‘Zero-COVID’ struggles

Is it not exacting high economic, social and political costs, though lives are being saved?

Published - November 13, 2022 01:01 am IST

Stringent lockdown and protocols for COVID-19 continue in China to this day.

Stringent lockdown and protocols for COVID-19 continue in China to this day. | Photo Credit: AP

My patient Ms. Coveena (recently changed her name) asked me last month: “Doctor, the Chinese Communist Party’s weeklong Congress is going on to pave for the ascendency to a third five-year-term for the President, Xi Jinping. Will Xi abandon the ‘Zero-COVID’ strategy after he is reelected?”

I said: “Why should he? The strategy saved a million lives. There have been only around 5,000 COVID deaths among the 1.4 billion Chinese, in stark contrast with other countries where the virus killed more than six million people, one million in America alone.”

She made a derogatory remark: “Yes, yes, they are Chinese figures with questionable reliability... They have their own method of counting and doctoring COVID deaths; hiding deaths from the world like a serial killer burying bodies.”

I said that even if we factored in those elements and even if the numbers were wrong by tenfold, it was reasonable to believe that the fatality rate is admirably very low in the population because of the dynamic Zero-COVID policy.

She retorted: “Why then was there the humongous surge in Shanghai leading to miserable effects of lockdowns like food supply shortage, disruptions to the economy and access to medical care, and protests by the public?”

I explained that there was a new subtype of the virus and that the seemingly excessive Zero-COVID restrictions reflect the resolve of President Xi who has repeatedly said over the past two years that “people’s lives are of utmost importance” to justify elaborate border closures and strict pandemic control policies.

With an expression of disbelief, she asked: “Doctor, do you think that Xi’s Zero-COVID policy is for the benefit of the people?” Sensing my bewilderment at that question, she quoted what Priyadarsi Mukhergi, professor in Chinese and Sinological Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said recently, “…Xi Jinping’s weaknesses have been revealed through the excessive lockdown policy imposed on the public in the name of achieving a ‘Zero-COVID’ level. Actually, he wants to root out any challenge to his power and authority. A Zero-COVID strategy restricts public movement outside homes and thus neutralises any possibility of popular uprising.”

Ms. Coveena also launched into a more important reason for Xi doggedly clinging on to the Zero-COVID policy. The global admiration for the very low rate of COVID deaths in China gave a tremendous fillip and political popularity to Xi Jinping to get elected for another term.

Further, she posed a lot of questions: For how long would Zero-COVID be sustainable? Is it not exacting high economic, social and political costs ? And how long can the authorities stamp out public protests? Would not giving up the Zero-COVID policy be considered tantamount to Xi’s failure ? Would not a million of the immunologically naive Chinese die if Zero-COVID is suddenly given a farewell? Is this a historic turning point in state–society relations?

I was a tad confounded and said that eminent world leaders analyse things deeply in consultation with top experts in the field of health and medicine and act rationally. She pointed out that former U.S. President Donald Trump had suggested that disinfectants could be injected into people to keep COVID at bay, and that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro had told people that COVID vaccines would turn them into crocodiles, men into women and women into men.

The word ‘lockdown’ evokes a feeling of melancholy and dread among the people. The word Zero-COVID is more frightening. It’s the buzzword in media now. So, finally, Ms. Coveena herself answered her first question (Will Xi abandon the Zero-COVID strategy after he is reelected?). She was of the view that he would not, because he knows that once the Zero-COVID umbrella is closed, there would be an acute and severe shortage of crematoria and burial grounds!!!


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