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Life with ‘Zero Covid’ in China includes daily tests and people sleeping in school – 11/07/2021 – World

The city of Ruili, in southwest China, is small, distant and almost unknown internationally. And perhaps it is also, as far as the coronavirus is concerned, the most tightly regulated place on Earth.

In the last year, she was “locked” four times, once for 26 days. Houses in an entire neighborhood were evacuated indefinitely to create a “buffer zone” against imported cases. Schools were closed for months—except for a few grades, as long as students and faculty didn’t leave campuses.

Many residents, including Liu Bin, 59, have spent months without income in a city that relies heavily on tourism and trade with neighboring Myanmar. Liu, who had a customs clearance agency before the movement across the border practically stopped, calculates that he lost more than US$150,000 (R$840,000). He is tested for the virus almost daily and borrows money from his son-in-law even to buy cigarettes.

“Why do I have to be oppressed like this? My life is important too,” he says. “I closely followed the control measures. What else do normal people have to do to meet the criteria?”

While the rest of the world shifts to a coping strategy, China remains the last country to seek complete elimination, often successfully. It has recorded fewer than 5,000 deaths from Covid, and in regions with no confirmed cases the outbreak sometimes seems like an inaccurate memory.

But residents of Ruili — a verdant subtropical city of about 270,000 people before the pandemic — are facing the extreme and harsh reality of living under a “zero Covid” policy even when only one case is found.

When other Chinese cities were locked down to control outbreaks, restrictions were often limited to certain neighborhoods or eased within weeks. But in Ruili the last year has consisted of a prolonged paralysis, with people confined to residential condominiums for weeks at a time. Even during the gaps between official lockdowns, residents were not allowed to dine in restaurants. Many companies remained closed.

China, land in the middle

Only junior and senior high school students, as well as junior high school students, have been able to resume in-person classes—provided they live on campus. Rooms have been turned into dormitories and, as students are always there, there are also classes on weekends.

An app driver told state media he had run 90 tests of Covid-19 in the past seven months. One father said his one-year-old son was tested 74 times.

Tens of thousands of residents left the city between lockdowns; authorities admitted that the population had dropped to around 200,000. To discourage the diaspora, authorities now require people to complete up to 21 days of quarantine before departing.

In a sign of the despair of many residents, a former deputy mayor of the city wrote in a blog last month: “Ruili needs care for the motherland” — a surprising move in a country where authorities almost never stray from the official line.

“Each time the city is locked, it becomes another case of serious emotional and material loss,” wrote Dai Rongli. “Each virus-fighting experience is a new accumulation of problems.”

Ruili reported only five cases transmitted locally in the last month. More than 96% of residents in and around the city have been vaccinated, according to state media. No cases were found among people who went to other counties in China. Even so, officials insist there is little room for adjustments.

“If the epidemic in Ruili does not reach zero, there is a risk of transmission abroad,” current deputy mayor Yang Mou said at an Oct. 29 news conference.

Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, says Ruili represents the Chinese government’s insistent approach to the pandemic. Since the outbreak of the outbreak, the city has employed the same manual of lockdowns and mass testing, without considering potentially cheaper tactics.

“They believe it’s the only way they can succeed, but that’s not really true. The situation is evolving rapidly. Now it’s actually very different from 2020.”

Out there

In recent weeks, other regions have reinstated restrictions when a new outbreak linked to domestic tourism has infected more than 700 people. Approximately 10,000 tourists were stranded in Inner Mongolia after cases were found there. About 30,000 visitors to Disney’s Shanghai spent hours waiting to be tested on the night of the 31st before they could leave the park.

Parts of Beijing are isolated, and many trains and flights to the capital have been cancelled.
A municipality in eastern Jiangxi Province announced that all traffic lights would be turned red to prevent unnecessary commuting. (The administration later backed off.)

Ruili is very vulnerable to lockdown viruses and nuisances. Nestled in the corner of Yunnan Province, the city shares more than 160 kilometers of border with Myanmar, attracting tourists and merchants. In 2019, there were nearly 17 million individual crossings through the border checkpoint, according to official statistics.

When China closed the country, trade and tourism virtually collapsed. But Ruili’s borders remain porous, raising fears of imported cases. And the military coup in Myanmar this year has prompted people to seek refuge in China, legally or illegally. Some residents had to avoid stray bullets from the conflict, according to Chinese media.

The city’s remote location and small size also mean that many Chinese were unaware of the lingering hardships of its residents. But on October 28, former deputy mayor Dai published his blog post.

“The pandemic has mercilessly attacked this city several times, draining its last vestige of life,” wrote Dai, who now lives in Beijing. “The prolonged lockdown has brought progress to a dead end. It seems extremely urgent to restart the necessary businesses and business operations.”

The text went viral. Two hashtags about Dai’s letter were seen 300 million times on the Weibo website, a kind of Chinese Twitter. Dai declined to comment further.

The lockdown had other, less predictable effects. The government has banned residents from streaming live videos about the local jade industry to limit stone orders and delivery.

Amid intense national attention, Ruili officials dismissed the concerns as exaggerated. Mao Xiao, secretary of the Communist Party, told state media that “at the moment, we don’t need” additional help. The day before, he had warned against “criminals” who said they would use “public opinion and false information to disturb the social order”.

But authorities have promised to improve quarantine conditions and strengthen financial support for poor residents through subsidies, donations of rice and other products, as well as the suspension of rents for some companies. They also promised to increase the number of hotel rooms available for quarantine for those wishing to leave Ruili.

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