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The Xylom Illustration

Perspective: China’s Zero-COVID Policy Is Destructive But Reopening Without A Plan Is Even Worse


 

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When I lost a parent in the waning days of 2021, the first thought that came to my mind, like most, was to book the next flight home.


That was unless your parents live in Hong Kong, China.


Flights to the Hong Kong International Airport, which ranked eighth globally in passenger traffic as recently as 2018, got slashed to roughly a third of pre-COVID levels and have barely budged since. For comparison, at around 500 flights a day, Indianapolis International Airport, the nearest commercial airport to the Indiana University School of Medicine, where I currently study, has handled more flights for the second straight year.



Making matters worse, at the time, travelers were required to undergo a self-funded three-week hotel quarantine. Travelers weren’t allowed to board a flight unless proof of a designated hotel booking was presented. While the concept of requiring everyone including citizens to pay for quarantine lodging out of pocket is legally dubious, there was a surprising shortage of quarantine hotel rooms. Compounding the issue was a “circuit breaker mechanism” which would automatically cancel flights landing with either five passengers or 5% of arrivals testing positive for COVID-19-whichever was greater.


There was no way anyone could get a flight and a hotel booking at the very last minute.


After eventually landing in Hong Kong, I ended up constrained to a 200-square-foot hotel room by myself, where I attended my dad's memorial on Zoom while being forbidden to have any face-to-face interaction or leave my room.


I desperately wished I could be there to hug my family but the policy in Hong Kong was so stringent that I could only sit and cry in front of the computer screen, alone in an unfamiliar and desolate room. I can never forget how my neighbor screamed crazily in his room in the middle of the night or his incessant punching of the wall during those 21 days.


 

My experience may be unfathomable to my American peers, but such was the day-to-day life for Chinese citizens for the three years since the first recorded case of COVID-19. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel: A year after the emergence of the more contagious and less severe Omicron variant, China has finally signaled its willingness to ease its pandemic measures. These include relaxing its mandates on mass PCR testing (until this month, citizens had to get tested as often as every other day, or else they would not be allowed to use public transport or even enter stores), ending travel tracking, and permitting those with mild symptoms to quarantine at home.


After eventually landing in Hong Kong, I ended up constrained to a 200-square-foot hotel room by myself, where I attended my dad's memorial on Zoom while being forbidden to have any face-to-face interaction or leave my room.

This is a 180-degree policy turn compared to just a few weeks ago, when a commentary in People’s Daily, the largest newspaper in China and a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, reiterated the regime’s zero-COVID commitment that “Dynamic zero is the anti-epidemic strategy with the lowest overall social cost and is the best option for the timely control of epidemics.” It is likely that the changes were in response to unprecedented protests triggered by a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur region. Chinese citizens and members of the Chinese diaspora, angered that COVID restrictions may have prevented residents from leaving their burning residential compound and hampered rescue efforts, held up blank pieces of paper and chanted “We want freedom!”


The Chinese people have got what they wanted, after bearing the brunt of the ridiculously high social and economic cost of zero-COVID, just like what I had gone through that winter. However, without any science-backed guidance or attempt at transparency, this transition might turn into more chaos with a tsunami wave of COVID infections overwhelming hospitals. At this critical juncture when the Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese governments are “