Indefinite detention, fear of confinement to a camp, ban on grocery shopping, daily screening tests: Quebecers living in China are telling of the psychosis of the state trying to have zero cases of COVID-19 in the country.
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“The community we live in is completely closed. For 52 days we have never had a case of COVID. There’s no reason to lock us up, but we don’t have the right to be free. […] There’s no logic, it’s all chaotic,” laments Alexandra Ménard, a 25-year-old Quebecer who has lived in Shanghai with her partner Simon Martin for the past three years.
Like all residents of the Chinese metropolis, the couple from Granby in Estrie have been locked up for more than a month. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping has adopted the “zero-COVID” strategy.
Once a case emerges, it’s total containment for an entire community. The positive cases are sent to camps, says Ms Ménard, who is particularly afraid of being sent there.
With kind approval
Screening tests are also performed daily by Chinese doctors and nurses.
In recent weeks, this policy has been imposed on Shanghai, home to more than 25 million people. There, the citizens live culturally in shared flats, which are groups of several residential buildings surrounded by fences and each with a security service.
Today, no one has the right to leave their community, not even to buy groceries, explains Simon Martin, 27.
It is therefore mainly the government that sends food rations to citizens, but very unevenly depending on the neighborhood.
With kind approval
An example of a Chinese government food ration, containing only a bottle of oil and milk with waffles.
“Some get it almost every week, even 2-3 times a week, while others only get it 3 times in six weeks. People are hungry and tired! says Ms. Ménard.
The products supplied are also very variable, she says. The basket can sometimes be just a bottle of oil, waffles, and milk. Sometimes they get meat or vegetables.
With kind approval
Vegetables supplied by the state.
The international elementary school where Mr. Martin works as a physical education teacher delivered food to them twice.
“Because it was a ‘private’ delivery, security held the food for 12 hours just to isolate it because [le gouvernement croit encore que] The virus should survive six hours on a surface, argues the expat. They left my delivery bag with the meat and milk in the sun for at least six hours,” he adds, explaining that he had to struggle to get off the ice to avoid losing supplies.
For some time, they have been able to place large orders with their neighbors from grocery stores, but the minimum quantities required for the delivery to be accepted, the two Quebecers say.
Again, all products are individually disinfected to avoid transmission of the virus, although several studies show that the risk of being infected via a surface is extremely low.
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Shanghai residents received home screening tests every two days.
Since no one is allowed to enter or leave the communities, many humanitarian disasters occur.
“A woman in our community called her mother to check on her every day. One day she ran out of news and finally found out her mother had died after a fall,” Mr Martin drops.
Due to the strict restrictions, many people do not have access to their medicines. Others who live alone are completely on their own, without any support.
“Of course it will leave its mark on part of the population,” said Simon Martin.
The latter and his companion had planned to return to Quebec in July. But with the restriction, the lifting date of which is unknown, the closure of posts and banks, they fear being stuck in China.
“Under these conditions, it makes us want to come back even more,” he slips.
Measures drive out expatriates
The drastic measures imposed in China and in particular in Shanghai to contain the virus are forcing many expatriates to reconsider their future and leave the country.
“It is certain that I will leave China before my contract expires in two years if conditions do not improve. I’ve already started to rearrange my finances accordingly. What is happening right now makes you think a lot,” explains Ugo de Montigny, a 42-year-old teacher from Quebec who has lived in Kushan near Shanghai for six years.
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Ugo de Montigny, expat in China
According to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, nearly 80% of the companies surveyed say that health policies prevent them from attracting or retaining their foreign workers.
China has adopted a “zero-COVID” approach in the country to try to contain the spread of the virus by shutting down a whole section of the population as cases arise.
For more than 50 days, nearly 25 million residents in Shanghai have been forced to remain confined at home with no ability to leave the country. As of Thursday, the city recorded about 4,500 cases. By mid-April it would have been more than 27,000.
For Mr de Montigny, some expatriates are waiting for the measures to be relaxed in order to be able to leave the country.
“I have friends who want to fly as soon as possible [le pays] because it becomes too difficult and nothing can be done,” he says.
Difficult for China
From an economic point of view, China is risking a very high price for its draconian measures, estimates the Asia researcher from the Center for International Studies and Research at the University of Montreal, Adrien Savolle.
“China needs foreigners, it could be a disaster for Chinese people’s living standards. Before imprisonment, many expatriates thought about leaving, but there it will be even more accentuated, ”he says.
There is no question of backing down to deal with the crisis
Experts believe that by announcing its “zero-COVID” policy, the Chinese Communist Party can no longer reverse and end its ineffective intense lockdowns months before the election.
“The Chinese government says their model [de gestion de la crise] is higher than that of Westerners, so it would be an admission of weakness that we need to change,” claims former Canadian Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques.
Since the beginning of the health crisis, President Xi Jinping has followed the policy of zero cases of COVID. This requires very strict restrictions with the closure of all shops, as well as massive screening of the population once a positive case emerges. While it may have worked at the beginning of the pandemic with the much more contagious Omicron variant, it is no longer the case today.
As a result, millions of Chinese were jailed for almost two months.
In China, the pandemic is intertwined with elections. In October, the Chinese head of state hopes to be re-elected to take over the reins of the country for a third term. Admitting today that this management is not right would make him fear defeat, believes Mr Saint-Jacques.
Will not change
Asia researcher at the University of Montreal’s Center for International Studies and Research Adrien Savolle believes we will have to wait until the end of the elections to see any changes in how the crisis is being managed.
“Soon we really have to look at Beijing, which seems to be next in lockdown. With not even 50 cases, they’ve closed nearly 14 tube stations so things are starting to heat up,” warns Mr Savolle.
For Ugo de Montigny, a Quebecer who has lived in Kunshan for the past six years, the state clearly has no intention of changing.
“In fact, he continues to apply a 2020 policy that doesn’t make sense in 2022 since we found out about the virus,” the 42-year-old teacher supports.
All over the world, but also in the country, pictures of protests are making the rounds on social networks.
“It’s starting to get popular reactions because these are really difficult approaches. […] Chinese censorship, while very effective, is struggling to stem this outpouring of anger,” affirms Guy Saint-Jacques.