In China, scientific approaches to the virus are set aside

Residents are growing weary, defiant and scoff at the approach, while experts wonder how a country that prides itself on cutting-edge technology and scientific innovation could find itself on such a radically different path. from the rest of the world.

In another particularly telling incident, Chinese authorities even censored a North Korean public health video titled “Understanding Omicron.”

The two-and-a-half-minute video released by Pyongyang, itself battling a wave of Covid, is hardly groundbreaking; it does little more than explain that most Omicron patients will have mild symptoms and only the most severe cases will require hospital treatment.

It is common knowledge throughout most of the world that infection with Omicron generally causes less severe disease than infection with earlier variants. But distracting from the potential severity of the disease goes against China’s narrative, and so the video was quickly removed from the Chinese internet.

Likewise, news that North Korea is ready to lift its lockdown restrictions and get things done has been censored.

In contrast, China continues to shut down entire communities and towns for a handful of Covid cases. All positive cases and close contacts are sent to government quarantine, while nearby neighborhoods are often locked down for weeks.

Despite the best efforts of Chinese censors, the news leaked out, and many Chinese netizens even claimed that the hermit nation was more “scientific” than China.

There is of course widespread skepticism around North Korea’s claims that it is in control of Covid. The World Health Organization said earlier this month it assumed the pandemic situation was getting worse, contrary to Pyongyang’s claims, as the country struggles with a lack of vaccines and healthcare resources. .

But the fact that even North Korea’s secretive, autocratic government is at least sharing internationally accepted information about Covid makes many social media users in China incredulous. One said it bluntly: “Suddenly I realized that we were the most pathetic.”

Meanwhile, Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea, has been in lockdown for nearly two months, with authorities only announcing the easing of some measures earlier this week.

Online videos show Chinese health workers placing what appear to be rows of machines to monitor the air along the Yalu River that separates the two countries. Apparently China has also ordered nearby residents to close their windows – it fears the wind could blow the virus in from North Korea.

Crouched in a corner

At the start of the pandemic, such public questioning of China’s approach might have seemed unthinkable. At the time, China’s instant lockdowns, mass testing and harsh quarantines managed to contain the virus.

Its approach was so effective, in fact, that China has since repeatedly boasted of its superiority over the West, saying zero-Covid should be a model for the world. As China’s propaganda machine relentlessly reminds everyone, the country has reported just over 5,000 deaths compared to a million in the United States.

But China’s early successes could be part of the problem. Having cornered themselves with their earlier rhetoric, Chinese leaders feel unable to change course – even in light of more transmissible variants like Omicron – without losing face.

Xi has therefore kept his vow to “unwaveringly adhere” to zero-Covid and all officials below him are under pressure to align – whatever scientists or anyone else thinks. The aim is to keep Covid cases outside government quarantine facilities to zero, regardless of the economic or social cost.

The victims of the Chinese bank run were planning to protest.  Then their Covid health codes turned red

“Any voice advocating a deviation from the zero Covid path will be punished… Nobody from above really listens to expert advice anymore, and that is honestly humiliating,” an official of a provincial health commission to the medical journal The Lancet. .

Last weekend, censors quashed debate on social media over whether tough measures like the months-long lockdown in Shanghai were justified.

The debate has been fueled by a scientific study looking at the severity of Covid-19 in patients during the city’s latest outbreak. Of a cohort of more than 33,000 (extensively vaccinated) Covid-19 patients who were relatively healthy and had no severe symptoms at the time of hospitalization, the study found that only 22, or 0.065%, had developed a serious illness.

These 22 people were all over the age of 60 with underlying health conditions or weaker immune systems and most were not fully vaccinated, the study found. published online in a publication of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The rate sparked questions about whether the Covid-19 measures were proportionate to the health risks to the general population, but on Monday morning some comments on social media appeared to have been deleted. A few days later, the document itself was no longer available on the main page of the China CDC website, with the original link returning an error. Chinese health authorities did not respond to a CNN request for comment on the matter.

“With this rate of severe disease, why are we taking nucleic acid test after nucleic acid test every day, ultimately what’s the point?” a Weibo user said of the results, appearing to refer to Shanghai’s rigid Covid-19 testing requirements that continued after citywide lockdown measures were relaxed.

Meanwhile, China is spending huge sums to keep the ideology alive.

For example, China is estimated to have built hundreds of thousands of semi-permanent Covid test booths, with citizens in all major cities having to take a Covid test at least once every 72 hours to enter any public place. According to CNN calculations, a single day of mass testing in Beijing costs at least US$10 million.

Zero-Covid is “not cost-effective, and we all know that,” another health official told The Lancet.

hygiene theater

It’s not just people who are relentlessly tested: there are also viral videos of stray cats, dogs, postal parcels, seafood, sewage and newborn babies.

It’s a practice that continues even as international health officials question the science behind it.

“The risk of transmission from surfaces is theoretical at best, not even measurable at this point,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“And that really fits into the picture of what we call the theater of hygiene, in which to do this type of testing, it makes you think you’re doing more to protect individuals… when you really aren’t. not,” he said.

“It’s pointless, meaningless and distracting.”

Beijing tests 20 million people amid

For its part, China continues to claim that zero-Covid is the only way to save people’s lives, given that only 61% of its elderly population has been fully vaccinated with a booster and that health resources are lacking in rural areas.

But even given these realities, many experts say resources would be better spent increasing vaccination rates than building expensive testing sites and quarantine facilities.

They also wonder why China still hasn’t approved foreign mRNA vaccines – which have been shown to be more effective against Omicron than inactivated vaccines produced and used in China. (The Chinese mRNA vaccines remain in the clinical trial phase).

The answer, which many suspect, also relates to politics rather than science.

Zero-Covid has “become a measure of merit and legitimacy (of the Communist Party), similar to economic growth statistics – proof that it can deliver real results for the Chinese people and therefore have the right to govern”, said the Atlantic Council in a recent report.

A critical moment

If zero-Covid is really about “hygiene theater”, then the big question is how long Beijing can keep the show on the road.

“We are at a critical juncture,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Chinese leaders must decide whether or not to pursue this very costly strategy with diminishing returns.”

For now, they seem determined to stay the course, especially ahead of the Communist Party Congress this fall, when Xi is expected to move to a near-unprecedented third term.

But citizens are losing patience.

As Shanghai ended its brutal two-month lockdown in early June, many communities are reintroducing lockdown measures and the anger is palpable.

A viral video – which has since been deleted from Chinese social media – captured a recent protest at a Shanghai resort.

It shows residents huddled along the fence, demanding to be released and pleading with authorities to stop sending Covid-negative residents to quarantine facilities just because they live in a building near a Covid positive case.

One of them – who says over the loudspeaker: “We are illegally imprisoned” – is quickly taken away by the authorities.

As he is pushed into the police cruiser, he puts his hands in prayer position and says “thank you” to the outraged crowd, some of whom begin chanting “freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law” — officially done part of the country’s “core socialist values”.

One of the residents raises his middle finger to covid enforcers in hazmat suits.

It’s a show of brazen defiance that resonates with many, who are desperate for a change in China’s zero Covid policy.


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