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Earthquake Deaths, Apartment Fires: Why China's 'Zero-COVID' Policy Caused Landmark Protests

With a relaxation of the controversial policy, mass testing, mandatory hospitalization, blanket lockdowns etc. have been scrapped as Beijing moves to a 'living with the virus' approach. But experts have cautioned that the storm is far from over in China.

Glimpses from a protest against Zero COVID measures in China
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The Covid-19 pandemic which started nearly three years ago has tested many shades of human behaviour and endurance. And in these testing times, the world has also witnessed many bizarre incidents and policies that have often bordered on abuse of human rights. In India for instance, the sudden lockdown imposed by the government led to a migrant workers' crisis leaving thousands of people unemployed and defenselessly walking home across hundreds of kilometres in the face of a pandemic. And now, China’s ‘Zero-COVID policy’ is another state intervention that is facing slack from international media after it caused widespread discontent among its populace. 

In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have moved to relax the zero covid measures, a move nudged by weeks of nationwide protests against President Xi Jinping and his government's authoritarian rules. A spate of untoward incidents simmered this anger among citizens, who unitedly staged the largest-ever demonstrations that the Communist nation had seen in recent decades. 

The landmark protests broke out after a number of disturbing incidents that amounted to state excesses and human rights abuses, ultimately culminating in people's anger spilling over the streets. The government's strict containment and quarantine measures led to the separation of several families. In several cases, the stringent lockdown which disallowed people to step out of containment zones caused injuries and deaths during emergencies such as fire or natural calamities.

Locked Up During Earthquake: ‘It's fine if I die inside the building, at least I didn't get infected’

Immense hue and cry followed after reports of several people being trapped in buildings during a 6.6 magnitude earthquake on September 5 in Chengdu surfaced. At least 65 people perished in the jolts, with many blaming the stringent lockdown for a higher death toll. 

"I guess it's fine if I die inside the building, at least I didn't get infected," a commentator sarcastically wrote on a social media post, after videos showed panicking residents trapped behind chained gates, screaming and pleading to be let out. Entry and exit gates of the said building had been locked owing to zero covid restrictions.

Employee Exodus at Apple factory: Workers walk hundreds of miles to hometowns

An employee exodus was witnessed at Foxconn's Apple factory in Zhengzhou in late October after zero covid restrictions were imposed. Ever since a few workers tested positive for the virus, access to the industrial zone where the factory is located was suspended and workers were forcibly quarantined inside the premises. 

Visuals of workers climbing metal fences spread on social media, showing many struggling to flee as they undertook long journeys barefoot to escape quarantine. Reports also suggested that the workers were not allowed to avail transport services on these arduous journeys. 

Revolt against stay-at-home orders: Outburst in Guangzhou

In an unprecedented public display of defiance against authoritarian measures, residents of Guangzhou city, mostly migrant workers, rose in rebellion against security personnel, attacking officers and overturning police vehicles. 

Guangzhou is an industrial hub in southern China, and the population of the city comprises mostly migrant workers engaged primarily in construction, factories, and textile units. The nature of employment does not permit working remotely and the lockdown meant a severe loss of income and livelihood. As the quarantined residents ran out of food, medical supplies, incomes, but most importantly patience, a revolt erupted against the stringent covid control measures. 

Zero COVID disallows dousing the fire, literally: Urumqi apartment blaze

An accidental fire that broke out in a high rise apartment in Xinjiang on November 24 killed ten people and injured several others, but also served as an immediate spark for the revolutionary anti-government protests in China. 

Videos of the blaze were widely shared on social media and in a startling revelation, it was found that fire trucks were allegedly blocked from entering the Urumqi compound owing to restrictions under the zero COVID policy, which boiled up anger among the people. 

Medical Care denied during a Medical Emergency: Abuses in quarantine centers

Frustrations doubled up after reports of covid restrictions curtailing access to emergency medical care surfaced. In one such incident that came to light on November 18, a four-month-old baby died in a quarantine center in Zhengzhou after paramedics refused to attend to her. 

The girl’s father noticed that the infant had diarrhea and was recurrently vomiting and called for an ambulance. But paramedics required that the quarantine hotel carry out antigen tests before agreeing to see them. After the covid test returned negative, the doctors refused to see the child "on the grounds that she was not seriously ill," BBC reported. 

This news followed several similar incidents of people in containment zones being denied emergency medical care due to the strict zero covid policy. In November, reports of a woman suffering a miscarriage in the southwestern city of Chongqing after coronavirus restrictions resulted in treatment delays, also came to the fore. 

Furthermore, allegations of neglect and poor living conditions in quarantine centers also stirred resentment among the people, who had been kept bound by covid related restrictions for three years. 

Economic costs of prolonged lockdowns

Some of the biggest economic hubs in China, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Zhengzhou witnessed prolonged lockdowns, bringing production to a halt. The Chinese economy incurred huge economic losses due to the zero covid policy, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimating that this retarded the Asian giant’s GDP growth to as low as 2.5% in the first half of 2022.

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Besides a halt on production and shutting down of small businesses, the mandates under the zero covid regime have also come at an immense financial cost. For instance, the rules required people to take near daily covid tests, as a negative PCR was needed to enter subways, parks and other public spaces. In this regard, the CSIS report highlighted that mass testing on such a scale would amount to nearly 1.5% of the country’s GDP. 

Moreover, establishing, maintaining, and running quarantine centers, besides forcibly dragging patients into them has also put immense financial strains on the local governments. 

All of these factors, combined with a state of anxiety, helplessness, and trauma that culminated with harsh restrictions over three years nudged the people to participate in mass protests against the Xi Jinping government in late November. As people demanded a “return to freedom” from stringent zero covid measures, banners came up in many cities tagging Xi a “dictator” and “traitor.” 

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With a relaxation of the intrusive policy, mass testing, mandatory hospitalization, blanket lockdowns, etc. have been scrapped as Beijing moves to a “living with the virus” approach. But experts have cautioned that the storm is far from over in China. With low rates of vaccinations and a sudden easing of movement likely to unleash the pent-up demand for travel and recreation, the country is witnessing an incalculable surge in infections and deaths linked to the virus. 

The opaqueness surrounding the number of cases and narrow definitions for counting death tolls is not helping with better preparedness. Visuals of overburdened crematoriums and hospitals stretched beyond capacity have revealed the plight of the people. Against this backdrop, a virus resurgence has hit the country, and it remains prudent to take cautious measures to protect lives in order to continue living with the virus.

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