Coverage of China’s Covid-Zero Strategy and Manufacturing Consent

By Daniel Tarade

As neoliberal governments faced yet another wave of Covid-19 in December 2021, this time fueled by the even-more contagious Omicron variant, politicians and corporate-owned media began laying the ideological groundwork for the scrapping of all public health protections. Despite workers and oppressed people continuing to get sick, developing chronic illnesses, and dying, and the ongoing uncertainty about new variants emerging, the resumption of maximum production and consumption again stands as the only priority. As the exploited classes are primed to acquiesce to an erosion of our right to a safe workplace, media and politicians work overtime to discredit any alternative pandemic response. In this quest, the biggest obstacle remains China’s successful and dynamic Covid-zero strategy.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, most likely emerged in China, where coronaviruses circulate in wild bats. Although China briefly tried to suppress coverage of the initial outbreak of a new pneumonia in Wuhan, one that struck some doctors as reminiscent of SARS, a centralized response soon followed. Scientists shared genomic information about the novel virus, workers built new hospitals in a matter of days, and the city of Wuhan was placed in a strict lockdown aimed at driving Covid-19 cases down to zero.

China succeeded.

The nature of the Chinese state remains a contentious debate in Western circles, even among socialists. A retrospective on the divergent pandemic response of China’s state bureaucracy and Western capitalist governments reveals that, at minimum, state ownership over industry and business in China allows for a longer-term vision rather than the prioritization of short-term profit born out of unregulated competition between corporations in neoliberal societies. While other countries failed to heed the warning of the initial eruption of Covid-19 in mainland China and delayed imposing any of their public health protections, life in China returned largely to normal. By April 8, the seventy-six-day lockdown in Wuhan came to an end just as waves began to swell in Europe, the US, and Canada.

Through a combination of contact tracing, mass testing, physical distancing, mandatory quarantines for international travel, and targeted lockdowns to snuff out outbreaks before they spread, fewer than 30,000 people in China caught Covid-19 since officials lifted the Wuhan lockdown. Despite a population 50x bigger than Canada, 90% fewer people died of Covid-19 in China.

While skeptics of public health protections dismiss the relative success of countries like New Zealand and Singapore because they are small island nations, it’s hard to imagine any country facing a bigger pandemic challenge than China. Having the largest population, fourth greatest land mass, greatest number of land borders, many densely-populated cities, and being the original epicenter should have been an insurmountable challenge given the failures of wealthier nations like the United States.

Beijing’s continued success in containing Covid-19 presents a problem. The bosses in neoliberal countries seek to manufacture consent for full resumption of economic activities. Because Covid-19 keeps spreading exponentially every time public health protections are eased, workers are told that it is inevitable that Covid-19 becomes endemic, a seasonal scourge that will worsen yearly spikes in hospitalization due to influenza.

During the early days of the pandemic, the media vilified China and stoked Sinophobia. As they lifted lockdowns, and people resumed all aspects of daily life, Western media maintained that Beijing can’t be trusted. Then the media ignored China as Covid-19 killed millions and millions of people around the world.

Until December 23, 2021.

For the first time since April 2020, Chinese officials placed an entire city under lockdown. Media outlets from across the globe shouted similar headlines, “China locks down 13 million people in Xi’an after detecting 127 Covid cases.” Most media made clear for unfamiliar audiences that 13 million people lived in Xi’an, bigger than any city in Canada, and in doing so, stoked fears of an authoritarian crackdown on individual liberties.

In the following weeks, news media amplified other moves by China to prevent the uncontrolled spread of Covid-19.

Chinese port city reports 41 virus cases, amid mass testing,” reads a CP24 headline from Jan. 10, 2022. 

Global News announced on Jan. 30 that “Beijing locks down more residential communities after COVID-19 cases found.”

And most recently, The Washington Post, frothing at the mouth, declared “In Hong Kong, China’s ‘covid zero’ strategy is falling apart.”

The capitalist politicians that sacrificed millions of people so that profit accumulation could continue unfettered reveled in the opportunity to prove Covid-zero as impossible. But when the lockdown and other public health protections quickly contained spread of the delta variant in Xi’an, apologists instead tried to argue that the “cure is worse than the disease.” It isn’t lost on socialists that this argument rhymes with the reactionary demands of the anti-mandate convoy mobilizing in Canada and elsewhere.

Some media tried to argue that China’s policy of Covid-zero hurts their economy and the global supply chain. The former point is a blatant lie. As noted in The Independent, “the world’s most populous nation was the only major economy to grow in 2020, and it accounted for a fraction of global deaths and infections.” And according to a Feb. 2022 report from Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., China’s dynamic approach to Covid-zero only reduced the national GDP by 2.6%. The latter point stresses not a stalled national economy, but an international crisis due to lockdowns impacting Chinese manufacturing and resultant supply chains. For example, CNN Business highlighted that the lockdown impacted the ability of Samsung and Micron to make computer chips in their Xi’an factory and warned that “any slowdown in output from the city risks worsening the global chip shortage, an ongoing crisis that has limited the supply of everything from iPhones to new cars.” But China’s Covid-zero policy is not the greatest disruptor of the global supply chain. Shipping container turnaround remains faster in China than in many other countries, and some economists warn of a greater disruption of the global economy if China abandons Covid-zero and lets Covid-19 spread uncontrollably.

If China’s economy is outperforming Western capitalist governments and if China’s pandemic response saved millions of people from premature death (hmmm, wonder if there is a connection), then what recourse does corporate media have in arguing for a “return to normal?” An appeal to individual liberty as the most important principle that ought to never be violated.

