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How China Faces an Unprecedented Challenge Lifting Strict Quarantine Restrictions

After months, the Chinese government has relaxed dozens of heavy restrictions put in place to completely prevent domestic Covid cases.

Since March of 2022, twenty-five million Chinese citizens have been subject to draconic lockdown policies. Entire neighborhoods have been pulled out of their homes at 1 am to be tested,  people are constantly being monitored through surveillance apps, and forced to stay in government quarantine facilities. 

While they succeeded in an outcome of extremely low Covid deaths, the Chinese government faced the challenge of  reopening their borders. With weaker vaccines and no herd immunity, the government made the choice to continue the quarantine. Chinese citizens grew even more unrestful, and with the kickoff of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, millions of Chinese citizens sat indefinitely quarantined at home while hundreds of thousands gathered maskless to celebrate the tournament.

One of many white paper protests throughout China’s capital | Photo Courtesy of Japan FORWARD

For the first time since 1989, masses of people gathered to protest against the government, overcoming the government’s strict censorship rules. Protesters used various strategies to avoid being censored. “Blank paper protests,” were highly useful throughout protests, where thousands rallied with pieces of blank paper that said nothing, but all knew what they stood for.

Citizens employed various other means to overcome suppression from the government, making over-the-top ironic social media posts in support of the zero Covid policies, and singing the Chinese national anthem with an effort to emphasize lines about overcoming tyranny and refusing to be slaves. Despite numerous efforts, many protesters were arrested off the street for no viable reason and faced abuse from police officers. 

Chinese governmental workers in hazmat suits testing three men for Covid-19 | Photo Courtesy of Marketplace

With a rallying population no longer satisfied with what had become a long economic downfall for China, officials had no choice but to lift the lockdown. Four Chinese leaders symbolically removed their masks for the first time during a press conference announcing the reopening.

The rest of the world forced its way in gaining herd immunity through the roughest parts of the pandemic, but China now faces an unprecedented challenge— suddenly opening up in the middle of a surge in cases of the flu, RSV, and Covid-19, all with weaker vaccines, and little to no ER capacity. 

Experts are left unsure of what variants currently exist in China and the chances of more popping up amidst their reopening. According to The Guardian, several countries, such as Singapore and Germany have expressed their concerns about incoming travelers for China, while the opposition claims that this is simply an effort to undermine China’s borders reopening. Chinese officials plan to notify the World Health Organization upon discovery of potentially harmful variants, but it is unsure whether that will be enough.

According to a study by The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, predictions show that Covid deaths in China could easily rise past a million in the next few months, but data that China’s government is reporting show little to no rise in deaths. In the past month, Our World in Data only shows seven reported deaths of Covid-19. Despite this, hearses sit in winding lines outside cemeteries and week-long wait lists on crematoriums leave the mourning with no option to deal with the remains of their loved ones, raising concerns that the numbers reported are not all what they seem.

Data projecting the growth of Covid-19 deaths in China from September 2022 to April 2023 | Photo Courtesy of IHME

With the rise of cases, the Chinese government has narrowed its definition of what qualifies as a “Covid death”. Originally, it was anyone who was positively diagnosed who died. Recently, it’s been changed to only those who have died from respiratory failure. This in turn eliminates deaths which cause pre-existing health conditions to intensify. These types of deaths are one of the primary contributors to Covid-19 deaths across the world, and experts worry that as the Chinese government reports the deaths, citizens will take the disease less seriously.

Already, the effects of the loosening definition have made a difference in the way the public views the disease. Many citizens are convinced it is less harmful than in reality, with several reports of neglect to go to the hospital resulting in death.

While the long-term effects of the reopening are impossible to predict, it marks an incredibly important change in the power the Chinese government holds over its citizens. The reopening is certain to devastate thousands, if not millions of people, but marks the monumental breaking of the long-lasting great silence.

Written by Samael Johnson

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