Every two days at the University of Xi’an in China, cleaners dressed in white hazmat suits taped tight to their bodies disinfect the dormitory hallways. Zhang Shengzi, a 24-year-old student, said the smell is so pungent she has to wait some time after they’ve gone before she will open her door again.
She cannot leave her bedroom, let alone campus, and she is unable to attend classes online.
Ms. Zhang’s university, like the rest of Xi’an, has been under a citywide lockdown since Dec. 22. This lockdown is the longest in China since the one in Wuhan where the coronavirus epidemic began nearly two years ago.
Scenes from the pandemic’s early days show that hungry people traded coffee for eggs and cigarettes to get instant noodles. A pregnant woman and a boy aged 8 who has leukemia Among those who have been denied medical treatment are: People who are in dire need of lifesaving medication have had difficulty obtaining them.
China’s ability to control the virus has come a long way since the pandemic started: It has inoculated nearly 1.2 billion people and set up a nationwide electronic health database for contact tracing.
However, it continues to rely on the same authoritarian viruses-fighting methods as in early 2020. This includes strict quarantines, closing borders and lockdowns. These have resulted in food and medical shortages as well as growing questions about whether its zero-Covid strategy – the last of its kind in the world – can be continued.
Despite the frustration, the authorities in Xi’an on Wednesday declared the city’s battle with the virus a victory. Fourteen days into the lockdown, city officials said that Xi’an had achieved “zero Covid on a societal level,” though its 13 million residents remained unable to leave home.
“The district security guards are like prison guards and we are like prisoners,” said Tom Zhao, a Xi’an resident. Mr. Zhao, 38, claimed he had joined dozens if not hundreds of chat groups in an attempt to find help for his mother, who has early stage diabetes.
Even multinational companies with large headquarters in the city are affected. Two of the world’s largest memory chip makers, Samsung and Micron, said they have had to adjust operations at their manufacturing bases in Xi’an because of the restrictions, potentially roiling the already fragile global supply chain.
Xi’an has reported 1,800 cases in its latest outbreak, stunningly low compared with the daily case count in the United States. And as the world struggles to contain the spread of Omicron, in China officials have reported only a few local cases of the variant, and none in Xi’an.
However, authorities are still concerned. in a country that has stridently stuck by its zero-Covid policy — and held up its success fighting the virus as proof that its authoritarian style of leadership saves lives.
The Beijing Winter Olympics and the Lunar New Year holiday are a few weeks away, and China’s vaccines appear to be less effective than their Western competitors, particularly against variants. China has yet to approve mRNA technology as a vaccine. Boosters are now available but have been less popular than the initial jabs.
“The Xi’an epidemic is the most serious after Wuhan was shut down,” said Zeng Guang, a Chinese epidemiologist who visited Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic and was quoted in state media on Wednesday. “People across the country should give Xi’an a lot of support, hoping that Xi’an will accumulate new experience in epidemic prevention.”
The experiences so far have been very grim. To stop the spread of the disease, tens of thousands of people were relocated to centralized quarantine areas. Several top city officials have been fired, and the head of Xian’s big data bureau was suspended.
On Tuesday, the vast health code system used to track people and enforce quarantines and lockdowns crashed because it couldn’t handle the traffic, making it hard for residents to access public hospitals or complete daily routines like regular Covid testing.
Many were upset when a woman eight months pregnant in the city died after she was forced to wait hours at a hospital for her medical records to verify that she didn’t have Covid-19. (The hospital requested an apology and fired officials.
Residents started posting on social networks about how difficult it was to order food or get groceries after the lockdown. After being assured by officials that it was not necessary for residents to stock up on groceries, they were surprised when the initial policy of allowing one person from each household to leave every other day was scrapped.
Officials soon posted images of volunteers delivering groceries after they realized their error. Residents were already complaining online about the fact that officials had placed the pursuit of eliminating the disease above the well-being and safety of the citizens.
Mr. Zhao lived with his parents before the lockdown and watched as their neighbors exchanged food. Several days ago, officials arrived in trucks with vegetables to deliver, and they announced their arrival through loudspeakers. Mr. Zhao received two plastic bags with his parents: a white potato, a head cabbage, three potatoes and two zucchinis.
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They did much better than the rest.
Mr. Zhao said a friend who lived in a different district didn’t get any food, and that another told him that her building elevator was turned off except for one hour a day when residents were allowed to do compulsory testing and walk their pets.
People shared videos and heartfelt appeals for assistance as the situation worsened. “SOS,” wrote one resident whose father could not get medical care when he suffered a heart attack. According to his daughter’s post, he died later.
Zhao Zheng, the father of an 8-year-old boy with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, found himself battling with staff at several hospitals in Xi’an after his son’s Dec. 28 appointment was canceled. Each hospital requested documentation to prove that Mr. Zhao was not in quarantine anymore and that he and his family have not been exposed to the virus in recent months.
“Nobody could issue this document for us at all,” said Mr. Zhao, 43, who until recently had owned a small construction company. With the help of local reporters, Mr. Zhao was able to locate a hospital on January 2. Their son is now receiving weekly treatment.
Amid the outcry, the government this week created special “green channels” for pregnant women and patients with “acute and critical illnesses” to get medical care more easily.
On Thursday, top officials took steps to calm public anger. Liu Shunzhi, the head of the city’s health commission, apologized for the stillbirth and for wider problems during the lockdown. Sun Chunlan, a vice premier overseeing the central government’s efforts to contain Covid, ordered local health authorities to ensure there was no repeat of deadly delays in hospital treatment.
“It’s extremely painful that problems like this have occurred and we feel deep remorse,” said Ms. Sun, according to Chinese state media. “This has revealed sloppiness in prevention and control efforts, and the lessons are profound.”
To critics, the pain, suffering and confusion caused by the lockdown has made Beijing’s virus strategy appear increasingly unsustainable. “In this world, nobody is an island,” wrote Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist who lives in Xi’an. Ms. Zhang, also known as Jiang Xue on social media, published a account of her first ten days in lockdown.
“The death of any individual is a death of all,” she wrote.
Liu YiAnd Joy DongContributed research. Chris Buckley contributed reporting.
Source: NY Times