A central tenant of capitalism is the primacy of individual choice, whether as a boss or worker or consumer. Of course, for the exploited classes, individual choice is an illusion. Many workers in Canada today cannot afford to take an unpaid sick day during the pandemic, let alone afford a home. The structure of capitalist society requires the majority of people, as workers, to sell their labour and the majority of their life to bosses who only care to squeeze out as much profit as possible.  What little freedoms exist in liberal democracies, as compared with the possible but unrealized gains of a worker’s government, need to be upheld by the elites as so exceedingly precious that no one ought to want to give them up for any reason. So to justify the millions of infections and deaths and untold number of chronic illness (i.e. long Covid) and stressful work conditions, the media paints a horrifying picture of life under lockdown in China.

Xi’an lockdown brings heartbreak and dysfunction as political pressure to contain outbreak grows,” says CNN.

Beijing Olympics’ COVID measures worked, but at a massive cost,” says Yahoo.

The End Game of China’s zero-covid Policy Nightmare,” says Wired.

With no concrete facts to back up their assertion that strict and swift lockdowns are worse than the laissez-faire policies of capitalist governments, journalists parroted a small number of anecdotes, often unconfirmed, circulating on Chinese social media. In one story, a pregnant woman facing complications was delayed from entering a hospital for two hours because she could not provide a negative covid test. Ultimately, she miscarried. Another similar story features a man denied entry to a hospital for several hours due to being from a higher risk neighborhood and who later died despite emergency surgery. Other unconfirmed social media posts speak of delays in receiving food and supplies from the city as people could not leave their homes to shop.

While Western media cried about the “harrowing tales of loss and despair… highlighting the immense human cost of China’s zero-Covid policy,” the biggest city in Canada, Toronto, suffered code black after code black, which meant one or fewer ambulances available at a time. Due to chronic underfunding for healthcare services, record levels of healthcare workers isolating due to Covid-19, and surging demand due to the exponential community spread, “a call that was “deemed to be life threatening” came in and there were no units available to attend,” said Mike Merriman, the paramedic unit chair for CUPE Local 416.

I don’t mean to suggest that the situation is equally bad in Toronto and Xi’an. It’s worse here.

While we know of two deaths in Xi’an due to public health protections preventing speedy access to care, Merriman says it is frequent that no ambulance is available for dispatch in the Greater Toronto Area. In Ontario, the Ford government cancelled tens of thousands of “non-urgent” surgeries, including cancer surgeries, to clear up more beds for the deluge of critically-ill Covid-19 patients. Hundreds of thousands of surgeries were delayed or cancelled during the first three waves of Covid-19 in Canada, which resulted in numerous preventable deaths

While daily infections in Xi’an peaked during this outbreak at less than 200, the province of Ontario, whose 15 million residents only slightly surpasses the population of Xi’an, reached over 10,000 daily cases and over 1000 deaths in January 2022.  

While Canadian workers continued to risk infection, disability, and death during all but the first Covid-19 wave, the first sign of outbreak in Xi’an led to the shuttering of all non-essential production and the delivery of food and supplies to people sheltering at home.

While hospital officials in Xi’an received punishment for delaying treatment for the pregnant woman who miscarried (it’s unclear whether they were punished for not properly following protocol or scapegoated due to public outcry over properly implementing protocol), there is no justice in Canada as the Ontario government bailed out for-profit long-term care providers, even those where half the residents died of Covid-19, and extended their licenses.

And while Canadians remain in a pandemic situation, the lockdown in Xi’an began relaxing on Jan. 16 and officials reported zero new daily cases on Jan. 21 as the first commercial flights departed the city.

In the second worst outbreak in China since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, nobody died due to Covid-19. The success of Covid-zero in Xi’an and later in Tianjin, Yuzhou, and Beijing, Olympics and all, received a dusting of coverage compared with the mounds of editorials and features written when it seemed that Covid-zero might finally fail.

The latest, and perhaps last, hope of Western media is the fall of Hong Kong to explosive Covid-19 spread, which in turn poses a threat to Covid-zero on the mainland. In the final days of February, Hong Kong set new records with nearly 10, 000 new cases in a day. Some Hong Kong politicians are drawing a lesson from Xi’an and other successful lockdowns. Lawmaker Michael Tien advocates that “all non-essential businesses would be shuttered [for nine days] and residents tested three times over the lockdown period”.

But as it is increasingly clear that there exists an alternative to “let it rip” pandemic management, Western politicians and journalists, clearly not familiar with front-line working conditions here in Canada, openly suggest that it just isn’t worth it to try and fight Covid-19 anymore.

Writing about the bubble implemented during the recent Beijing Olympics, Jay Busbee complained that “China’s closed-loop system, designed to keep tens of thousands of athletes, officials, journalists and volunteers preserved in a COVID-free bubble… worked. It’s joyless, it’s agonizing, it’s numbing … but it’s worked.”

Jessie Lau cautioned that “not everyone agrees a large-scale outbreak would be as disastrous as [China’ makes it out to be.”

The Associated Press Newswire opines that “most experts say the coronavirus around the world isn’t going away and believe it could eventually become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat if enough people gain immunity through infections and vaccines.”

The bosses’ prescription “herd immunity” never left. At all times, the capitalists fought for the right to force workers back to work despite their refusal to make that work safe. But during the earlier days of the pandemic, people organized and fought back against unsafe work. But the months and years have worn on, and the most vulnerable and exploited people in society, largely abandoned by social democrat and organized labour institutions, burnt out and yet, never gave up.

People still fight for guaranteed paid sick days.

People still fight for justice in long-term care.

People still fight for public health that prioritizes workers not profit.

Despite the echo for a “return to normal” that is not possible while the natural disaster that is the pandemic continues to infect ever more people, the opportunity exists for workers and oppressed people to seize the lesson taught by China — that Covid-zero is possible through a collective and tiered response.