Denis Staunton: When they asked on the third day of Beijing quarantine if everything was alright, I said I’d love some coffee

Denis Staunton: When they asked on the third day of Beijing quarantine if everything was alright, I said I’d love some coffee

The ambulance door closed and the driver, wearing full-length hazmat protective clothing, gave me a cheerful thumbs up before we drove off from a quarantine centre near Beijing’s international airport and into the city centre. After a week in quarantine, I was moving into a flat for three more days of self-isolation and the neighbourhood authorities decided that I should be moved by ambulance.

I was not ill and had no need of the medical gadgets all around me, the stretcher bed was loaded with suitcases and a taxi would have served just as well but under China’s “dynamic zero Covid” policy, nobody was taking any chances. The policy has left China an outlier and carries a huge economic and social cost, but with just 5,226 Covid-related deaths in a country of 1.4 billion people according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it has also proven highly effective.

The precautions started with two PCR tests a day apart before leaving Dublin and two more at Frankfurt airport before boarding the flight to Beijing. When we arrived, all the airport staff were dressed from head to toe in blue and white protective clothing, their faces covered in masks and plastic goggles.

We queued for another test, document checks and customs procedures, all carried out briskly but with good humour and no sense of intimidation. On the bus to the quarantine centre, I sat next to a young man who was coming home from Germany where he was studying renewable energy.

“Holiday Inn, not Holiday Inn Express,” he said with relief when we pulled into a hotel car park.

Someone opened the door and threw some rubber gloves into the bus and after a scramble to put them on we stepped out to find half a dozen people dressed in white hazmat suits with pale blue piping, walking around with canisters of disinfectant on their backs spraying luggage. A man with a bullhorn stood a good distance back, issuing a stream of instructions as we picked up our key cards, took the lift and walked along plastic-covered corridors to our rooms.

My room was big enough for two double beds and the window looked out on to a car park, a little grove of trees and a few buildings that could have been offices or factories. For the next seven days, I would not leave the room and could only open the door briefly to pick up meals left outside three times a day and to stand inside the doorway for a PCR test every afternoon.

There was a kettle in the corner but no tea or coffee, and no food deliveries from outside were allowed

There was a thermometer on the table and twice a day, someone would call on the hotel phone to ask for my temperature.

“Is everything alright?” they would say at the end.

Although quarantine is mandatory, it is not free but the equivalent €80 a day covers the room, the PCR tests and three meals a day. The week’s menus were printed out on a page on the table and the food was good, even if the plastic compartment trays it came in were a little off-putting.

Breakfast on the first full day was porridge, chicken sausage, a boiled egg, two buns stuffed with meat, two stuffed with bean paste and a small carton of milk. Lunch was melon balls, tomato and egg soup, spicy duck, stir-fried cauliflower, boiled cabbage, rice, a steamed bun and an apple.

There was a kettle in the corner but no tea or coffee, and no food deliveries from outside were allowed so when they asked on the third day if everything was alright I said I’d love some coffee. When the next meal arrived, there were a few sachets of Nescafe on top.

The day before I was due to leave, two people came to give me my PCR test and after swabbing my throat, one of them came in and took swabs of the light switches, the bathroom sink and the toilet seat, my laptop, the bedding and the bedside table.

Quarantine is the most disruptive element in China’s zero Covid strategy but at the centre of the system is mass rapid PCR testing and a tracking system aimed at identifying new cases within hours. Everyone has a health code, an individual QR code stored on your smartphone that shows your current testing status and confirms that you have been tested within the last three days.

Makeshift testing stations are on every other street corner in Beijing and the entire procedure from queuing, identifying yourself and taking the test seldom takes more than a few minutes. This is just as well because you need a green health code showing a negative test within three days to enter shops, offices, public buildings, some outdoor spaces and even your own apartment building.

In some places, children have been abruptly separated from their families and there are countless stories of people left stranded away from home after a small outbreak

Even if you have tested negative, your movements can be restricted if a pop-up notification appears on the health code, indicating that you may have been close to someone infected with Covid. To get rid of the notification, which prevents your QR code from being scanned, you have to get tested twice a day for a number of days.

Face masks are required in all public, indoor settings except when eating or drinking and almost everyone is masked outdoors too. But in Beijing, business and social life are bustling, restaurants are busy and rush-hour traffic is as heavy as ever.

In other parts of the country, lockdowns have been harsh and a two-month shutdown in Shanghai earlier this year shocked that city as residents ran short of food and other essentials. In some places, children have been abruptly separated from their families and there are countless stories of people left stranded away from home after a small outbreak.

