China Is Stuck With Zero-Covid Policy For Now Regardless of Protests

AFTER ALMOST THREE years of lockdowns and mandatory testing and quarantines to prevent the spread of Covid-19, urban Chinese are getting antsy.

The authorities have announced some easing of the zero-Covid strategy. However, a long list of changes amounts to little more than shortening the mandatory quarantine period for inbound travellers and scrapping a system where airlines are penalized for carrying infected passengers.

Only the reduction in the strictness of quarantines triggered by second-order contacts touches daily life. None of that deals with the food shortages, price gouging and difficulty getting medical treatment when residents are confined to their homes, whether that is called a lockdown or voluntary static management.

Many of the changes direct local authorities to cope with local outbreaks rapidly and effectively without resorting to lengthy citywide shutdowns, as happened in Shanghai earlier this year.

To officials, the changes may seem substantial, and the initial steps along the path to ending zero-Covid that will be long, and needs to go through more extensive vaccination of the elderly, whose vaccination rates are still too low to allow living with Covid in the way that other countries have decided to do

The discontent that bubbled over into the streets of Guangzhou is only the latest example of how this discontent is starting to manifest. As with the recent protests in Lhasa, this one appears to have involved many migrant workers. For that group, a lockdown cuts off the ability to work and a livelihood that is already precarious.

With Covid workers being attacked and barriers pulled down, it could as readily be called a riot as a protest. Such social instability will worry senior leadership as it knows it has to stick with zero Covid for now, regardless of the cost.

Economic costs can be swallowed, however reluctantly, but social instability is altogether more undigestible. Arrests as a result of lockdown protests are starting to tick up.

The 17,000 new Covid infections that China reported on Monday were the highest daily total since late April. The outbreak in Guangzhou accounts for most of them, but there have been surges in Beijing and Chongqing.

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