Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today
A peek inside China.,
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Jill Biden and the surgeon general are pushing for Covid shots in schools.
Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, finally will ease its lockdown.
Evictions are gradually rising in the U.S.
China’s drive for ‘zero Covid’
China is preparing for a long winter.
The last large nation in the world to enforce a “zero Covid” strategy is facing a serious autumn outbreak, with more than 900 cases scattered across more than a dozen provinces. The government recently called on families and local governments to stock up on daily necessities in preparation for possible lockdowns in the cold months.
For insight into the situation in China, I reached out to Keith Bradsher, our bureau chief in Shanghai. Keith is one of the few correspondents from a large U.S. newspaper who is still in China; most were expelled last year during a diplomatic dispute between Beijing and the Trump administration.
What does life in China look like now?
What’s extraordinary about China is that, except for a few weeks early last year, life has mostly continued as normal, because they have been wildly successful in controlling the spread of the virus. Restaurants are nearly full. Theaters are open except in the immediate vicinity of outbreaks. Shopping areas are full.
But if there’s a small outbreak, they take drastic action in order to prevent it from turning into a large outbreak. Interprovincial travel, by air and by rail, has been severely curtailed in the last few days in response to the latest batch of cases. It’s a policy that imposes extreme costs on some people so as to keep safe the large majority. The biggest losers are residents of border areas, some of which have had repeated lockdowns, and people who need or like to travel.
What does the “zero Covid” policy look like on the ground?
Take the recent Shanghai Disneyland case, which is a great example of how quickly the country can respond. One person was said by the authorities to have come to Shanghai from southern China on a Friday, visited Shanghai Disneyland on a Saturday and then traveled on to Hangzhou, where the person tested positive on Sunday. By Sunday evening, local officials had closed off Shanghai Disneyland — kept the fireworks going to entertain the guests — and quickly tested 33,000 people before letting them leave. Those who visited Shanghai Disneyland over that weekend were required to stay home for the next two weeks and face follow-up tests.
But the real secret to China’s Covid policy is the use of mandatory quarantine. The authorities don’t just individually quarantine patients. They quarantine all the contacts of the patient, and all of the contacts of the contacts. So for a single case, the authorities may put 800 people into quarantine, including children separated from their families. And these people are tested extensively while in total isolation.
Why does China continue the policy even as other countries have given it up?
If they open up, they could face real problems. China has a higher vaccination rate than the U.S, but the vaccines they’ve used have been partially abandoned by some counties as less effective than the newer mRNA vaccines. So if the virus does get going in China, it could be a big problem. The authorities have repeatedly said that they think the costs of this policy, both financially and in terms of the disruption to people’s lives, are less than the costs of opening up.
What do people think of the policy?
It is a policy that is deeply unpopular with an affluent elite in China, composed of Chinese nationals and foreign residents of China, who previously could afford international travel or international education. But for the large majority of the population that is not affected by the halt in international travel, not having to worry about Covid most of the time certainly has big advantages. And China has been successful again and again in stopping the virus, although this autumn’s outbreak is a real challenge. Many in China look at the hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and are appalled. So they think their approach has been uniquely effective.
What are the downsides?
People-to-people contact between China and the rest of the world has been much reduced. Few Chinese can leave the country, not least because the government has halted the issuance or renewal of passports.
The erosion of the foreign community in China has been extraordinary. The official numbers, for example, show that the number of nonmainland citizens in Beijing is down 45 percent since the pandemic started. If you exclude longtime Beijing residents from Taiwan or Hong Kong, the decline is even steeper. The number of citizens from some small European countries is down by 90 percent. It’s an extraordinary drop, and it’s because China has almost completely shut its borders since March of last year.
In addition, essentially zero students have been allowed into China in the last year and a half, and fewer Chinese students than before are going overseas. Not having many foreigners around has forced many Chinese companies to become more self-reliant, and they are replacing foreign managers with skilled Chinese managers.
Sounds like a big shift.
Yeah, it’s huge. And it makes it easier for China to pursue its foreign policy goals without worrying so much about the overseas reaction, or about the reaction from people inside China with ties to the outside world. And it raises the risks of misunderstandings, because the level of communication between China and the outside world has plummeted.
Is there an offramp to “zero Covid”?
There are a lot of unconfirmed reports that China is working very hard on their own mRNA vaccine. But in terms of when the policy could change, it is unlikely before the Beijing Olympics, which start Feb. 4. And it is unclear whether it will happen before the once-in-five-years Communist Party Congress, to be held 12 months from now.
For more: The Times explored life in Ruili, a city in southwestern China that has been locked down four times in the past year.
China closed; U.S. open
The U.S. reopened its borders today for fully vaccinated travelers who show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within three days of departure.
What else we’re following
New data shows that more than 101,000 New York City public school students were homeless last year, a staggering figure exacerbated by the pandemic.
Demand for booster shots in California has been lower than expected, The Los Angeles Times reports.
A new analysis suggests masking is most useful indoors and during long exposures to infected people, Nature reports.
A jump in breakthrough cases in Britain is being driven in part by parents in their 40s and their largely unvaccinated children, The Wall Street Journal reports.
In The Morning, David Leonhardt explains how the partisan gap in Covid deaths is growing fast.
Derek Thompson at The Atlantic argues that the U.S. needs to rethink the antiquated way it funds scientific research.
When someone with long Covid dies, should the person’s organs be donated?
Bloomberg Opinion asks, is India ready for another big wave of the virus?
Northern Ireland’s health minister is suing Van Morrison over his criticism of Covid-19 restrictions.
What you’re doing
The kids in the neighborhood were invaluable at helping me keep my sanity during all the confinement and isolation. So I decided for my 70th birthday party, I was having a reverse birthday party. We got a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck to visit the neighborhood and all the kids got presents. They could pick a meteorite, a dinosaur bone scrap or a geode. It was the best birthday I’ve ever had!
— Jane Demos Coop, Memphis, Tenn.
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