Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described China’s closely followed easing of its controversial ‘zero-Covid’ strategy as a ‘crab march’ during a recent Bloomberg economic forum in Singapore.
Rudd, a Mandarin speaker and “Chinese hand,” knew what he was talking about: “Crab walking,” a Chinese idiom that, by one definition, means moving diagonally or sideways, usually clumsily or even stealthily.
That seems to sum up China’s dilemma as it struggles to implement the 20 adjustments to its Covid-19 control policy announced by President Xi Jinping earlier this month.
In China, the adjustments mean a quarantine shortened from seven days in a public facility to five days, and three days at home for close contacts of positive cases, the withdrawal of reporting of secondary contacts and limited or targeted mass testing.
As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spokesperson explains, People’s Dailyin an opinion piece, the government’s effort is to rectify the “overkill, boilerplate” approach while “avoiding irresponsible exit” or the “flat approach”.
“It (the New Approach) said that anti-Covid-19 measures should not be relaxed, but a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and local governments taking excessive policy measures should be avoided,” another media post explained. of state.
The changes, however, were announced at an odd time – against the backdrop of an unprecedented, nationwide multiple resurgence in Covid-19 cases, including in Beijing, a city of nearly 22 million. of residents whose most lives have ground to a halt last week.
On the day the policy tweaks were announced, China recorded more than 10,000 cases, the biggest daily rise in infections since April, when Shanghai was battling its worst outbreak – and deadliest lockdown – since the pandemic hit. erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
As most of the world has returned to a pre-pandemic life, or a life where the Covid-19 virus is considered endemic, China is clearly struggling to implement its first steps towards easing policies. “zero-Covid” in the context of a resurgence of infections caused by Omicron in many major cities.
The government’s very public indecision to first scrap ‘zero-Covid’ protocols and then revert to the old rules within days in the northern city of Shijiazhuang is an example of China’s dilemma.
Shijiazhuang, the capital of Beijing’s neighboring Hebei province, decided against imposing a lockdown and scrapped mass testing after 20 changes to anti-Covid policies were announced.
The decision to relax Covid protocols was taken as a test, with few other cities also making similar calls. The reversal of the rules was widely, if cautiously, welcomed.
The changes implemented, however, proved to be temporary.
As soon as Shijiazhuang registered some 700 new Covid-19 cases in mid-November, local authorities panicked, asking most of the city’s 11 million residents to stay home for five days and undergo testing. .
“The back and forth to Shijiazhuang reflects the dilemma faced by local officials as they attempt to respond to new easing guidelines from central authorities, but still fear being held responsible for any further outbreaks,” the report said. Caixin news site.
Many local governments are still exploring how to properly implement the new measures, Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the state tabloid, world timesin an interview on November 15.
“Understanding the measures is not difficult as they are simple and straightforward, but applying them correctly is a challenge, especially in places where Covid-19 cases are increasing,” Zeng said in an unusually candid explanation.
Lower-level officials, however, do not want to take any risks because they are the ones who will be blamed if there is an outbreak under their jurisdiction: Thus, restrictions are still implemented at the sub-district level without any clear announcement is made. made.
Meanwhile, rising testing costs have put enormous pressure on local government budgets – an economic cost that has had to be discussed and debated within government.
“The price for nucleic acid testing is about 3.5 yuan ($0.49) per person for multi-person mixed testing and 16 yuan for individual testing. In a city of one million people, one test for each person every three days costs more than 7 million yuan ($983,000) per week,” the official said. Caixin says the report.
However, what would play on the minds of the authorities is whether the country’s health infrastructure will be able to cope with a sharp rise in the number of infections if the Covid restrictions are fully relaxed, especially now that China is already registering daily record infections?
“The proportion of intensive care unit (ICU) beds is seriously insufficient in China. According to survey data from the Chinese Society of Critical Care Medicine, the ratio of intensive care beds to hospital beds nationwide is only 1.65%, which means that there is no there are only 3.43 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. Certainly, when epidemic outbreaks, such a large number of critically ill patients pose enormous challenges for any province or city,” wrote three Chinese experts from the Chinese Society of Critical Care Medicine and the Hospital of the Zhejiang in 2020 in an article for the BMC scientific journal.
While the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people fell from 6.46 in 2020 to 6.70 in 2021, according to the National Health Commission’s report on China’s healthcare system – released in July – the report of the government did not give the number of intensive care beds available in the country.
“A full reopening could see 5.8 million people admitted to intensive care, crushing a healthcare system that currently has fewer than four intensive care beds per 100,000 people, far fewer than developed countries,” according to a report by Bloomberg Intelligence senior pharmaceutical analyst Sam. Fazeli.
Which means that China’s exit from the “zero-Covid” rules will be gradual and could stretch until 2023.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground is changing rapidly.
Large-scale street protests have erupted in many cities across China as people demand an end to lockdowns and mass testing and a return to normal life.
Last week, an essay, written by an anonymous writer, asked 10 pointed questions about China’s response to Covid-19. It was widely shared on social media before being censored.
“More than 120 countries in the rest of the world have lifted their restrictive Covid measures,” was one of the questions asked in Chinese.
“Why should they lead a freer life than Chinese citizens?” asked the interrogator.
The ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar, it seems, has made many people in heavily censored China realize that the world has moved on from Covid despite new cases and deaths.
“I did not see anyone wearing a face mask during the opening ceremony of the Qatar World Cup and I did not hear any participants showing evidence of negative Covid tests; does that mean they live on a planet different from ours?
Interestingly, the expression “crab-to-crab” used by former Prime Minister Rudd also has another meaning even though the characters remain the same: it means to act in a “tyrannical” or “despotic” manner. Which many say should not be the way the Chinese government is dealing with protesters demanding the withdrawal of the Covid-19 rules.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced Chinese hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously stationed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that.
Opinions expressed are personal