The economic cost is difficult to identify but the World Bank predicts that China’s economy will grow more slowly this year than other Asia-Pacific economies for the first time in more than 30 years. And as other countries in the region open up, with Japan admitting fully vaccinated visitors without a visa this week, China is increasingly an outlier in its approach to Covid.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China warned last month that China’s policy was complicating the country’s economic interaction with the rest of the world and international travel restrictions were putting a drag on deal-making. European companies’ Chinese operations were becoming increasingly isolated from headquarters as China-based staff were unable to travel to Europe for networking and training.

“In 2020, when China rebounded quickly from the pandemic relative to the rest of the world, the country came to be viewed as a safe haven for investment. However, adherence to an inflexible Covid-19 policy has led to unprecedented disruptions to business and exacerbated pre-existing challenges,” the group said.

The pandemic has seen the number of foreigners in China fall dramatically as expatriate workers left and were not replaced. Many Europeans based in Beijing have not left China since the pandemic began because they feared they would be unable to return if restrictions tightened.

The country’s success in keeping the virus out means that, because so few people have been exposed to it, there is very little natural immunity

There has been a debate about the zero Covid strategy in recent weeks, amid speculation that change could follow next week’s five-yearly Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Political commentator Hu Xijin, a former editor of party newspaper Global Times, said those advocating liberalisation needed to answer some questions.

“The death rate of Omicron is low, but the infection rate is high, so the overall death total is still not radically reduced – even in America every day a few hundred people are still dying because of it, – how can we solve this problem?” he wrote on Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform.

“And what’s actually going on regarding long Covid? The UK has two million cases of long Covid and the US has around four million cases, it is affecting the quality of life for many people, how do we see this problem?”

Hu said those who want to maintain the current approach had to explain how they would avoid further lockdowns and disruption to supply chains.

“Would it be possible for us to achieve, over time, a mature upgrade of the prevention and control system while avoiding widespread lockdowns and obstruction of domestic travel?” he said.

Hu received his answer this week with a number of official interventions with the same message: not just yet. State news agency Xinhua on Monday ran a commentary arguing that recent outbreaks showed that China’s tough policy should not be relaxed.

“Covid-19 infection is still one of the main causes of death for people in some countries. The negative impact of long-term coronavirus symptoms should not be underestimated. Several foreign experts said that the sequelae of Covid-19 also leads to increased medical costs and reduced labour force, which will have a negative impact on economic development,” it said.

The following day, the People’s Daily published an opinion piece titled “Dynamic Zero Is Sustainable and Must Be Adhered To”. Written by Zhong Yin, whose byline has appeared above previous articles articulating government policy on the pandemic, it defended the current strategy as the safest option for China.

“We must be realistic and see that China is a large country with a population of more than 1.4 billion people, where there is uneven regional development and not enough medical resources. Loosening our prevention and control measures will certainly lead to an increased risk of infection, and once the scale bounces out of control, the spread of the epidemic is bound to cause a serious impact on economic and social development. Ultimately, we would pay a higher price and our loss will be greater,” it said.

“Sticking to the dynamic zero strategy provides us with a better balance between epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development; allowing us to achieve the biggest efficiency of prevention and control at minimal cost, while minimising the big impact of the epidemic on economic and social development.”

The contrast between China’s low number of deaths and infections and the more than one million killed by Covid in the United States is clear. And British medical experts blame Covid and its after-effects in part for record levels of long-term sickness, up 170,000 to almost 2.5 million people.

More than 90 per cent of the population of China has received two or more vaccine doses but only two out of three people over 60 have received three doses. China has developed an mRNA vaccine but has not yet approved it and older people have shown most reluctance to being vaccinated, which is not mandatory.

The country’s success in keeping the virus out means that, because so few people have been exposed to it, there is very little natural immunity.

Liang Wannian, who heads China’s expert panel on the pandemic, said on Wednesday that it was too early to outline a timetable for lifting restrictions. Besides stepping up vaccination, the country needed more treatments for people who become ill with the virus to ensure that hospitals would not be overwhelmed by mass outbreaks.

But he suggested that a more flexible approach could limit the imposition of “static management” measures, or lockdowns, and allow neighbourhoods to reopen more quickly after an outbreak.

“One of our goals of epidemic prevention and control is to obtain positive results with as little cost as possible. That is to say, the goal of our prevention and control is to avoid citywide static management as much as possible, instead of taking it as a means that we must take…There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the virus, especially the mutation of the virus,” he said.

“There is no ‘brake’ to apply if we let go.”

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