ON OCTOBER 18, Haimen, a district of the Chinese coastal city of Nantong, confirmed 3 new Covid cases. By 9 p.m. that day, as reported by the local People’s Daily, the district was divided into three areas based on risk level—high, medium, and low—each with attendant restrictions. High-risk areas included the streets and places visited by the three Covid-positive offenders in the four days prior; residents living in those areas must remain at home until further notice. Medium-risk areas consisted of the neighborhoods bordering the high-risk area; residents there could send one representative per household to shop for food at designated markets at specified times, and they needed to be tested five times for Covid over the next seven days. Low-risk areas were the rest of the district; residents could go about their day, but could not cross into the medium and high risk areas. It went without saying that everyone would be tested again in three days’ time. At the last official count, in 2021, Haimen district had a population of about 982,700 people.
The city I live in, San Francisco, has a population of 815,201 people. So far in October, I have received two notices about positive Covid cases—one from my kid’s elementary school and another from the extracurricular dance program. Since the return to in-person learning, we receive such notices on a regular basis. No actions needed, just a friendly note of caution. We’re all vaccinated and boosted, wear masks when indoors, and have become resigned to the idea that life in 2022 comes with a side of Covid risk. I made a mental note to wash our high-filtration, reusable masks, then I moved on with my day.
It has been nearly three years since the initial identification of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19. The U.S. is now entrenched in the revisionist phase of pandemic response, with President Biden declaring the pandemic “over” and major newspapers and magazines piling on about the harm done to young learners by school closures. The Federal Reserve voices its frustrations about the tight labor market, yet stays mum on the labor-force impact of 1.06 million deaths and 97 million infections. All the while, America notches another 40,000 new infections and 300 new deaths, every day.
China, on the other hand, has frozen its Covid death count at 5,226, while daily new cases oscillate between highs of 700 and lows of 120. (It must be noted that this number, provided by China’s CDC, does not include data from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, unlike the WHO figures. I’m using China’s CDC’s numbers because these three regions have different Covid controls from Mainland China. And the Taiwan-China relationship as played out in international organizations would deserve its own discussion.)
At the core of its so-called “zero Covid” policy, responsible for the low rate of transmission, is the tried and true infectious disease control scheme of regular testing followed by mandatory quarantines. Beyond that, however, zero Covid also encompasses a vast system of data collection, militant policing, censorship, surveillance, extra-judicial arrests, and just plain inconveniences. Entry to grocery stores, restaurants, workplaces, schools, hospitals—any and all public spaces—requires a smartphone-enabled health code that proves one’s Covid-free status. It’s a badge that needs to be earned and re-earned every few days. The elderly and poor are effectively shut out of civic life altogether.
In both countries, responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have evolved into an ideological proving ground: personal liberty and the unregulated market versus collectivized responsibilities and a controlled economy. Americans point to the Chinese people’s circumscribed lives and the country’s flagging GDP as proof that the cost of maintaining public health is too high, so the virus must be allowed to run free. Chinese leadership holds up the numbers of dead Americans to emphasize the superiority of its technologically enhanced dragnet of disease control, mental health and livelihoods be damned. The failures of one country’s approach only serve to reinforce the other’s resolve to remain steadfast on its own failing path.
The consequences of such policy-making by way of whatever the other old guy is doing, for individuals and for the world at large, are dire. Taking aim at federal and state government’s disorganized responses to Covid, exemplified by the CDC’s waffling stances on masking, a proudly fascist, anti-government faction has made a home for itself in mainstream American politics. In China, meanwhile, freedom of movement is a thing of the past. Gone are the days of grudging tolerance for mild-mannered civil society and a life lived as part of a globe-trotting, consumerist middle class. In its stead is a return to the Communist slogans of the ’50s and ’60s, with a strong emphasis on making personal sacrifices for the collective good.
From October 16 to October 22, the Chinese Communist Party convened its 20th congress. The goal, ostensibly, was to choose a new leader. But everyone knew that it was a pageant to cement for Xi Jinping an unprecedented third five-year term as President and Party Secretary. For those six days, China, a country with a population of about 1.45 billion people, reported a daily average of 264 new Covid cases, and no new deaths. Like the predictable blue sky days that preceded major events in otherwise polluted Beijing back in the 2000s, zero Covid is the new barometer by which the CCP leadership measures the strength of its power.
The day the Party Congress began, my 96-year-old grandmother sent out an SOS to our extended family. Her city had just confirmed one new Covid case and was going into a total lockdown. Her food supply was low—could someone bring her more groceries?