China’s public dutifully obeyed COVID lockdowns for 2 years. Now two women’s miscarriages are sparking backlash

January 7, 2022, 10:53 AM UTC

Since January 2020, when Beijing shut down the city of Wuhan to contain the world’s original COVID-19 outbreak, China’s citizens have borne with remarkable stoicism even the most draconian of their government’s measures to fight the virus.

Wuhan residents endured a harrowing lockdown that dragged on for 76 days. As the virus spread to other cities, hundreds of millions of Chinese dutifully downloaded color-coded health apps to their mobile phones that allowed local authorities to trace their contacts and restrict their movements.

There was little public outcry last August when Beijing partly shuttered a huge shipping terminal in Ningbo, the world’s third-busiest port, because of a single case of COVID—nor in October when authorities locked the gates of Shanghai Disneyland and administered PCR tests to 33,000 people after just one woman tested positive for the coronavirus. It took nearly all night to test every park visitor, but as one told the Associated Press: “No one complained, and everyone behaved really well.”

But public support for the government’s “COVID-zero” approach has given way to shock and outrage this month amid China’s latest lockdown in the northwest city of Xi’an.

Since Dec. 22, officials in Xi’an, home to China’s famed terra-cotta warriors, have ordered the city’s 13 million residents to remain in their homes with only one person per household allowed out every other day to purchase necessities. The lockdown is a response to an outbreak of nearly 1,900 COVID cases, a count that pales in comparison to the more than 1 million cases reported in U.S. on Monday alone but is China’s largest community spread since Wuhan.

Xi’an officials’ execution of the citywide shutdown has been clumsy and heavy-handed. Within days, residents took to social media to complain that in many neighborhoods people were unable to buy groceries and running out of food. There have been reports of price gouging by delivery services. A municipal government decision to place all close contacts of confirmed cases into a centralized quarantine facility added to the chaos.

Then the city’s health code app system crashed, making it temporarily impossible for residents to verify their infection status and undoing the effects of a citywide campaign to administer nucleic acid tests.

But those mostly local frustrations erupted into national anger this week following social media reports that at least two Xi’an women in late stages of their pregnancies lost unborn babies because they were denied access to medical attention by hospital officials demanding verification of the women’s infection status.

On Wednesday, Chinese social media sites seethed with indignation over a video showing a woman sitting on a plastic stool outside the Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital surrounded by a pool of blood. Agence France-Presse reports that the video was included in a Jan. 1 post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, by the woman’s niece. In a detailed account accompanying the video, the author alleged that her aunt had miscarried eight months into her pregnancy after she was refused admittance by hospital officials on the grounds that the woman’s negative COVID test had expired a few hours earlier.

The post was later deleted, but not before it received millions of views, according to AFP. On Thursday, the Xi’an city government acknowledged in a statement that the incident at Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital had aroused “widespread concern and caused a bad social impact.” Two hospital officials were fired, and its general manager was suspended.

The Wall Street Journal reports that later on Wednesday, a second woman claimed in a long Weibo post that she, too, had suffered a miscarriage after being turned away on Dec. 29 by two hospitals where she sought treatment for bleeding late in her pregnancy. That post was deleted as well, but not before attracting 630,000 “likes” and being shared more than 110,000 times, according to CNN.

A third woman alleged on Weibo on Wednesday that her father died of a heart attack Monday after several hospitals, including the Xi’an International Medical Center, declined to treat him “due to pandemic-related rules.”

China’s state censors have shown less zeal in containing public criticism of the Xi’an’s missteps than health officials have in seeking to contain spread of the virus itself, suggesting that central government officials in Beijing hope to avert a nationwide backlash against the COVID-zero policy by blaming local authorities for bungling its execution.

Indeed, the post detailing the incident at Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital went viral after it was reposted on social media accounts controlled by the People’s Daily, which is the flagship newspaper of China’s Communist Party. China’s central government fired Xi’an’s deputy mayor and punished two dozen other officials for their failure to contain the outbreak.

On Thursday, Chinese vice-premier Sun Chunlan told Xinhua, the state news agency, that she felt “deeply ashamed” that the hospital’s coronavirus containment efforts had led to the loss of an unborn child, adding, “The lesson learned was deep.”

On Wednesday, the Xi’an government declared that community transmission in the city “has been contained.” Xi’an confirmed 57 new locally transmitted cases on Friday, down from more than 100 new daily cases last week. On social media, skeptical residents suggested the local government had engineered that decline by evacuating new cases to quarantine centers beyond the city limit. The lockdown remained in force.

On Monday, a second Chinese city, Yuzhou in central Henan province, imposed a lockdown, closing schools and suspending public transportation. The city’s 1.1 million residents were ordered to remain at home after three asymptomatic cases were reported.

Shenzhen, a city of 18 million, on Friday said it had detected two locally transmitted cases. Municipal authorities ordered residents to remain in the city unless “really necessary,” and said anyone seeking to travel out of the city will be required to produce evidence of a negative nucleic acid test within the previous 48 hours.

The consensus among Western China experts and global business executives is that China’s leaders will stick to their COVID-zero policy of eliminating every case of the virus at least until after a crucial party meeting in November, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be formally granted a precedent-breaking third term. Analysts at Goldman Sachs warned in a report Tuesday that China’s strict lockdowns and tight border restrictions “could be kept largely intact until spring 2023.”

But the chaos in Xi’an hints at the mounting difficulty of enforcing future lockdowns.

Over the next several weeks, China will welcome thousands of foreign athletes, coaches, and dignitaries ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled to commence on Feb. 4. All participants in the Games will be sequestered away from China’s general public in an elaborate “closed loop management system” that will encompass the Olympic village, sports venues, hotels, and restaurants. China promises the games will be safe, but there is no denying that the influx of so many overseas visitors raises the risk of new outbreak.

The Lunar New Year, which begins Feb. 1, may bring more peril. The holiday is China’s biggest and a time when hundreds of millions of people travel to rejoin family for Spring Festival celebrations. China’s National Health Commission has urged residents of any city with confirmed COVID cases not to travel during this year’s holiday. Even so, Xinhua predicts passengers will make 280 million rail trips during this year’s holiday, a 29% increase over 2021.

And China has yet to experience an outbreak of the Omicron variant, which is far more transmissible than the Delta version of the virus and appears to be far more resistant than earlier coronavirus strains to Chinese vaccines. Evidence suggests Omicron is also much less deadly than other variants, creating a vexing trade-off for China’s leaders.

Can local authorities lock down fast and furiously enough to head off an Omicron surge? And will China’s citizens continue to support a COVID-zero policy if it means ever harsher restrictions to combat what may be a milder threat?

Those questions will weigh heavily on Xi and his allies as they gather in Beijing for the annual meeting of the national legislature in March and approach the all-important 20th Communist Party Congress in the fourth quarter. Xi has touted COVID-zero as a signature success—a policy that demonstrates the superiority of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and Xi’s own firm leadership over the fractious democracies of an infection-ravaged West.

Abandoning the COVID-zero policy ahead of the Party Congress would be tantamount to acknowledging it had been misguided. But staying the course may prove painful and unpopular, particularly if it leaves the nation’s already slowing economy cut off from the rest of the world just as other markets are opening up.

The Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, declares China’s COVID-zero policy doomed to fail.

“China’s policy will fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring in turn more severe lockdowns,” the group concludes in an assessment published this week. “This will in turn lead to greater economic disruptions, more state intervention, and a more dissatisfied population at odds with the triumphalist ‘China defeated COVID’ mantra of the state-owned media…That means a particularly tough time for what pre-COVID had become the world’s primary engine for growth.”

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