Relief and confusion: inside China as the country hurtles from virus-free to mass infections

The easing of Covid restrictions over the past week has happened almost as quickly as the abrupt measures to lock down cities at the beginning of the pandemic.

At first I was sceptical and thought the situation would only go back to how it was in the second half of 2020, when China stayed mostly clear of infections with only mild restrictions in place, even though the rest of the world was being bombarded by the virus.

But almost immediately: we are no longer required to show our health code and negative Covid results upon entry to public venues; health workers no longer check our travel history or ask about our destinations when we travel to another city; routine mandatory mass tests are no more and schools have resumed in person classes.

Most importantly, home isolation has become an option, which finally puts to rest our fear of being taken to centralised quarantine upon infection.

As a Shanghai resident, I went through the two-and-a-half-month lockdown from late March to June this year. If the two and a half years before had been mild to me, the lockdown experience was the start of extreme mental stress.

During those days, two major things concerned me: getting enough food and being taken to a quarantine centre.

I remember setting alarms for 5:50am in the morning just to be prepared for the sale of supplies that began at 6am on food apps. Sometimes I still ended up with nothing. I also recall the panic everyone in our building felt when one of our neighbours tested positive for Covid – not because of the fear of infection, but for fear of being sent to centralised quarantine and separated from our family.

People wait in queue to buy medicine at a pharmacy amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Beijing
Medical supplies have reportedly run low as people hoard tests and anti-virals in China. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Mandatory mass tests became a routine and remained after the lockdown, while outbreaks in other parts of China have disrupted our travel plans three times since July. Life was becoming increasingly uncertain as restrictions to cope with the highly transmissible Omicron variant continued to intensify all around China.

So this sudden shift from zero-Covid to living with Covid certainly caught me off guard. While it may open the door to other risks when infections increase, I do feel a sense of relief, knowing that heavy-handed containment measures are no more.

For better or worse, China’s zero-Covid strategy has been effective at keeping most of its population safe, even though it came at a heavy economic cost. Up until very recently, no one I knew living in China had caught Covid.

Over the last few days, however, more and more of my friends are posting on social media about catching the virus, which almost feels like a new trend, as if the sooner one was infected, the quicker it would be to shake off its influence.

My closest encounter with Covid was this week, when a friend of my partner tested positive.

If this had happened a month ago, my partner would have been deemed a close contact and sent to a quarantine centre for five days, with another three days at home. But now they will have no phone calls or visits by health workers, as is the case with their friend who will only have to worry about getting better at home.

If this had happened two months ago, I would have been deemed a secondary contact and forced to isolate for seven days at home.

Uncertain path ahead

But the relaxing of restrictions comes with new concerns. People are finding it hard to mentally keep up with policy changes. For the past three years, health experts in China have been inculcating the idea that Covid could result in long-term effects. Now, they have made a U-turn by saying that no evidence has been found to suggest that that is the case.

Residents line up to buy cold and fever medicine at a pharmacy in Beijing.
Residents line up to buy cold and fever medicine at a pharmacy in Beijing. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

What should I believe? Should I start hoarding medical supplies in order to ready myself for an imminent infection – as many other people are doing? How severe will the situation get once the infections peak? These are the things I keep wondering about.

I also find myself even less comfortable going out knowing every person I come into contact with might be a possible Covid carrier. Yet the other voice in my head also says, “go out and get infected, because you won’t have to worry about it any more once you recover from it.”

In the end, China’s era of zero-Covid may have passed, but the true outbreak has only begun. How will the last three years be remembered? And what will the next three years be like?

The Guardian

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