‘What was it for?’: the mental toll of China’s three years in Covid lockdowns

After China’s abrupt scaling back of its zero-Covid restrictions, many ordinary Chinese people are struggling to cope with the mental trauma from three years of frequent lockdowns and are demanding answers for the heavy price they have paid.

On Friday, one of the top shared posts on Sina Weibo – China’s Twitter-like platform – was an article citing medical experts as saying depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by the population would probably take between 10 and 20 years to recover from.

Lu Lin, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at a forum on Friday that as many as 20% of health workers, patients and members of the public may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and nearly one-third of those quarantined at home have displayed symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia. Other experts called for emergency services to support the community’s mental health.

Shanghai in lockdown in January 2021
Shanghai in lockdown in January 2021. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA

“What is even more frightening than the coronavirus is the fear and mental anxiety,” said one Weibo comment.

“How about the impact of arbitrary abuse on each citizen?” asked another.

Many are cynical about the policy reversal. “Yesterday they said the virus was lethal and today they say the virus is milder than flu. What can you do?” said a post.

Many questioned whether the heavy human price over the past three years had been worth it.

Xiao Han, a liberal legal academic, tweeted: “For this, we supported all those crazy lockdowns, halting of production and business [that resulted in] bankruptcies, suicides and fires?… [They] ignore the humanitarian disasters, for this so-called sacrifice for the greater good. Can the victims now ask: ‘What for?’”

An academic based in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou daringly urged his local government to be accountable for its mistakes and to “heal the wounds”, but his post on social media platform WeChat was swiftly deleted.

“The first step should be to admit the mistake, mourn the deceased and to apologise to the citizens,” wrote Li Gongming. “Then, people should be held accountable and the government should pay out compensation.”

In Beijing, people held white sheets of paper in protest over Covid restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi.
In Beijing, people held white sheets of paper in protest over Covid restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Known tragedies connected to “zero Covid” range from the deaths of infants and young children denied medical treatment due to Covid curbs, to a bus accident when 27 people were killed on their way to a quarantine facility in the south-western province of Guizhou.

The final straw for some Chinese people appeared to be the deaths of 10 people in a fire in Urumqi in the far west region of Xinjiang which triggered last month’s rare nationwide protests.

The sudden pivot in official policy and the perceived dangers of the virus brought alarm and fear to many people and triggered panic buying of fever medicine. Health experts have warned that China may be unprepared for a sharp rise in infections and deaths in a subsequent wave.

This week, anger flared up over the sudden death of a 23-year-old student doctor in Chengdu in south-west China – officials say he died of heart failure but social media users blamed it on the heavy workload at his hospital.

Some hospitals in Beijing have up to 80% of their staff infected, but many are still required to work due to staff shortages, according to a Reuters report.

On Friday, China set out urgent plans to protect rural communities from Covid as millions of city-dwellers planned holidays for the first time in years after the government abandoned lockdowns and travel curbs.

But the Communist party is firmly in charge of the narrative. The state-run People’s Daily on Thursday published a front-page article lauding the heroic victory of three years of pandemic control fought with “minimal cost” and painted a picture of life returning to bustling streets across the country.

Not everyone shares the excitement.

“Three years of milling around, and now we’re told it was just a cold,” read one Twitter post.

The Guardian

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