wuhan, and our country has got this situation under control, and I hope we can stay like this for as long as possible,” Lu Xuan, a Guangzhou from 35 years. resident, told Al Jazeera. “If you now asked an ordinary Chinese person to choose between ‘living with COVID’ and ‘not being able to travel abroad but not having COVID’, I can guarantee you most would choose the latter. “

With strong domestic support and relatively uninterrupted international trade, China is in no rush to open its borders, analysts say. It also benefits from an internal market which allows it to be largely self-sufficient.

“The earliest we might see a relaxation of quarantine measures could be as late as the end of 2022, and it is not impossible to push that day back to 2023,” a source who worked for Al Jazeera told Al Jazeera. in one of the government departments on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

“And China will not open up to all countries at the same time – it would be a gradual process where we first open the border to low-risk places, as the government deems, like Hong Kong, and then gradually to d ‘other countries,’ she added.

Still, if all other countries work to relax their approach to COVID-19 and allow more international travel, while China maintains its very cautious approach, that would seem an outlier, said Yanzhong Huang of CFR. .

The strategy that was once a demonstration of the superiority of the Chinese model would only “show its inferiority to the more realistic alternative,” he said.


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