Escaping zero-Covid China as lockdowns expand amid record-high Covid cases

Workers in protective suits pictured on Thursday in locked down neighborhood in Beijing. Credit: AP

Lockdowns are expanding across China as the number of Covid cases hit a daily record.

The number of new cases rose by 31,444 on Thursday - the highest daily figure since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

As lockdowns grip the country, ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward shares what it was like to leave Beijing.

I remember booking this trip for the end of November and thinking, maybe China’s borders would be open by the time it came around.

The last time I left the country was in September last year and it was a logistical nightmare. Scotland still had 10 days isolation for anyone arriving from China, and China required seven days of pre-flight isolation, so I basically spent the entire time in a pseudo quarantine.

And it required three rounds of tests, two in Scotland, and one during my transit in Amsterdam to get the green health codes I needed to get on my flight to Shanghai - where I had to spend three weeks, two in a quarantine hotel, before being allowed to return to Beijing.

This time around I hoped it would look very different. It’s the kind of wishful thinking I’ve tried to maintain for almost three years now, but instead leaving Beijing this week involved escaping my apartment before it got locked down.

Those living in Beijing will be familiar with conversations about Covid that mention a significant event in the Chinese calendar – Spring festival, the Two Sessions, the October Golden Week – and that perhaps, just maybe, after that event has passed, the government might start to relax the restrictions that have kept the country basically sealed off since March 2020.

And which for much of this year have kept me confined to Beijing.

But far from being open, China is facing its biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

Beijing is in an undeclared lockdown and cases are rising across the country.

I’ve lost count of how many Covid tests I’ve now done.

A worker in protective suit sprays disinfectant as residents stand in line for their routine Covid tests at a testing site in Beijing Credit: AP

Before most places were locked down, we had to present a negative Covid test taken within the last 24 hours to enter public buildings.

For those working in the services industry that’s been the case for much longer, leading to queues snaking along the streets from Covid test booths across the city.

I’d regularly cycle past lines with chefs standing in their whites and delivery drivers anxiously checking their phones worried they will miss their target.

On average it takes me 10 minutes to queue and get tested but recently, as the rules have tightened, I’ve stood in line for 40 minutes.

It’s a good time to listen to the podcasts I sometimes don’t get round to.

Either that, or you’d drive yourself insane questioning the merits of the whole ridiculous system.

We all got hopeful after the Party Congress last month, when a 20-point plan was produced indicating there was some sort of exit plan from China’s zero Covid policy.

However, from that moment on, the situation has spiralled out of control.

It seems the authorities tried to take a more relaxed approach but failed to recognise how ill-prepared the public is, for anything less than the super-sanitised society they have created.

The government has tried to push up vaccine rates, particularly among the elderly, but when case numbers have been so low, for so long, many didn’t feel the need to take a vaccine they fear could make them sick.

There’s also a general lack of immunity from most of us never having been exposed to the virus.

All my friends, and most of my family in the UK have had the virus. I don’t know anyone in Beijing who has caught Covid-19 in China.

So the combination of vaccine hesitancy, a lack of herd immunity and strains of the virus that are more infectious, has proved a recipe for disaster.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Credit: OIS/IOC/Bob Martin/PA

In many ways the government set itself on path to chaos by calling the policy "zero Covid" in the first place.

They have added the word dynamic into the title, but now more than ever it appears a futile endeavour.

The Foxconn factory protest on Tuesday showed people are in open revolt against the extreme measures being imposed on people and the impact that is having on everyone’s livelihoods.

Those working on the iPhone production line at Foxconn smashed up Covid test booths, broke down the makeshift barriers erected around where they live and work and faced off riot police dressed in hazmat suits.

More and more have come to recognise that China is the only country, apart from perhaps North Korea, that is stuck in round after round of crippling Covid lockdowns.

During the summer more deaths were attributed to Covid restrictions than the virus itself.

We’ve covered several tragic cases where babies, pregnant women and the elderly have failed to get the medical treatment they required because they either weren’t allowed out of a lockdown or had to wait to be tested for Covid before being let into a hospital.

News of those cases gets quickly censored on Chinese social media but there have been so many of them that they have spread further than the authorities would like.

It was heart-breaking to watch a young mother appealing for justice after her 4-month-old baby died from sickness and diarrhoea.

She believes the delay in getting her daughter to a hospital and the lack of care given caused her death. Her calls for justice will likely go unanswered.

Residents line up for Covid tests in Beijing on Thursday Credit: AP

It is hard to say where this all ends for China.

This has been the worst year so far, and my time in Beijing for 2022 ended with me fleeing to the airport after being warned my apartment building was about to go into lockdown.

There have been cases of people missing flights because they were not allowed out of a lockdown, even if they were virus-free.

When I stepped out of the door, our lifts had already been switched off and there was tape across the front door.

These lockdowns are imposed quickly and before you know it you can be shut in your home with teams in PPE dispatched to enforce the quarantine and conduct mass testing.

Luckily my building manager knew I was leaving and phoned to warn us so my husband was allowed to drive me to the airport before returning to a sealed-off building.

There wasn’t a positive case, someone had just been in a batch that tested positive so needed to be re- tested.

After 24 hours the building re-opened. Sometimes the rules seem as stupid as they are strict.

I’m going to enjoy not having to get tested every day and worry about getting sent to one of the many dismal quarantine centres that have been built for Covid cases.

Even those without symptoms, and that is by far the majority at the moment, will get sent to either an isolation hotel or a purpose-built facility where you must stay for at least a week and test negative three times in a row.

There will be quarantine when I return to Beijing - eight days is the current requirement.

The only way I see of that changing any time soon depends on how quickly they can get this current outbreak under control.

With winter fast approaching, and three years on from when the first case of Covid-19 was detected, China is again mired in a public health emergency.

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