City-wide mass testing mobilised, residential district sealed off, trips and events cancelled, outbound travel without negative Covid test within 48 hours denied and people scrambled to stock up food. The actions were swift and dramatic, befitting a city gripped by a pandemic.
Except that this is not where Covid cases are spiralling out of control, such as post “Freedom Day” London where I call home. But in my hometown in China, Nanjing (南京), a provincial capital city of 9.3 millions people, after a small cluster of 17 delta Covid cases were discovered among airport cleaning staff this Wednesday. (As of Saturday 24 July, a total of 65 cases have been confirmed after a first attempt at city-wide testing, with the round two and three to follow shortly).
The picture looks almost surreal. For weeks, I have been poring over every online resource (or more likely rumour) to figure out how I can make my way home back to Nanjing. The prospect of a life without restrictions is alluring. But I eventually gave up. The obstacles of no direct flight, coupled with costly triple tests (PCR + Antibody IgM + Nucleocapsid Protein) and a four-week quarantine regime, two in hotel followed by another two at home, prove to be insurmountable. Now, all of sudden, ironically, I find myself enjoying more freedom here in London.
My unexpected twist of fortune highlight a world increasingly fractured by the diverging response to the pandemic in different countries, both at the beginning and now at exit.
Britain’s journey is an epitome of the world’s vast majority. Unable to enforce an immediate strict lockdown last March, the country failed to nip the virus in the bud. So it has no choice but to find ways to live with it. Its decision to lift all restrictions, despite spike in Covid cases, gambles on the efficacy of the vaccine to break the link between catching the virus and the need for hospitalisation, as well as on the assumption of long Covid being an immaterial concern. The jury is still out, on what many consider a reckless public health experiment. But its guiding principle of striving to co-exist with Covid is widely shared by governments worldwide.
China, on the other hand, shows no signs of giving up its relentless pursue of zero Covid. As in the case of Nanjing, China mobilises vast resources and imposes harsh measures to stifle every single small local outbreak. Up until now, the strategy has been very effective and enjoys strong public backing. But the bad news is that Covid is here to stay, unless China decide to keep the border shut and remain isolated from the rest of the world forever.
The real challenge, though, is that when it comes to China Covid exit strategy, the country is a victim of its own success. The country’s early astounding achievement in battling the pandemic, in a stark contrast to debacles in most parts of the world, has elevated national pride and patriotism. To many Chinese, a zero tolerance towards Covid stands for superior governance. As such, the concept of avoiding Covid at all cost has morphed into a politically correct unspoken rule over time.
To top it off, those who inadvertently caught the virus and then spread to others are often shunned and have stigma associated with them. Some are still grappling with fear from the painful memory of Wuhan (武汉), while others remain sceptical about the safety of the vaccines, believing the risks outweighing benefits in an almost Covid-free society (Authorities confirmed that it has achieved its goal of vaccinating 40% of the population by end of May.)
As for the bureaucrats, they have every incentive to quash any tiny outbreak with an iron fist. After all, it is their livelihood on the line. As soon as the news about the Nanjing outbreak emerged, the heads of officials managing the Nanjing Lukou Airport (南京禄口机场), where the initial cases were identified, were already rolling.
Politically, it sounds like a mission impossible to orchestrate an U-turn in the public opinion. Unless the sentiment is already turning.
“My Sukang code (苏康码) just turned from green to amber. I’ve no ideas why!” My 67 year old mother lamented during our weekend catch-up, referring to the local version of Covid passport which classifies one’s risk profile.
Apparently she was not alone. Many of Nanjing’s 9.3 millions residents were delivered the same surprise. My pensioner mother was less bothered, because she could finally offload chores like grocery shopping to my father. But most were not amused, as an amber health code entails many restrictions, from activities like eating out, shopping and socialising to using public transport or going to work. To get the code turned green again, one needs to jump through the hoop of undergoing three Covid tests within a week while self-isolating.
Flipping through my endless WeChat (微信) discussions this week, I sense notably much less panic about the virus itself but more concerns and annoyance about how to logistically navigate the lockdown rules imposed as a result of it. It is not hard to imagine that should this ever happen again, people would start asking the inevitable question: is this all worth it?
Interestingly, some countries, such as Singapore, which used to be in China’s camp of trying to eliminate Covid, are changing tack under mounting economic pressure, backed by a strong vaccination push.
Singapore’s leaders recently concluded that Covid will not be eradicated, as increasingly transmissible new variants continue to emerge. The country’s ministers outlined this bold shift and the rationale behind it in the Straits Times, which I would highly recommend everyone for a read:
“The bad news is that COVID-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst. This means Covid-19 will very likely become endemic.”
In this manifesto, they cited data from Israel, where they believe a high vaccination rate of 60% “has brought the clinical outcomes of Covid-19 close to that of seasonal influenza in the US.” On this basis, they presented a promising new norm to Singaporean people, in my view a sensible half-way approach straddling laissez-faire Britain and draconian China. This includes moving away from monitoring daily cases to focus on serious illness and hospitalisation, letting go of aggressive contact tracing and quarantine, as well as proceeding to progressive easing to events and travels based on immunisation milestones, with the help of Covid certificate and more frequent high-speed testing.
“We can’t eradicate it, but we can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, or chickenpox, and get on with our lives.”
As thoughtful and pragmatic as Singapore always is, perhaps this time it can lead the way out of the pandemic for the world and offer insight for China’s own Covid exit strategy.
China, in its long history, has seen many cycles of opening up and turning inward. My hometown Nanjing, being the capital city of China before Beijing and for several of its important dynasties, was at the forefront of some of these critical junctures. I hope, after this recent episode, the day of reckoning is coming for the nation to re-embrace the path of pragmatism, openness and integration, as this is the only way forward to combat growing mistrust and hostility to my beloved homeland.