Commentary: Human and economic costs of China’s zero-COVID strategy are mounting

HONG KONG: Zhang Weiya bears the emotional scars of China’s “zero-COVID strategy”. The mother of a four-year-old son emerged recently from more than 50 days locked in her apartment in Shanghai with her husband, mother-in-law and a yapping family dog.

She was ecstatic to breathe fresh air at the end of last month as China’s biggest city lifted an enforced confinement that affected, at one time or another, most of its 25 million residents. But on Thursday, she heard the news that authorities will again lock down a district of 2.7 million people to conduct mass coronavirus testing.

“My arms are literally trembling,” she said. “It is not our district that is being locked down but it isn’t far away. I really don’t know if my mental health would be able to withstand another isolation. I even found myself getting pissed off with our beloved son because he wouldn’t keep quiet for even a minute.”

Her experience reveals one aspect of the human cost of China’s “techno-authoritarian” approach to combating the pandemic. But the privations are not limited to those in incarceration.

A new phase in the “zero-COVID” policy blends mass mobilisation tactics borrowed from China’s revolutionary past with 21st-century technology used to monitor and corral people in intimate detail of their daily lives.


Every resident in most of China’s largest cities is required to carry a medical report on their mobile phone that shows when they were last tested for COVID-19. If more than three days have elapsed, they can be refused access to public spaces and to shops to buy daily necessities.

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Hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 testing booths are being built in many cities across the country to ensure that no resident lives more than a 15-minute walk away from an available test. Beijing’s intention is to get ahead of the virus by picking up people who have tested positive before they have had a chance to spread it to others.

This, in turn, is aimed at freeing the government from the need to impose protracted, city-wide lockdowns that hammer the economy and stoke huge public resentment. Thus, the lockdown announced on Thursday in the Shanghai district of Minhang was not intended to be long-lasting, authorities said.

Artmotion Asia

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