Fear in Chinese city rumored to be exiting Covid Zero


On Monday, a rumor took hold that Shijiazhuang, a small city 260km from Beijing, was to become a test case for China’s reopening, dismantling key parts of the Covid-zero regime.

But rather than jubilation that the policy’s incessant testing and disruptive lockdowns would be over, the speculation was met with fear by many in the city of 11 million.

Parents kept their children home from school, shoppers stocked up on traditional Chinese medicine, and people on the subway were few and far between.

The reaction highlights one of the key roadblocks to China joining the rest of the world in living with Covid-19: paralyzing fear of the virus.

For the past three years, the government told its people that Covid-19 was so dangerous that the world’s most-populous country needed to be closed off to combat it.

Adjustment will require more than just a clear rhetoric shift.

The torrent of worry on social media triggered a response from local government officials, who denied the rumors and said the city was not “lying flat”, a pejorative term that means essentially doing nothing.

Shijiazhuang was making its Covid-19 controls more targeted and scientific to coincide with the central government’s approach, said Shijiazhuang Communist Party chief Zhang Chaochao.

Days earlier, Beijing released a list of 20 measures to refine its Covid-19 policy, laying out changes that many interpreted as a relaxation of its rules.

Others speculated that the country would not let down its guard all at once, instead picking precise places to road test any significant changes.

Many Chinese residents are resistant to the idea of easing the strict zero-tolerance policy, which has kept the country largely virus-free since the original outbreak occurred in Wuhan.

It reported just under 20,000 new local infections across the country of 1.4 billion people on Wednesday.

It was in that environment that residents of Shijiazhuang started to panic as the city closed test centers, reopened schools and allowed people to enter public venues without a negative test, even as its case counts continued to climb past 300 a day.

While public transportation was not interrupted, few people used it. Instead, they bought traditional Chinese medicine thought to ward off Covid-19 or soothe its symptoms.

Similar caution was playing out in other places. In south-western Chongqing, China’s most populous city with 32 million inhabitants, public transportation use collapsed even though there were no citywide mass lockdowns.

While there would normally be 2.75 million subway rides taken on an average day, there were only 61,000 on Tuesday, according to data.

Residents were asked not to leave the city unless their departure was essential, as case counts approached 3,000 on Tuesday.

The trepidation seen in China is not unusual for a country that still has not had one of the massive nationwide outbreaks that hit everywhere else in the world.

While running the gauntlet of Covid-19 exposure for the first time is terrifying, it does reveal that the vast majority of people survive unscathed and leaves widespread immunity in its wake.




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