Xi’an was placed under strict lockdown orders on 23 December to contain the spread of the rapidly growing Covid cluster. But over the days and weeks, a constant stream of complaints about food shortages, as well as heartbreaking scenes of critical patients – including heavily pregnant women – denied medical care, has left the nation is shaken.
Many were reminded of the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, the original epicenter, where 11 million residents were confined to their homes for months in 2020.
China has since relied on a combination of massive testing, snap lockdowns and widespread quarantine measures to quell a fresh flare-up. This zero-Covid strategy has successfully rescued the country from the worst of the pandemic, potentially saving millions of lives and garnering massive public support.
The ruling Communist Party has seen that success as proof that its one-party, authoritarian political model is superior to Western democracies, which have struggled to control their wrath.
But by the same token, the tragedies that unfolded in Xi’an also stemmed from the same top-down political system that demands absolute loyalty, no dissent and puts everyone’s interests far above the rights of individuals.
Beijing is intent on achieving its zero-Covid goal, with local officials often pledging to “do whatever it takes” to return cases to zero – causing much disruption to daily life and at times There are also losses that they have to protect.
A user on Chinese social media this week wrote, “No one cares what you die from except COVID-19.”
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, described the phenomenon as “toxic politics”.
“Over the past decades, the public policy process – in terms of agenda setting, policy formulation and implementation – in China has continued to be top-down, non-participatory, urgent and mobilizing.”
“This has helped local leaders to implement those policy measures on societies that are not necessarily in a position to interact with the state in policy-making and implementation.”
In a way, Xi’an’s procrastination is no exception. From cities in Xinjiang’s western region to the southern border city of Ruili, other comparatively smaller regions come under complaints of disproportionately harsh measures during the last prolonged lockdown. But in Xi’an, such problems occurred in a much more extreme form, on a much larger scale, and attracted much wider attention.
“People like to use Shanghai as a kind of reference point,” Huang said, referring to the Chinese financial center. “But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case because of its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity.”
“When capacity is low, government officials are likely to turn to heavy-handed, indiscriminate and even excessive measures, which will significantly increase the cost of implementing this (zero-Covid) strategy. are,” he said, citing Xi’an as an example. ,
Over the past week, Xi’an authorities have faced public outcry over harsh lockdown measures that prevent serious patients from seeking immediate medical care. A heavily pregnant woman reportedly miscarried on New Year’s Day after she was denied admission by the hospital for not having a valid COVID test. A young woman claimed she lost her father to a heart attack after a very delayed rescue, after being turned down by hospitals to come from a “moderate risk area” of the city.
“The guard said he was doing his job; the nurse said he was doing his job; the hospital said he was doing his job. From the point of view of all epidemic prevention and control requirements, no one was at fault So who has the problem with lies?” He asked.
To quell public fury, the Chinese Communist Party moved quickly to announce a flurry of punishments: hospital managers were suspended or removed from positions, while disciplinary warnings were issued to the city’s leading public health officials.
At a news conference on Thursday, the head of the Xi’an Municipal Health Commission, Liu Xunzhi, bowed down and apologized to the woman who lost her child, as well as other patients who had problems accessing medical treatment.
“We are deeply saddened and sorry to see such problems, which have exposed the laxity in prevention and control work, and the lessons are deep,” state media quoted the Sun as saying. “The basic purpose of epidemic prevention and control is to keep people healthy and to protect lives.”
Blaming the local authorities for failing to do their jobs well, Sun brushed up on a deeper root cause that drove the Xi’an authorities to such extremes in enforcing the lockdown – namely the central government’s zero Tremendous political pressure to achieve the Covid target.
Across China, hundreds of local officials were fired or punished for failing to contain the spread of Covid in their areas. With the Lunar New Year and Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, such pressure has only intensified.
Meanwhile, China’s political system has gone up and down under President Xi Jinping, who has sought full loyalty from the vast bureaucracy. Local governments are expected to always follow the line of the central party leadership and follow directions to the letter. As a result, the scope for healthy policy debate and flexibility in implementation is greatly reduced.
China’s press freedom and civil society are also shrinking rapidly, which could potentially have alerted the crisis sooner. Even during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, some relatively vocal state media outlets published harsh reports and successfully drew attention to problems on the ground, while citizens across China organized themselves to help those in need. But the space for independent reporting and social organization has been further reduced in the past two years, as nationalism swept through the country.
During previous outbreaks, when voices of criticism against harsh lockdown measures rose online, he was often advised to “think about the bigger picture”, namely the country’s zero-Covid ambitions.
But since the Xi’an lockdown, more people have begun to consider the sacrifices they have been asked to make – and whether they are worth it.
Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist living in Xi’an, publicly questioned the official slogan “we must do it at all costs”.
“In this world, no one is an island, the death of any one is the death of all,” she wrote. “The virus didn’t kill anyone in this city, but there’s a real possibility that other things did.”