The Corona Virus Saga encapsulates the tensions of East West politics. The competing ideologies, of open democracy and freedom to live vs authoritarian secrecy, censorship and effectiveness to save lives, Rival technologies racing to produce tracking apps and vaccines and our country’s images abroad. It re-awakens our prejudices. and fears of the orient and the hypocrisy and resentments of the West..
The news of the handling of the virus in the west was a story of chaos and failure. It plays out over the year in the changing lockdown tiers and circuit breakers used to balance hospital admissions with costs to business. A strategy that didn’t aim to defeat the virus only to manage the numbers of sick that threatened to overwhelm hospitals. It was a continuous advertisement for the Chinese Communist Party domestically. Their early failures, now blamed on a few individuals, were mostly forgotten or forgiven in the resounding success of later action. The whole experience had, in Chinese eyes, vindicated their country, the political system, and above all, its leadership.
As we moved into another Chinese New Year, the Chinese annual TV gala remembered the success in defeating the virus and continuing to grow its economy. Its success, along with its vaccine promises, provided a powerful image to the people in other counties where Christmas celebrations were practically cancelled as they remained stuck in permanent lockdown. It’s not surprising that despite no cases in Beijing, people were still encouraged not to travel. The government is always cautious around the annual meeting. This year, they may also have been wary of being seen to be celebrating and carrying on life as normal in the country where it all started, in case it was perceived as gloating.
It wasn’t just the government that worried about their image. The Chinese people were also desperate that the virus didn’t start in China. Some openly believed it started abroad and that the western media are anti-China. Others were content to think they don’t know for sure, that it hasn’t yet been proven. When the WHO reported the withholding of data on clinical trials of vaccines, or data about early cases it looked suspiciously like a continuation of the cover up of last year. Maybe data on the early cases would confirm the favoured theory that it originated in China from bats and they would prefer not to know. It’s possible there is guilt about the millions of deaths, or at least embarrassment about its links to wild animals and its confirmation of the stereotype of Chinese eating habits and animal welfare. Fuel to the racist and the populist governments that want to blame Johnny Foreigner and especially the communist system.
The virus wasn’t going away. Countries that had got on top of the epidemic were by summer 2021 suddenly seeing new waves as behaviour became complacent, large percentages declining to be vaccinated while new variants made it more infectious. The UK ordered 60 Million more vaccine doses for booster jabs in the Autumn – a safeguard for the vulnerable as it spreads and mutates around the world. In China there was reluctance to have a vaccine, and initially, little government pressure. And with doubts of its effectiveness. and few cases it looked unlikely to achieve much immunity.
Meanwhile, with over 70% of the UK population fully vaccinated it started to nervously reopen, hoping the acquired immunity of the summer will be enough to keep the death rate tolerable and hospital capacity manageable during the winter.
In contrast, as the more infectious variants strained the Chinese policy for zero cases, its trumpeted success in defeating the virus made it hard to change course and instead, it turns more isolationist as winter approached. With a public so fearful of the virus It was hard to see how it could abandon this strategy but equally manage the influx of foreigners for the winter Olympics, The event was scheduled to start when early vaccinators immunity would have declined, and seasonal flu returned.
By the end of summer the number of cases in the UK were rising again, you could feel the nervousness in the expectation the trend would continue when schools reopened and how this would translate into hospital admissions. The media was upbeat about the comparatively low death rate and reporting that natural acquired immunity was better protection than vaccines. In contrast, the usually quiet Chinese media was openly confirming their vaccines are not as effective. Beijing increased its quarantine to 4 weeks and made leaving the country and returning harder. As cases continued to sporadically occur, the fear turned to paranoia. Foreigners, even if they hadn’t left the country need to complete long pointless forms when travelling internally,. Those abroad were advised not to take western vaccines or the antibody levels triggered would be too high to re-enter China.
China’s policy of isolation from the world developed another layer as winter approached with testing required to enter the city from other parts of the country. In Europe the number of case numbers continued to soar with some countries reintroducing restrictions, blaming the unvaccinated. In the UK, booster shots were promoted as a means to keep hospital admissions down but rumours of another Christmas lockdown would be introduced was feared. The contrast between Britain braving it out with a steady 50,000 cases a day and ‘practically no regulations’ compared with Beijing’s 1 or 2 cases a day and closed bars and cancelled events had not been as stark since the first months.
As 2022 started the blame appeared to have stopped as the world concentrated on opening up and China focussed on protecting the winter games. The rumour was that China would relax after the games and there was optimism that perhaps the worst would be behind us; things might return to normal. But in the week before Christmas with the new Omicron variant doubling every two days in the UK, that looked like a lost hope. Its infectiousness on top of the levels of the normal variant that had become accepted made any normality look as far off as ever and the prospect of more restrictions inevitable.
Remarkably, as January progressed case numbers plateaued, deaths fell and restrictions all around the world suddenly began to lift. The success of the vaccines, the infrastructure to test and trace, better treatments and new drugs all fuelled the feeling that its effectively over. Only China with its zero case policy is stuck with the constant vigilance, mass testing, closed borders and the fear that this produces. If they change that policy, and surely one day they must, it will feel like the start again in China.
But for now, the sudden ending in the west is a huge relief. Despite record numbers of cases, the policy is a return to normal. People are fed up with the restrictions and also its dominance of the news reporting. Headlines switch to war in Ukraine and the death toll from Covid is ignored.
The new wave of cases globally also tests China’s zero tolerance policy. As major cities fall into lockdown, there are reports of hunger, children being separated from parents and infected pets being culled. Increasingly extreme measures to maintain their policy. There is a feel that Shanghai is the deciding battle. If the measures prove too much, or fail to work, its over. But if the outbreak is contained, it becomes even harder to return to normal.
The difference between Chinese and western culture is drawn vividly by their respective Covid policies. Leaders on both sides claim success in how they’ve steered through the pandemic and how they are learning to live with the virus. The way we live can be different but we all benefit from lessons learned from the experiences of both sides. People should remember the speed that disease spreads, its disregard for borders and nationality, its constant evolution into new variants, the victory of science.
As our attention moves to other news we mustn’t forget the importance in vaccinating the rest of the world to help prevent more variants emerging. The much quoted phrase of ‘we’re all in this together’ still applies.
We will see as time moves on….
15th 1st case reported in Beijing after 26 free days
19th Work from home guidance in UK ends.
23rd Mandatory tests in parts of Beijing as cases reach 34
27th Face coverings in UK no longer mandatory.
4th Winter Olympics start in Beijing
24th Self isolation after positive result not required in UK
28th Shanghai enters lockdown
31st Infected pets reportedly culled.
2nd Record 4.9 Million cases in UK
4th Infected children separated from parents