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12 February 2021

Chinese New Year reveals the hidden costs of China’s Covid-19 recovery

The country’s 2021 festive celebrations are a reminder that the burden of the fight against Covid has not been borne equally.

By Rui Zhong

“Why travel home and quarantine for 14 days? Staying in Suzhou gets you paid,” proclaims one banner discouraging workers from inter-province travel in southern China. Another reads, “Run around this year, grow grass on your grave next year.”

Across China, as the country prepares to celebrate Chinese New Year, local governments are publicly discouraging movement in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These prominent propaganda banners carry echoes of those seen at the very beginning of the global outbreak, which was first reported in Hubei Province’s capital city of Wuhan in December 2019. The city locked itself down for 76 days as infected individuals were relocated to makeshift hospitals and intensive care units were filled to capacity.

[see also: World Review podcast: Wuhan, one year on]

Official data now reports there have been no new locally transmitted cases within the Chinese mainland for nearly two months. The Chinese state is basking in the positive narrative that it has crafted and enforced consistently throughout 2020 and 2021, which is that the state has a grip on the policy problems facing the Chinese people, and that it is continuing to meet its responsibilities in the fight against Covid-19.

There is truth to this position. Infection rates have been contained to the extent that holiday travel is possible and schools in its many provinces can remain open. Xi Jinping himself commemorated the new year in a photograph with the State Council sending their greetings to the people, unmasked and seated together in the Hall of the People. But at what price has this recovery been sustained?

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Policy commentators have categorised China as a society that acts collectively, sometimes attributing too much credit for the Covid-19 response to a Confucian cohesion. However, China’s domestic politics often emphasises personal, individual responsibility. 

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The top-down governance of the Chinese state is extensive, but enforcement is often delegated to provincial and municipal branches. This means that Covid-19 management is generally local, which has its downsides. One example is how the locally developed, mandatory health QR code apps, which track individuals’ temperature readings and test results, have caused confusion, as people with clean scores travel to provinces where their previous region’s data has not been recognised.

Much like Covid itself, this has led to a rise in hate crimes against people of the Asian diaspora, Chinese citizens who have been living in Hubei have also faced prejudice within their respective communities. Some villages and townships set up barricades to keep out individuals travelling from Wuhan, and even noodle shops that served Wuhan specialties have suffered a drop in business.

[See also: Covid-19 has caused a major spike in anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic hate speech]

The strain the pandemic has put on individuals and communities has become particularly apparent with the arrival of the Lunar New Year. The government and law enforcement agencies have imposed long quarantine periods on those hoping to visit relatives for the holiday, including for those travelling within China.

This encouragement to stay put has left workers and students conflicted. Due to rigorous schedules and a lack of other, longer public holidays, New Year is often the only chance people have for a face-to-face meeting with family – one that many feel has been hard-earned following a year of quarantines, temperature checks and Covid testing.

For office workers, working through the New Year may be a matter of logging onto a computer or WeChat channel. But service workers face a far more gruelling – and lower paid – labour environment. Even as cases soared last March, couriers continued to work, with their uniforms allowing them to bypass checkpoints. Pressure on delivery drivers in particular has risen throughout the pandemic, with food orders and e-commerce becoming critical for households in locked-down, at-risk regions.

Initially, this added workload for gig economy workers was acknowledged with gratitude by the public and corporations. In February 2020, one courier surnamed Zhang characterised this tendency bleakly: “There’s a saying: ‘A man’s words are kind when death is close.’” Working eight to 12 hour days, Hubei’s couriers that month delivered up to 1,337 tons of goods in a single day, while navigating narrow neighbourhood streets and apartment complexes – enough to earn them thanks and praise.

A year later, however, the shine has worn off and there is an expectation that delivery drivers will keep working through difficulties. Their wages, decided mostly by app, have also ebbed away, with their earnings often amounting to less than $1 per delivery. In Taizhou, the courier Liu Jin set himself on fire after the apps that dictated his working day encouraged him to take unsafe routes and docked pay for deliveries that were deemed too slow. “I want my blood and sweat money,” he said, before being hospitalised with third degree burns.

In ways such as these, Covid-19 and the Lunar New Year will be intertwined for as long as most of the broader international populace remains unvaccinated. For the state, preventing the holiday from allowing super-spreader events and keeping “business as usual” is critical to both its public health and political objectives. Yet, as with a lot of politics in China, who implements policy and who faces its consequences can differ.

While bureaucrats and President Xi Jinping will enjoy a lavish gala of dancing and comedy to commemorate China’s 2021 holiday season, the reality of “business as usual” for those working through the holiday is far less glamorous, and will remain so for some time.

[See also: Can the US and China forge an alliance over the climate crisis?]