China's pursuit of zero-Covid like living in a boring version of Squid Game

The rounds of mass testing and quarantines are here to stay for this year at least, as Asia Editor Debi Edward reports

It’s starting to feel like a benign, boring version of Squid Game we are all being forced to play in Beijing.

Every day we line up to be Covid tested at a government registered facility eyeing those around us as potential foes who could land us in quarantine. The rules are simple, you test negative you get to keep on living your normal (restricted) life, you test positive you get carted off to quarantine.

But the real plot twist is not knowing when, where or who, might cause you to be swept up in the colossal close-contacts net. That will also condemn you to quarantine, at home if you are lucky.

It’s not a fun game.

Residents in Beijing queue for Covid testing as the government continues to pursue zero Covid

This week the government ordered another round of mandatory testing following a new outbreak traced to one man who went on a pub crawl in the city centre.

On June 6, the restaurants and bars reopened, and he went out to celebrate, in style visiting dozens of bars and eateries in the space of two days. So far he’s been linked to more than 200 infections, and more than 7,000 people have been pinged as close contacts. There’s no let-up in this land of zero-Covid and we live in a perpetual state of anxiety, not fearing the virus but what happens if you test positive, or your home suddenly gets locked down.

In recent weeks entire housing compounds, hundreds of people, have been given just minutes notice to pack a bag before they were marched onto buses and taken to remote quarantine facilities after a case, or suspected case was found in their vicinity.

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Thousands of people have found themselves isolating at hotels and accommodation blocks built for the recent Winter Olympics. For most Beijinger’s it would be the closest they’ve come to being part of those Games which were conducted under a closed-loop system. For the UK, and most other countries, vaccinations were seen as a way out of the pandemic, but China is sticking to its strategy of testing.

The aim is to catch a case before it becomes a cluster, preventing any major spread and the need for full Shanghai-scale lockdowns. And for the past two years it’s mostly worked to contain the virus and keep deaths down.

The problem is that the more transmissible Omicron and its various variants are proving harder to catch and control once in the country.

China's mass testing scheme will lead to a summer of discontent. Credit: ITV News

But while the government has been focusing on testing above vaccinations, it has created an immunity gap between China and the rest of the world.

I haven’t had the virus, and none of my friends or work colleagues have had it either. Our lack of exposure to Covid and the millions of mostly elderly who are not fully vaccinated, means we lack the same protection generated in places, like the UK, where people now have a natural resistance. Or at least can fight the virus off without medical intervention. Last week, government officials in Dandong, a town bordering North Korea warned people the wind might be blowing Covid-19 into the country.

An illustration of the level of paranoia zero-Covid has cultivated. There is no scientific evidence to support the virus can be carried in the air for long distances. It looks like we are in for a Chinese summer of discontent. The public is growing weary of this relentless regime of testing, but the government won’t back down on its pursuit of zero.