China doubles down on COVID-zero strategy

An expansive compound of buildings covering the equivalent of 46 football pitches was recently erected on the outskirts of Guangzhou, China’s bustling southern metropolis.

The sprawling complex of three-storey buildings contains some 5,000 rooms and is the first of what is expected to be a chain of quarantine centres built by the Chinese government to house people arriving from overseas as it forges ahead with its zero-tolerance approach to COVID.

The compound is equipped with “5G communication technology and artificial intelligence” infrastructure, and each room, which can host only one person at a time, has cameras at its door and a robot delivery system to “minimise human contact and the risk of cross-infection”, according to the introduction to the centre put out by the Guangzhou government.

It took the construction team less than three months to finish the project – in an echo of the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan temporary hospitals that were built in record time in the central city of Wuhan as COVID-19 took hold in early 2020.

But while those hospitals were greeted with relief, the appearance of the quarantine centre nearly two years after the trauma of Wuhan has left some wondering why China is not relaxing its virus strategy now that the vast majority of its one billion people have been fully vaccinated.

They’re building more facilities but there is no indication the authorities plan to ease the restrictions that have effectively ended international travel for people in China.

“On one hand you have experts such as Zhong Nanshan and Gao Fu suggesting that once the vaccination rate in China reached over 85 percent, then it’s about time to open up,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, referring to two prominent public health experts in China. “But on the other hand, all the measures in place seem to suggest that Beijing is going to sustain the zero-tolerance strategy.”

After an initially sluggish vaccination campaign, China has fully inoculated about 75 percent of its total population with its domestically manufactured COVID-19 vaccines (it has not approved any foreign made vaccines for use).

But it remains completely committed to eliminating the virus domestically, including strict border measures and compulsory quarantines for those arriving from overseas.

“I live in Auckland and when I heard New Zealand was opening up, I thought the same day for China would come soon, too,” said Yang Guang, a Chinese national who studies in Auckland, referring to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent announcement to put an end to the country’s similar zero-covid strategy after failing to contain a Delta variant-induced outbreak.

“It’s been almost two years since I last saw my parents, but the ridiculously expensive flight ticket and the prolonged quarantine time are making it difficult for me to return home,” Yang lamented of his failed efforts to try to go back to China.

Yang’s sentiment is shared by many people who have been stuck outside of the country for months, including Chinese nationals and foreigners who previously held valid visas to enter China.

Testing travel rules

Travelling to China is already strenuous as a result of the pandemic conditions, involving long days of quarantine, strict COVID-19 testing – including two separate PCR and antibody tests that must be conducted at different labs – and troublesome procedures, such as submitting forms, test results, and some declarations to respective Chinese embassies to get a green code, which is only valid for 48 hours to board a plane.

But while the fully vaccinated have been allowed some quarantine concessions in countries like Australia and Malaysia and can avoid it in many European countries, in China it is of no consequence. The quarantine rules apply to all equally.

Flights are also becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Last year, the government banned people from transiting in a third country to return to China if there was a direct flight from their original departure place. Coupled with a notorious flight arrangement policy that allows one airline to operate only one flight per week from any specific country that is aimed at controlling the number of international arrivals, the moves have driven up the cost of air travel.

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