The misunderstood—and misrepresented—Zero COVID policy in China
Dec 13, 2021
This analysis of China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been submitted as a contribution to the WSWS Global Workers’ Inquest into the COVID-19 Pandemic. The WSWS is respecting a request that the author’s identity not be publicly disclosed.
One of the most striking facts about the pandemic is that China, the country from which SARS-CoV-2 first emerged, has suffered very few cases. Since April 2020, the United States has detected nearly 50 million cases, but China, with four times the population, has detected just over 10,000.
There are two main types of reaction to this fact in the West. The first, increasingly rare, is disbelief. Even major Western media outlets hostile towards China have long since accepted that China’s case counts are extremely low. If the pandemic has shown anything, it is that ignoring the virus does not make it go away, and any neglected outbreak in China would quickly spiral out of control, particularly in packed metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing. Such an outbreak would be visible to foreign correspondents, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of foreigners living in China. And as we will see, the measures China takes to combat outbreaks are highly visible and impossible to keep secret—indeed, they depend critically on widespread participation of the population.
The second type of reaction is to paint China as a draconian hellscape, in which the citizens live under a constant state of lockdown and siege. This is the approach taken recently by the New York Times in an article titled, “Near-Daily Covid Tests, Sleeping in Classrooms: Life in Covid-Zero China.” The article focuses on one small (by Chinese standards) city on the border of Myanmar. The picture it paints is grim:
[T]he residents of Ruili — a lush, subtropical city of about 270,000 people before the pandemic — are facing the extreme and harsh reality of living under a “Zero Covid” policy when even a single case is found.
The article concludes with a chilling statement by a resident of Ruili: “‘The ordinary people,’ [Li] sighed, ‘have no way to live.’”
Yet Ruili is one city with 270,000 residents in a country of 1.4 billion people. Is Ruili truly representative of “life in Covid-Zero China”? The direct answer is that Ruili is an extreme outlier in China: It sits directly on the border of a region of Myanmar controlled by an armed rebel group and is known as a center of cross-border smuggling. Smugglers carry not only illegal goods into Ruili, but, from time to time, the virus as well. Why, then, did two New York Times reporters (stationed in Hong Kong and Beijing), focus their article on this far-flung town?
The answer is that the New York Times focuses on Ruili precisely because it is not representative of the situation in the vast majority of China. The Times’ coverage largely ignores the experience of people in the vast majority of China, including in major cities many times the size of Ruili (270,000 people), such as Shanghai (25 million people), Beijing (22 million people) and Guangzhou (19 million people).
What, then, is life like in the vast majority of “Covid-Zero China”? What measures are used to maintain zero, or close to zero, cases in the country?
China controlled its initial outbreak in early 2020 using strict lockdowns, particularly in the epicenter of the outbreak, in Wuhan. As cases subsided and Chinese cities came out of lockdown, the government imposed strict quarantine rules on incoming international travelers in order to prevent reintroduction of the virus into the country. A recent negative PCR test is required before even boarding a flight to China. After landing, passengers are again tested and then taken directly from the airport to a quarantine hotel, where they remain for two to three weeks without stepping outside their door. They are tested regularly, and food is delivered directly to the room by workers in full protective gear.
Many travelers have documented their experiences going through this system in “quarantine vlogs,” such as those of a Canadian YouTuber in a series of videos. This rigorous quarantine system serves as a fairly reliable barrier against the virus, such that life inside the country’s borders has been relatively normal since the end of the first wave in the spring of 2020. Businesses, such as restaurants, bars and movie theaters, have been open throughout China. This is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by images of packed night clubs and massive pool parties in Wuhan in late 2020, or, more prosaically, by interviews with normal people on the streets of Shanghai in the fall of 2020. Yet the quarantine barrier is not perfect, and more than a dozen small outbreaks have occurred in different parts of China over the last year and a half.
The image above shows, in blue, the number of daily infections  in China since the end of the first wave in April 2020. It shows, in orange, the total number of people in quarantine. China has seen several small outbreaks, which are typically isolated to one or a few cities, and which are typically controlled within a few weeks. The city or province through which each outbreak entered China is labeled by arrows above. In order to control each outbreak, close contacts of infected people are quarantined, as can be seen above in the spike of quarantined people during each outbreak. Since April 2020, the peak number of new infections detected on a single day was just under 200, and the peak number of people ever in quarantine at any given time was just over 50,000. For comparison, the cumulative number of people quarantined in China during the entire pandemic is slightly larger than the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in the United States.
The following is an example of how the virus can penetrate the quarantine barrier. On July 10, 2021, a plane from Moscow carrying a traveler infected with the Delta variant landed in Nanjing. Workers cleaning out the interior of the cabin became infected. These same workers also cleaned airplane cabins for domestic flights, and therefore spread the virus to people in the domestic terminal. Because their work could bring them into contact with infected international travelers, the cleaners were regularly tested for the virus, and the outbreak was detected 11 days later, on July 21, 2021. However, by that point, the virus had already been carried far beyond the airport. It eventually spread to cities in over a dozen provinces, peaking at nearly 100 new infections detected per day before it was brought under control in mid-August. After this outbreak, changes were made to the operation of airports to reduce the risk of a similar breach recurring.
The Nanjing outbreak demonstrates that border quarantine measures alone cannot completely prevent the spread of the virus. The Chinese government refers to its policy as a “dynamic zero” policy. This means that the virus will occasionally manage to re-enter the country and cause small clusters of cases (for example, through illegal border crossings by smugglers in Ruili), but that a rapid public health response will ultimately bring cases back down to zero.
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