Strict Zero Covid Regime in China: New Great Wall of China

China has a strict zero-Covid policy. That means: daily testing and sensors on the doorstep to measure body temperature.

Interior of a Chinese airplane with a stewardess in an anti-disease suit

Radically sterile flying: stewardesses in epidemic suits Photo: Fabian Kretschmer

FROM BEIJING taz | During the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall of China was built to keep out foreign invaders from the Middle Kingdom. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the People's Republic of China has once again become a fortress: the maybe last "zero Covid" bastion in the world.

As I step onto the gangway to the Boeing 737, I finally leave the "living with the virus" reality that I have learned to appreciate in Germany over the past few weeks; a near-post-pandemic reality where people go back to soccer stadiums at the weekend and go on beach vacations over the summer holidays.

Now my odyssey back begins to China. Here the stewardesses look like Martians, their white anti-plague suits covering their bodies from hairline to fingertips. They walk through the plane with giant disinfectant sprays strapped to their waists like flamethrowers.

The contrast between the two worlds could not be greater: this summer I visited my hometown Berlin for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic. I've been to family gatherings, debated at editorial conferences, and bumped into old school friends in noisy corner bars. In Beijing, on the other hand, I stood in line for PCR tests every day and was off Fear of an impending lockdown Stockpiled rice, pumpernickel and canned tomatoes.

Corona dictatorship in real

While the Germans are passionately complaining about the obligation to wear masks on the train, a man in a black uniform and a red bandage was standing in front of my apartment around the clock and asked for the health code on my smartphone. In Germany, some transfigured people may babble about an alleged corona dictatorship. I have actually experienced them.

Leaving the People's Republic of China, like many foreigners at the moment, is actually not a problem. But returning brings even the hardest Stoic to the brink of a nervous breakdown. You feel like the cartoon character Asterix, who desperately wants to get the “Passport A38” in the “House of Madmen”: Dozens of bureaucratic hurdles have to be overcome, each one seems like the ascent to Mount Everest.

The first challenge is the ticket. As before, the People's Republic of China has throttled its international flight connections by more than 95 percent. The huge demand with tiny supply has driven up the prices so much that a direct flight between Frankfurt and Shanghai now costs as much as a small Japanese car: nothing was available for less than 10,000 euros in the summer. However, transit flights to China have been banned amid the pandemic.

Unless, and this is what I have decided to do, you stay in a third country for three weeks beforehand. My choice fell on South Korea, one of the few destinations that still have regular flights to the People's Republic. However, the basic prerequisite for this marathon odyssey is to remain negative at all times: Anyone who becomes infected with Covid has lost their chances of returning for months - and has lost thousands of euros.

But I still enjoy the freedom that I missed so much in China: In Seoul I visit museum exhibitions, public protests and live concerts. I find that the last few months in the "zero Covid" bastion of Beijing have traumatized me quite a bit: recently, without a negative Covid test, I was not even able to enter the supermarket around the corner, and the neighborhood committee even installed a camera in front of my own apartment, to record the body temperature of each resident.

Traveling, even to the immediate vicinity, was unthinkable: the danger of unexpectedly being locked down hung over our heads like the sword of Damocles.

Test, test, test

A week before departure, the Covid paranoia clouds my last days in freedom. The bureaucratic requirements of the Chinese authorities are so complex that hundreds of us form self-help groups on the Wechat app to give each other advice and encouragement.

I have to send my temperature to the airline every morning seven days before departure and the first authorized antigen test four days before departure. The first PCR test follows 48 hours before departure, and the second 24 hours later – carried out in different clinics, each with different reagent procedures.

What amazes me the most is that I have all the documents in the end. Arriving at the airport, the Chinese embassy finally sends me the “health code”.

I can only board the plane with him. I had no idea at the time that the most nerve-wracking part of my return journey still lay ahead of me.

In the southern Chinese coastal city of Xiamen, we who arrive are treated like lepers. From the airport to the bus ride to the quarantine hotel, we don't see anyone without a protective suit and medical gloves.

I spend the next eleven days in a 15 square meter hotel room that is getting on in years. I'm only allowed to open my door a crack to pick up the food tray - and not for too long. Otherwise an automatic alarm will go off.

Every morning one of the White Martians rang me out of bed for my daily PCR test. The ritual reminds me of a church service: I kneel down, but instead of a wafer I get a stick in my mouth - always so deep in my throat that my gag reflex kicks in. My mobile phone, suitcase and pillow are also checked several times for the virus with a cotton swab. When the 11-day quarantine finally came to an end, I tested negative about a dozen times.

But the spook is far from over. The city of Xiamen, where I landed, has reported an outbreak of omicron subvariant BA.2 infection in the past few days.

State of emergency almost without reason

Despite just under 40 cases within a week, there is a state of emergency: all of the more than four million inhabitants are ordered to take part in the daily mass test, and even the imported fish have to undergo PCR tests.

What initially sounds like a parody was confirmed by the customs authorities with patriotic pride as a necessary protective measure. It wasn't until Chinese Internet users, amid malice and mockery, remarked that fish have gills and it is difficult for them to contract a respiratory disease, did the censors delete all reports.

The collective psychosis called "Zero Covid" has long stopped me from laughing. The personal nightmare since my arrival seems to have no end: only after hours of phone calls can I persuade the authorities in Xiamen to at least let me go to the main train station.

But already on the train to Beijing I am intercepted by three friendly police officers - and, since Xiamen has now been declared a high-risk area, I am quarantined again 24 hours later: the neighborhood committee installed a sensor in front of my door that registers every opening.

After 30 days, three flights, two quarantine centers, 14 PCR tests and a train ride, I reached Beijing. However, when I am released into freedom, the algorithm decides. I am only allowed to leave my apartment when the health code on my cell phone lights up green. It will continue to flash an alarming red for the next five days.

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