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China’s drastic response to its latest wave of COVID-19, as part of its ‘zero-COVID’ strategy has shocked the world.

Remember, when India was battling with the second wave of Covid, The Chinese Communist Party had unleashed a propaganda blitz on social media platforms about its ‘Zero Covid’ status and was sarcastic and using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine India. However, across the world, leaders and citizens expressed their sympathies and offered support to India.

Xi Jinping seeking a third term, in his usual chest-thumping style was falsely talking of China’s success in containing the virus to prove that its top-down governance model is superior to that of liberal democracies. But, sadly the story backfired.

“This disease has been politicized,” Zhu Weiping, an official in Shanghai’s disease control apparatus, said that she had advised the government to let people with no or mild symptoms quarantine at home and focus on vaccination drives. But no one listened, she said.

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As the Omicron variant spread in early April, about 373 million people in 45 Chinese cities were under either full or partial lockdowns. According to estimates by economists at the investment bank Nomura these cities account for 26 percent of China’s population and 40 percent of its economic output. They warned that the risk of recession was rising as local governments competed to ratchet up virus-containment measures. Beijing is now urging local governments to strike a balance between pandemic control and economic production. But everyone in the bureaucratic system knows where the priority lies.

China’s drastic response to its latest wave of COVID-19, as part of its ‘zero-COVID’ strategy have shocked the world. Leaked footage and viral videos expose scary scenes across Shanghai, China’s biggest city, as the country imposes extreme lockdown, in the wake of the city’s worst COVID outbreak in the last two years.

Shanghai has recorded over 200,000 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of March, with the city grappling with China’s biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic. With 25 million residents, Shanghai now finds itself at the center of China’s “dynamic zero-COVID strategy” and an indefinite citywide lockdown.

Over the past weeks, images emerging from Shanghai paint a grim picture of the harsh reality of China’s zero-COVID policy. For the  residents of Shanghai, living with zero-COVID has meant being confined to homes, mass testing, and being whisked off to quarantine centers if you test positive. But beyond these measures, a more severe picture of the impact of harsh public health measures is emerging as food shortages abound in Shanghai’s neighborhoods, children are separated from their families, and pets are ruthlessly culled. 

Under the strict lockdown, children who tested positive for COVID-19 are quarantined in hospitals without their parents, a policy that has prompted intense backlash. Videos circulating widely on social media apparently show children—including infants—housed in hospital wards with little adult supervision. 

In an unverified video circulating on social media, people can be heard chanting for food rations in Shanghai’s Kangting neighborhood. The same video also shows a fight breaking out at the entrance of a neighborhood as police vehicles arrive at the scene.

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A hot topic in WeChat groups has been neighbors resorting to a barter system to exchange, say, a cabbage for a bottle of soy sauce. Coca-Cola is hard currency. After nearly two weeks under lockdown, Dai Xin, a restaurant owner, is running out of food to provide for her household of four. Now she slices ginger paper thin, pickles vegetables so they won’t spoil and eats two meals a day instead of three.

Even the moneyed class is facing food supply shortages. The head of a big retail chain on the condition of anonymity given the political sensitivities said she got many requests from Shanghai-based chief executives but there was little she could do under lockdown rules.

The worst nightmare for many Shanghai residents is testing positive and being sent to centralized quarantine facilities. The conditions of some facilities are so appalling that they’re called “refugee camps” and “concentration camps” on social media. Some quarantine camps were so poorly prepared that people had to fight for food, water and bedding. The many despairing posts about Shanghai sent residents in other parts of China into a hoarding craze last weekend. In Beijing, Upermarkets were packed, and some grocery apps ran out stock.

A growing number of frustrated people are questioning whether the draconian and costly strategy is necessary. Officials haven’t addressed reports of mass infections and deaths at elder-care hospitals. Even some supporters of the “zero Covid” policy have voiced their doubts. When Shanghai carried out citywide Covid tests in early April, Lang Xianping, an economist, said on his verified Weibo account that it demonstrated “the power of China.”  His mother had passed away after Covid restrictions delayed treatment for her kidney condition. “I hope tragedies like this won’t happen again,” he wrote.

The policy still enjoys strong public support. Many people on social media said Shanghai wasn’t strict enough in its lockdowns and quarantines. A venture capitalist posted on WeChat that he would not invest in start-up founders who didn’t back the policy. This is not surprising. With limited access to information and no tools to hold the authority accountable, the vast majority of Chinese generally support whatever the government decides. In the past two years, they followed Beijing’s cue and attacked critics of its pandemic policy. They rallied around Beijing, which increasingly applied the social suppression mechanism in Xinjiang to the rest of the country in the name of pandemic control. Now, many of them are suffering from the consequences.  

“When repressions didn’t touch them, most Chinese ignored them,” Lawrence Li, a business consultant in Shanghai, said in an interview. “We believe that it’s just to sacrifice minority interests in favor of the collective.” Like many people, he said what was happening in Shanghai echoed the anti-sparrow campaign of Mao which tried to kill every sparrow but brought about draught and a natural disaster.

 “History repeats itself again and again,” he said.

Suren Rao an Advertising professional writes blogs on various topics ranging from health and spirituality to technology and sport

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