China's 'zero-tolerance' Covid-19 policy put to the test again

BEIJING – In a country still pursuing a zero tolerance policy on Covid-19, even the “happiest place of earth” is not spared.

A video clip widely circulated from Sunday (Oct 31) showed dozens of medical workers dressed in white hazmat suits administering Covid-19 tests to visitors at Shanghai’s Disneyland even as the theme park’s nightly display of fireworks lit up the sky above the Enchanted Storybook Castle.

The surreal scene was captured just after the park was put under lockdown following the revelation that a woman who visited the day before had tested positive after returning home in a neighbouring province.

More than half of China or 16 of its 31 provinces and regions have reported Covid-19 cases and the country is scrambling to contain the outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta strain as it gears up to host the Winter Olympics in just under three months.

The government is determined to continue with its efforts to stamp out the virus, keeping borders firmly shut even as other countries begin cautiously reopening.

But, with tourist attractions appearing to be the common thread in the infection chain, the current spike seems to be the greatest test yet in efforts to balance economic recovery with containment of the virus.

The health authorities are pursuing the tried and tested playbook of allowing economic activity to continue while ordering targeted lockdowns in areas with large clusters, and sending close contacts of positive cases into quarantine.

The number of infections slowed to dozens of cases reported daily – low compared with others including Singapore – but a recent outbreak linked to domestic holidaymakers threw a spanner in the works.

The health authorities on Monday reported 92 new infections, the most since mid-September, of which 59 were locally transmitted cases. This brought the total number of active Covid-19 cases in the country to 869.

But, in an interview, top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said the situation was likely to come under control within a month.

That would be welcome news to those like the employee at a state-owned enterprise (SOE) who told The Straits Times that she has not gone home to see her family in Shaanxi province in nearly two years.

In a bid to reduce movement and potential virus spread, some SOEs and government departments are requiring their staff to apply for special permission before leaving Beijing.

“My parents managed to come and visit me in Beijing earlier this year, which was nice, but I haven’t left the city since the Spring Festival of 2020 (when the pandemic first started) and it’s getting tiring,” said Ms Sophie Qi, 27, who requested her English name be used for fear of repercussions at work.

Many though continue to advocate for the tough policies.

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“Some people have complained about the impact of pandemic prevention on their lives,” the editor of nationalistic tabloid Global Times Hu Xijin wrote in a social media post. “But if a large number of people are infected and many of them die, the public will have more complaints.”

In interviews last month, Dr Zhong and the head of China’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control George Gao said China needed to start preparing to live with the virus – a previously unpopular stance – because people would soon tire of onerous control measures. The response to Covid-19 would need to switch to something more practical and sustainable, they added.

But the two doctors also added a caveat: This would depend on at least 80 per cent to 85 per cent of the country being fully vaccinated. As of Sunday, 2.274 billion doses of locally produced vaccines had been administered, with many parts of the country already rolling out booster shots.

In Shanghai, meanwhile, Disneyland said it would remain closed at least until Tuesday for deep cleaning and disinfection, and all park visitors had to take a Covid-19 test before being allowed to leave.


People preparing to undergo nucleic acid tests for the coronavirus at Shanghai Disneyland on Oct 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

As at Monday, nearly 34,000 samples had been collected at the theme park, all of which were negative, the Shanghai authorities said.

In a social media post after midnight on Monday, Shanghai doctor Zhang Wenhong, a straight-talking personality, commended the city’s response at the theme park.

“Normalising the virus, and refining our targeted approach. Now all visitors can go to bed in peace,” he wrote in a rare post on Weibo.

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