Beijing, China – It’s 3:30 p.m. and I’m doing my best to stay calm. My husband throws a suitcase, a brand new car seat and a bag of snacks into the back of a cab while I fasten a seatbelt across my bulbous belly.
The contractions come thick and fast. My baby decided to burst into the world two weeks ahead of schedule.
Eyes closed I hear the “snap” of my husband’s seat belt.
“Please drive quickly!” he shouts in anxious Chinese.
The driver knows our destination, a hospital 20 minutes away, but refuses to budge. “Sao jiankangbao! or “Scan the health code!” he snaps.
Irritated, my husband quickly pulls out his phone, opens the Beijing Health app, and scans the QR code taped to the back of the driver’s seat. “Her too!” shouts the driver. If I wasn’t focusing so much on controlling my moans, I would have laughed. I had no idea where my phone was.
My husband breaks down screaming, “She’s having a baby, can’t you see? ! »
“Scan the health code first,” is the stern, emotionless response.
It’s funnier now than it was that June afternoon. We finally arrived at the hospital and after further COVID-19 checks on arrival I gave birth to a healthy baby boy two hours later.
China’s zero COVID policy is based on the principle that one infection is one infection too many. This not only created a bubble around China, isolating it from the rest of the world, but also added layers of regulations and limitations to the lives of the 1.4 billion people who live here. And while my medical emergency had a happy ending, the effects of politics were devastating and even deadly for many others.
I started reporting on this “mysterious flu-like illness” in January 2020 when it first spread from Wuhan. Since then, there have been countless stories of people with urgent illnesses, children, pregnant women, the elderly, etc., unable to access care because they had not recently suffered negative nucleic acid test.
Millions more have gone hungry, lost their livelihoods and suffered deteriorating mental health due to prolonged lockdowns.
Last month, 10 people living in the city of Urumqi in northwest China’s Xinjiang province, including three Uyghur children, died in a residential fire – a tragedy widely believed to have been caused by a coronavirus lockdown that had blocked exits and prevented firefighters from reaching the site in time. The tragedy triggered a wave of disbelief and rage. How could a policy designed to protect people be responsible for these needless deaths? Enough was enough.
What followed was a series of protests in several cities across the country, the most serious acts of public defiance China has seen since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. “We want freedom, not COVID tests! was a common cry. Some brave souls have even demanded the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a call that could easily land them in jail or worse. A blank sheet of A4 paper has become a symbol of solidarity, mourning and criticism of government censorship.
I was shocked to see all of this unfold and even more shocked to see so many contacts post messages of support for the protests on Chinese social media. Would the opaque and seemingly unshakeable Communist Party listen? China’s nationwide police moved quickly to suppress and prevent further large-scale protests, and social media was quickly cleared. That seemed to answer the question and we went on with our lives. In Beijing, that meant staying home, leaving only to get tested for COVID every few days.
At the time, much of the city was under “soft lockdown” to control a new outbreak of Omicron. Restaurants were closed for dinner, non-essential businesses closed and people were working from home. The capital of the most populous country in the world was a ghost town (a common phenomenon since 2020).
But as I write this, a week later, I was shocked again. This time by the authorities themselves.
China’s tough COVID-19 policy is being relaxed – or, in their own words, “optimized”.
They announced several key changes: COVID-19 positive cases and close contacts will no longer be required to quarantine at government facilities and test results will no longer be required for domestic travel or entry into foreign countries. supermarkets, shopping malls, office buildings or parks.
If a lockdown is imposed, it cannot be extended to entire neighborhoods, it must be targeted and lifted as soon as possible.
All these changes need to be implemented as more than 10,000 infections are recorded every day. China finally gave up living with the virus.
For nearly three years, our mobile health app has been our passport to venturing beyond our homes.
We took it out to scan codes at every building or store entrance. “Lu ma! Il suan yi tian! it sounds audibly to alert the security guard to your health status. “Code green! Covid test completed a day ago! Scanning means your location and identity are also noted so authorities know who you are and where to find you.
For nearly three years, we froze at the sight of the dreaded “Da Bai” or “Big White,” the not-so-affectionate nickname for people dressed head-to-toe in medical white coveralls and goggles. Their presence meant that someone somewhere nearby was dragged to a central quarantine facility (often sparse, unsanitary places) where they wouldn’t feel the sun on their skin for days or weeks.
For nearly three years, we’ve grown accustomed to long lines for testing, filling our freezers with weeks’ worth of food, halting non-essential travel and fearing the flu and colds because buying medicine for the fever was limited (the reason being that everyone wishing to take ibuprofen was clearly trying to hide their COVID-19 infection from the authorities).
So how do we feel now that this draconian system is finally coming to an end? Excitement and relief. We even dare to dream of being able to fly and visit our family abroad without fuss or quarantine (which is still impossible until now).
But other than that there is a lot of confusion, chaos and anxiety. People are panicking and buying drugs and rapid antigen tests. Social media chat groups are inundated with questions. mRNA vaccines, which have been shown to be more effective than Chinese-made shots, are not available here. Millions of people feel utterly unprepared to be exposed to the coronavirus for the first time in their lives. We all hope that China’s healthcare system will come out better, otherwise dark days may be ahead.
And contrary to international headlines, everyday life has yet to drastically change.
We still require a negative COVID-19 test to access restaurants, entertainment venues, gyms and hospitals, so this three times a week ritual will continue.
The only difference is that I’ll be walking a bit lighter to my local test site; grateful that China is finally joining the world in accepting this new pandemic normal and knowing that a mobile phone app now has less power over my life.
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