China’s Zero-Covid policy has received much criticism elsewhere when the rest of the world has learnt to live with it whilst China is taking the unique route to fighting it despite claiming to be 90% vaccinated. But how exactly is this Zero-Covid policy being implemented. Here’s a first-hand account from a Financial Times Shanghai Correspondent who was quarantined on an island off Shanghai. And he didn’t even test positive for Covid, never did. Contact tracing, a term the rest of the world seem to have forgotten, is a major weapon in China’s Zero-Covid war. The journalist in question happened to be at a bar on a night when a positive case was recorded – this was one of only 18 such cases in Shanghai that day. Thomas Hale narrates his gripping tale and what he learned about the Chinese autocratic way and what freedom means for those living in China:
“…China’s quarantine apparatus, the kind of place that finds you, rather than the other way around. It is part of a system scarcely conceived of or understood by the outside world, one defined almost in opposition to it. It is a system that seeks to eliminate rather than cohabit with coronavirus, one in which an unknown number of people are detained. And it is a place foreigners might imagine, but where few have ever been.
… China’s digital Covid pass resembles track-and-trace programmes elsewhere, except it’s mandatory and it works. Using Alipay or WeChat, the country’s two major apps, a QR code is linked to each person’s most recent test results. The code must be scanned to get in anywhere, thereby tracking your location. Green means you can enter; red means you have a problem.
…life in Shanghai seemed surprisingly normal, any trauma from a two-month lockdown in the spring hard to detect. The city’s glistening malls were well stocked. I ventured to a bar on Nanjing Road one evening, where I negotiated particularly hard to get in and where the whiskey flowed freely. One man told me he estimated that 90 per cent of Chinese people agreed with the government’s approach. That approach, known as “zero Covid”, is one of maximal suppression of the virus. It employs contact tracing, constant testing, border quarantine and lockdowns in order to stop community transmission of the virus as soon as a case is detected. It is aggressive and could only really exist in the long-run in an autocratic society with the mechanisms for mass surveillance already in place. There is no end in sight to the policy, despite China’s vaccination rate of about 90 per cent. Communist party officials point to the country’s large elderly population, its uneven regional development and its insufficient medical resources. It is, above all, another kind of bureaucracy, with a vast workforce behind it.

In China, there are several kinds of quarantine. There is quarantine for arrivals, at hotels, which I had just completed. There is quarantine at home, often as the result of citywide lockdowns. There is quarantine for Covid patients, or hospital quarantine. Finally, there is close-contact quarantine, which sometimes uses the word fangcang, meaning “portacabin”. For close contacts, or mijie, an extensive auxiliary vocabulary has also sprung up. A cimijie is a close contact of a close contact. A shikongbansuizhe is a close contact based on more flexible definitions of space and time.
.. China’s young and old were divided because the latter could not access the foreign internet and see how the rest of the world has handled the pandemic. They lived in a parallel world, he said, but he could not bear the loss of freedom.”

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