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By MUXI LI — China’s zero-COVID policy and the relatively few cases in the country in recent months have been a source of pride for many Chinese. However, at the same time people are cheering for the government protecting them from COVID-19, there are unimaginable humanitarian crises around the country related to the pandemic that should be addressed with care. It is inhumane and morally wrong to sacrifice lives for the greater good in this case.

The cruel application of the zero-COVID policy started with household pets in 2021. Health workers wearing white protective suits broke into houses to beat to death pets whose owners were forcibly taken to hotels for quarantine. The homeowners were not informed of these actions and could do nothing except watch on home surveillance cameras as health workers intruded illegally into their homes and killed their beloved pets. These tragedies occurred because of the belief that people could transmit the coronavirus to animals and vice-versa.

In China, the government uses a color-coding system to contact-trace everyone through their smartphones. People can only be outdoors if their code is green (yellow meaning medium-risk and red meaning high risk); whoever was suspected from the data of being a close contact would be put into immediate, mandatory quarantine. 

The color-coding system had several issues, some of which I personally encountered while I was in China. First is that not everyone owns a cellphone, especially elderly people, who are forced to purchase smartphones and learn how to use the app correctly for the codes. I have witnessed many old people being rejected by bus drivers for not knowing how to get the right code onto their phones.

The second issue is that big data is not always correct, and the system is unstable. People can get a yellow code and be traced as a close contact by simply walking past an area that had a person who was diagnosed positive for COVID. There is a joke among my Chinese friends that one would get COVID by inhaling the air within three miles of a positive case.

Moreover, it happened more than once that the color-coding system broke down in the morning of a workday, prohibiting citizens from riding public transportation. Huge crowds were forced to wait for the system to resume to go to work.

Third, the color code is the only proof for someone to be healthy. As a result, people who do not have a green code face extremely difficult time. In fact, there have been deaths because of the inflexibility of the color-coding system.

In January in Xi’an, a city in northwestern China, a man reportedly suffered from chest pain, and he was sure that if he could not get treatment in time, he would die. However, he was rejected by all hospitals because he lived in a neighborhood that was considered as medium-risk for COVID-19 and he did not have a green code. By the time his family finally found a hospital willing to take him in, he had died.

Also in Xi’an, media reported an eight-month pregnant woman lost her baby because a hospital refused to admit her as her COVID-19 test result was outdated by only four hours.

It is ironic that hospitals, the only place where people can seek help when they are sick, are not willing to help because patients are suspected of being unhealthy. People’s lives depend on the green code that they can lose anytime. Many comments on the internet suggest that this is the sacrifice of individuals for the collective goal of zero-COVID policy. China’s tolerance for risk is zero.

I am aghast at the indifference of civilians and the dogmatism of local authorities. The government and the media should acknowledge lack of humanity in these cases instead of covering them up through censorship. Essentially, cruel comments and the general fear over the virus was generated by the government when it asked people to obey the lockdown order. People are deeply concerned about COVID-19 so they agree with the government that zero-COVID is necessary and that everyone should work toward the goal at any cost.

The government must urgently develop alternatives for the color-coding system and there must be strict rules to avoid the tragedy of hospital rejections. The Chinese government must also carefully review whether zero-COVID is in fact necessary since lockdowns seem to be too costly socially and economically compared to the rest of the world. We must be prepared eventually to coexist with the virus.

(Written by Muxi Li; March 27, 2022)

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