gowned doctors facing camera

Zero Covid: How Not To Do It

Nicola Biggerstaff – 2 December 2022

This week saw protests across several cities in China over the communist government’s strict Zero Covid strategy, involving thousands of people across the regions physically trapped within their own homes. The spark for these was a fire in an apartment block in the city of Urumqi, Xinjiang province the previous week, which killed ten residents when they were unable to leave. It is also claimed that local fire and rescue services were delayed entry to the building as a result of the stringent measures.

Coupled with the treatment of the majority Uyghur people of Xinjiang, reported in western media as far back as 2018 (which we also covered a few months ago), tensions boiled over and spread to other major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou, as well as internationally to solidarity protests in the United States and Canada. An estimated 400 million have been subject to these strict lockdown measures in China, which requires entire regions to be completely locked down in as little as a handful of positive Covid cases, and the ‘white paper movement’ continues despite a continued crackdown from state police which included the unlawful detention and beating of a BBC journalist. We obviously cannot condone the infringement on personal freedoms being perpetrated now and previously under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, Common Weal has also advocated in the past for Zero Covid in Scotland. So, what’s the difference? What has changed?

Zero Covid as a policy, while it has a solid definition, does not have a solid strategy, leaving it open to interpretation by governments. Herein lies the problem: Zero Covid to us, in those early days before we realised the government were laughing and making light of our efforts, meant only leaving our homes for what were legally defined as essential reasons. Questions were raised in those days over how much of our liberty was considered a voluntary self-sacrifice, and at what point  it could become authoritarian.

The UK’s version of Zero Covid was, frankly, disastrous. Going against our previous recommendationsof testing implemented at the community level, it left an already fragile NHS crumbling, and the ripple effect of supply chain shortages, already exacerbated by Brexit, as many perfectly healthy people were legally forced into isolation while positive cases fell through the cracks and spread into the community. Unnecessary excess deaths in care homes, PPE contracts for friends, Partygate. Our Westminster government took us all for mugs, their only saving grace being that we got our vaccinations slightly earlier than Europe. Well done us, I guess.

While we can criticise all of this in hindsight, the use of lockdowns and strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the early months, while Covid was still a great, fatal unknown, undoubtedly prevented the worst: the collapse of our health service. But what does it say about us and the state of our healthcare infrastructure that this is what we were aiming for? The first thing the government thought of, and not saving lives?

With no opposition to keep power in check in China, the CCP’s interpretation of Zero Covid allowed them to steamroller all personal freedoms, and violate their end of the social contract which has allowed them to stay in power for this long. You the people keep out of our politics, we’ll keep the country running. That’s been the motto for decades now. For all of this to be gone in a matter of months, just as President Xi becomes the longest reigning leader in the country’s history? It’s the latest in a long line of coincidences in which Chinese people would only ever take so much.

Zero Covid also made an appearance in other western countries, to the frustration of their millions of residents. In Australia and New Zealand in particular, they were among the last to open up again to foreign travel, or allow their residents to travel anywhere other than between the two nations thanks to their travel corridor agreement. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised by foreign media outlets for her and the Labour government’s transparency throughout the process, including continued briefings and even social media Q&A’s to spread the message. But the lockdowns were sudden and brutal, and it was only in the face of increasing criticism for such measures from their voting public which ramped up their vaccine drive.

With 84% and 80% now fully vaccinated respectively, both Australia and New Zealand have been able to take a step back from Zero Covid, but both still recommend mask wearing, physical distancing, frequent testing and increased hand washing.

Vaccine effectiveness and rollout efficiency were also important factors in ending restrictions in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Once the government managed to wrap its head around testing, even if it was, again, against our own recommendations for a more effective testing regimen, it allowed the country to phase back into service provisions.

The Chinese Sinovac vaccine has been proven to be less effective against the Omicron variant than the mRNA vaccines used more predominantly in the west. This in combination with their refusal to purchase the more effective vaccines, has led to an ineffective rollout and a continuing spread of Covid which, with a less effective vaccine, will lead to a higher rate of hospitalisations and excess deaths from severe illness.

For Zero Covid to work as a policy, there needs to be transparency from government, and a clear, planned route back to normality involving preventative measures, including vaccination. These are all missing from China’s policy, and could be construed as a further power grab by President Xi. Is this the endgame of the cookie-cutter authoritarian? How many of our people can we, literally, contain as possible? Is this the figurative entrapment of their regime now made physical?

Latest developments saw the lifting of some restrictions in some cities, including Urumqi and Guangzhou, and an increased drive to vaccinate the vulnerable, as well as a rare apology from the government following the tragic fire, after backtracking on their initial comments blaming the buildings’ residents. On the surface, Zero Covid continues, but deeper down, sentiment is moving among the people. You cannot keep them in cages.

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