Examining the human toll of China’s stringent COVID policy

Chinese authorities locked down after discovering two cases of omicron in Anyang, a city of 5.5 million people about 300 miles outside Beijing. It’s the third Chinese city now in lockdown and comes less than a month before the Beijing Olympics. These lockdowns are tests of China’s zero-COVID policy, which authorities have called a success. But critics ask: at what cost? Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today after discovering two cases of Omicron, Chinese authorities locked down Anyang, 300 miles from Beijing. It's the third Chinese city in lockdown. The largest is Xi'An with 13 million people. That shut down more than two weeks ago, after 120 residents tested positive for Delta weeks before the Beijing Olympics.

    These lockdowns are tests of China's zero COVID policy, which authorities have called a success. but critics ask, at what cost?

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the streets of Xi'An, the only signs of life are state-mandated COVID tests. As seen on Chinese TV, every resident has to test nearly every day.

    Xi'An is suffering the country's largest community outbreak and its longest lockdown in nearly two years. At first, residents were desperate. From their windows they yelled, they don't have enough food, their pleas ignored.

    A city official says: "As long as you have one grain of rice, stay home." Authorities say they have recently made progress delivering groceries. But shortages remain.

  • Man:

    Really difficult to find food. It's been difficult to find bottled water. A lot of my co-workers and friends are down to boiling their water.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One American working in Xi'An spoke anonymously, for fear of reprisal. He compared his quarantine to solitary confinement.

    When you say solitary confinement, what do you mean?

  • Man:

    It means that I can't open the door of my apartment. The only time I can leave is to go downstairs and get tested for COVID. That's the only time I can leave. And I try to go down there when the line is long, so I can stay down there as long as possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What would happen if you tried to go outside not in the context of getting tested?

  • Man:

    I might be arrested. I might — yes, I could be taken to jail, I guess, because this is serious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zero COVID can be deadly serious. Hospitals require negative tests for entry. This woman was refused care for two hours. She was eight months pregnant and miscarried.

    In another video, a woman says her father had a heart attack and died when he was blocked from all of the city's hospitals, and tens of thousands forcibly bused to quarantine centers far from the city center. And now more cities are under lockdown. Disinfecting trucks are out in Yuzhou after three residents last week developed asymptomatic cases.

    It's all part of China's zero COVID policy to prevent community transmission. Beijing says it's worked. Cases are far lower than in the West, saving thousands of lives.

    Zhang Canyon, Expert, Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism (through translator): We need to try to stay ahead of the virus. We should carry out more strict management in areas with frequent movement of patients and try to control risks at the community level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At the national level, the top priority is the Olympics. As President Xi Jinping saw last week, athletes and spectators will be kept in a closed loop. Anyone entering the bubble must be vaccinated or face a three-week quarantine.

    Yanzhong Huang, Council on Foreign Relations: They want to make sure there's no major outbreak in the country, like, period, before the Winter Olympics. But, in the meantime, they also don't want the zero COVID strategy to fail.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yanzhong Huang is the Council on Foreign Relations' senior fellow for global health. He says China wants its COVID policy success, to prove the Communist Party's success.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    So that can be very convincing, right, in terms of showing case China superiority, right, as a successful political system.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But scientists say, what's not superior, state-manufactured Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. Chinese authorities have voiced concerns their vaccines cannot stop infections, despite an 86 percent vaccination rate.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    Now, this two-dose regimen is still not very effective in preventing new infections.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Xi'An's lockdown mirrors Wuhan's two years ago. The COVID epicenter was a ghost town. For not wearing a mask, this woman was arrested, and this family dragged out of their home to be quarantined.

    But one doctor was brave enough to speak out. In December 2019, 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang sounded the alarm about a virus spreading between patients. On Chinese social media, he wrote: "I decided to inform my classmates and help protect them." Chinese police later reprimanded him for — quote — "spreading rumors."

    Exactly two years ago, he contracted COVID. From his death bed, he wrote: "Today, my nucleic acid test came back positive. The dust has settled." He died a few weeks later. Two years on, hundreds of thousands of Chinese still write online to Dr. Li's ghost, including from Xi'An.

  • Woman:

    When I see that, in Xi'An, sick patients are repeatedly turned away from hospitals and die, I vent my fury again and again, because it is just like seeing Dr. Li Wenliang with his foreknowledge. If there is any one lesson we can learn, it should be that we are unable to learn from our past.

  • Man:

    #Xi'An. A man was rejected by three hospitals and died. Who still remembers Dr. Li Wenliang whistling the first whistle? Nowadays, there is no one who dares to whistle.

    Xiao Qiang, Editor in Chief, China Digital Times: People relate to him not only because he's speaking truth and he paid a price, he was being wronged, and also his courage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Xiao Qiang is the editor in chief of the California-based China Digital Times.

    He says the anniversary of Dr. Li's reprimand and Xi'An's lockdown reveals the true nature of an authoritarian state.

  • Xiao Qiang:

    A healthy society should have more than one voice, for even have a reasonable room to have a policy debate about zero COVID policy.

    None of this existed, not then and not now. What's happening in Xi'An reminded them the human cost of those rigid top-down authoritarian policy can cause for human suffer in Chinese society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And now Tianjin, a major port city about 80 miles from Beijing, reported the country's first cases of Omicron. Omicron has led other countries to abandon zero COVID policies.

    But China is sticking to it, and its low infection rate creates a country more vulnerable to future disease, says Huang.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    China will continue, right, to be in that lockdown mode, right?

    That immunity gap, that will be very dangerous, because even a small opening, right, could lead to a devastating impact. It could quickly overwhelm the country's health care system. It could also, right — because of the fear and panic associated with the disease, it could have social, political stability implications.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which means, even as zero COVID saves lives, it might prove self-defeating.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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