The city of Ruili awakens from the Corona nightmare

The city of Ruili awakens from the Corona nightmare

Jiegao looks like the setting for one of those apocalypse movies where the hero walks through a deserted city. Weeds sprout on the sidewalks. Closed shops are lined up, street after street. The roller shutters are lowered in front of their entrances. You can tell from the locks that they haven’t been opened in months. Some gates are sealed with strips of paper. It reads “Border Disease Control Surveillance Zone” in Chinese characters.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

Jiegao is a free trade zone in the south of China on the border with Myanmar. Up until three years ago, trade in jade, precious stones and tropical wood flourished here. Many families of the Dai minority lived in a no man’s land on either side of the border. They sent their children to school from Myanmar to China every day. The pandemic put an end to that. To keep the virus out, China erected a meter-high border fence. When the virus could not be stopped either, the trade zone was declared a buffer zone. More than 20,000 residents were resettled.

Jiegao is on the outskirts of the notorious city of Ruili in China. No other city in the country has been under lockdown so frequently during the pandemic. Residents were locked in their homes around a dozen times, totaling more than two hundred days. Many used the phases in between to leave Ruili. The city lost half of its inhabitants.

Then came December 7th

Nowhere else has been Xi Jinpings Zero Covid strategy taken to extremes like in the tranquil border town of Yunnan province. Then came December 7, 2022. All of China’s epidemic control measures were suspended overnight. A huge corona wave swept across the country. Meanwhile, the leadership in Beijing has made reviving the economy a priority. But Ruili is only slowly waking up from the Corona nightmare. The past is not so easy to shake off.

A stone’s throw from the border fence, the Tan family is sitting in front of their house, grilling corn on the cob. They were among the first to be resettled in July 2021. They returned two weeks ago. They were displaced for eighteen months with no regular income. Authorities provided them with beds in a converted school in the mountains. Instead, the family rented an apartment in the city. It wasn’t easy. “Because the virus first appeared in Jiegao, many were afraid to rent to people from here.” Meanwhile, nobody in Ruili is afraid of the virus anymore. Almost everyone got infected. “Dengue fever is worse,” says Mr. Tan. As a precaution, he sent his mother to the second house in Muse. That’s the name of Ruili’s sister city just over the fence.

Barbed wire and warning signs: China-Myanmar border wall in Ruili

Barbed wire and warning signs: China-Myanmar border wall in Ruili

Image: AFP

Unlike in other parts of China, little is heard here about the downside of the abrupt turnaround in corona policy. The epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling from Hong Kong University speaks of two “undesirable records” in China. Nowhere else in the world has the number of corona deaths increased so quickly from a few to more than a million. “Within a month.” Nowhere else had the virus spread so quickly from zero to 80 percent of the population. China is the first country to endure its first wave of coronavirus without trying to flatten the hospitalization curve, Cowling told foreign journalists on Thursday Beijing. He speaks of “missed opportunities to save lives”. For example, through the proactive purchase of antiviral drugs and through measures to avoid overcrowding in hospitals. In Hong Kong, such overcrowding has at times increased the risk of death by a factor of three. No data are available for the rest of China. Just as little as reliable death figures.

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