Opinion

We Wanted China’s ‘Zero Covid’ to End, but Not Like This

BEIJING — I caught Covid for the first time in early December.

I panicked when I saw the two lines on my rapid antigen test indicating a positive result. China’s government was still clinging to its “zero Covid” approach of using mass lockdowns and testing in a vain attempt to stop the virus from spreading. Would the dreaded health workers in their head-to-toe protective white suits, who seemed to have taken over the country, come to drag me away to a grim quarantine facility?

Millions of Chinese had been living in fear of that knock on the door. So I hid in my Beijing apartment. Three days later, the government essentially gave up fighting the virus. I was free. I celebrated by taking out my overflowing bag of garbage.

For three years, China’s people were told that Covid had to be controlled. But the government suddenly reversed course not long after street protests broke out in November over the escalating human and economic costs of that approach. But little was done to prepare us for what came next.

Public vaccination drives had been halfhearted, and China still does not allow more effective foreign-made vaccines to be imported (aside from allowing German-made vaccines for that country’s nationals in China). Advice was minimal on how to avoid getting sick or what to do in an emergency. We were on our own.

As the virus spread rapidly, fever medications like ibuprofen became coveted. Desperate pleas for those drugs flooded social media. I had stocked up months earlier, so I sent off several parcels to others in Beijing who were in need. Delivery systems in the capital were overwhelmed as couriers fell ill, so for two of the batches I called a taxi and simply handed the drugs to the driver. A pregnant woman I had helped thanked me by sending back two boxes of oranges. As my supplies dwindled, I could no longer bring myself to look at social media.

The situation quickly worsened nationwide. Patients swamped clinics and emergency rooms; hospitals and nursing homes struggled to stock medications. The wave reached my hometown in eastern China in the final days of December. I rushed home, worried sick about my 85-year-old grandmother.

I had spent carefree days with her as a child, watching as she cooked meals on an old wood-fired stove (to this day, food cooked that way tastes better to me). Born before the 1949 founding of Communist China to a relatively well-off family, she lived through decades of subsequent political turmoil, yet always described the tough times with grace, wisdom and optimism. She was finally enjoying life now. I couldn’t abide the thought of her dying from Covid.

The government had said that its tough policy was for the sake of the elderly and infirm. But when it lifted “zero Covid,” only 40 percent of people age 80 and older had received a booster shot. Grandma was several months overdue for her fourth shot, but she was not allowed one since she had already had three.

She caught Covid just before Christmas, then contracted pneumonia. All the beds were taken at overcrowded local hospitals, so we cared for her at home. During a call with a friend, I broke down in tears.

Earlier, I had purchased bottled oxygen and other supplies for Grandma. But what I really wanted was Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to treat Covid. China approved imports early last year, but supplies had been gobbled up, with packs of single, five-day courses selling for well over $7,000 on the black market at one point, around 20 times the standard price. Many people bought generic versions illegally imported from India.

After two weeks of searching, I finally placed an order online. But the drug must be taken within five days from the onset of symptoms, and by the time it arrived, Grandma was past that. Doctors prescribed antibiotics, and I cooked and cared for her, barely sleeping myself. Thankfully, she slowly improved by mid-January.

Countless others were less fortunate: Images of overwhelmed hospitals and crematories, along with obituaries, flooded Chinese social media for weeks. My neighbor in Beijing lost her father, grandmother and uncle in the current outbreak. The crush of patients and long waits for ambulances or care at chaotic hospitals all hampered their treatment.

“I trusted the government too much,” she told me. “They lied to us.”

The Chinese just finished celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday, which in China is called the Spring Festival. It’s normally the most joyous time of year, with hundreds of millions of people drawn back to their hometowns for family reunions, feasts, toasts of fiery grain alcohol and the exchange of red envelopes filled with gifts of cash. But for my neighbor, the holiday will always be an annual reminder of loss and pain. I would often see her outside feeding stray cats and followed her chirpy posts about her life on social media. Now she does neither and is considering leaving the country.

More than 84,000 people have died in China from the pandemic, according to official figures, the vast majority of them since the government lifted “zero Covid” in December. But those numbers are widely thought to conceal the true scale. A top government scientist said about 80 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people have been infected by the current wave. This would have been unimaginable to us just two months before.

Two weeks ago, I traveled the seven hours by train from Beijing back to my hometown once again to spend the holiday with Grandma and other relatives. As we do every year, my entire family sat down to watch the annual gala televised by China’s state broadcaster, several hours of cheerful entertainment meant to ring in the Year of the Rabbit. The slick, feel-good production made no reference to the struggles endured by millions during the outbreak. State-controlled news media rarely mention them either.

It’s as if nothing ever happened.

China now says the wave has peaked, and that may be true. Pharmacy shelves are no longer bare. Even Paxlovid has become more available, and I don’t hear about overwhelmed hospitals anymore. Friends and relatives expressed optimism as they returned last weekend to the cities where they work. There is hope that, with the pandemic restrictions gone, the economy and job market will improve. The Chinese have a remarkable ability to endure and stoically move forward. But the scars from the past few weeks remain.

Although born and raised in China, I had lived many years overseas, including in the United States. During that time, I had to rely largely on Western media for news about China, which I came to view as often one-sided and overly negative. I returned home shortly before the pandemic, intending to reconnect with my beloved people and country.

But the pandemic laid bare China’s limitations, the distortion of truth by propaganda and how government missteps are often paid for with the lives and well-being of ordinary people.

In the Year of the Rabbit, I, like my neighbor, will think about leaving the country I love.

Lucy Meng is a journalist and writer living in Beijing.

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