Chinese struggle to find the courage to live with COVID-19 | Coronavirus Pandemic News

Hu Yuping is afraid.

The 43-year-old resident of central China’s Hunan Province is a cancer survivor and she just learned that the two-week lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the virus is being lifted despite there being COVID-19 patients in her building.

“Wear your mask and don’t go to crowded places – we only have to rely on ourselves now,” Hu wrote in her family group chat on messaging platform WeChat.

After nearly three years of a zero-COVID strategy aimed at eradicating the virus wherever it has emerged with lockdowns, mass testing and centralized quarantine, China has suddenly begun to relax some of its toughest restrictions.

The policy change that has slowed growth in the world’s second largest economy and disrupted the lives of millions of people came shortly after a wave of anti-lockdown protests swept the country.

The easing of policies has cheered many, particularly those whose economic livelihoods have been hurt, but many are excited about what might happen next as health experts predict a spike in coronavirus cases in a country where the vast majority of people are not was exposed to the virus and many older people have not received full vaccination cycles.

The zero-COVID strategy also means that since 2020 the Chinese government has been pushing a narrative of an undoubtedly deadly virus and portraying the rest of the world’s decision to live with it as a dangerous move.

People walking on the street in front of a grocery store where a worker is outside wearing a blue disposable medical gown, face mask and clear plastic face shield.
Many are happy to be able to return to normal life after three years of strict COVID-19 measures, but some, including those who are healthy, are afraid to return [Aly Song/Reuters]

Still, it took the government no more than a few nights to begin dismantling the anti-pandemic regime it had been so eager to build.

Within a week, the government dropped PCR testing requirements for access to most public places, dismantled the national COVID-19 tracking app – a defining symbol of China’s anti-pandemic measures – and generally eased the other measures imposed so restricted were everyone’s everyday lives.

“Left Outdoors”

The sudden change has left many confused and even – for people like Hu – fearful.

People with underlying medical conditions or a compromised immune system are known to be more susceptible to COVID-19, and Hu has been treated for ovarian cancer.

She has recently passed the five-year mark since the last cancer cells were detected in her body, a clinical sign the disease has likely been suppressed, but she says she is optimistic given the sudden change in COVID-19 guidelines “Extremely nervous” is and is canceling all non-essential trips outside of her home so that she “does not take the risk of infection”.

“Doctors say they’re afraid of the side effects the vaccines might have on me,” Hu told Al Jazeera.

“But now we’re outside, with no vaccines and no government protection.”

Al Jazeera spoke to five immunocompromised people who are unvaccinated. Everyone told stories about how slow and unwilling the government was to get them vaccinated over concerns about the side effects.

Patients with underlying conditions are now worried they won’t have enough time to get vaccinated before the virus hits their town or building.

“No one has been urged to get the vaccine before, but now even though we want to get the vaccine, doctors are reluctant because there is no guidance from above,” said Ding Siyang, a dialysis patient in Kunming, a city in southwest China. said. “We’re all a little scared.”

An elderly woman receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from a health worker.  The woman looks relaxed.  She wears a pink sweater, a black coat and a black cap.
The Chinese government is stepping up efforts to ensure the country’s elderly are vaccinated and empowered against COVID-19 [AFP]

The country’s large elderly population is also scared. Despite the government’s efforts to quickly vaccinate the elderly population after policy easing, only 60 percent of people over the age of 80 have been boosted, according to the National Health Commission. A study conducted in Hong Kong has shown that elderly people vaccinated with Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines have adequate protection against serious diseases only after the booster shot.

Due to relatively low vaccination coverage among vulnerable people, experts have predicted a sudden spike in cases in the dead of winter in China that could overwhelm limited medical resources in the world’s most populous country.

Faced with the inevitable wave of COVID-19, it’s not just vulnerable people who are anxious.

After the relentless messages of the last three years, there is also fear among the young and healthy – people who are widely believed to be better off coping with the disease.

Experts have been studying the impact of prolonged lockdowns on people’s mental health since COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan three years ago and the city of 8.5 million people went into lockdown.

The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, citing China’s first-ever national survey of mental stress in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, found that “35 percent of respondents suffered from stress, including anxiety and depression β€œ.

“School closures have been associated with adverse mental health symptoms and behaviors in children and adolescents,” she added, noting that the relief when Wuhan’s lockdown was finally lifted was offset by “widespread fear of adjusting to everyday life and the… Fear of transmission of the virus “rebound”.

Travelers in white hazmat suits sit on their luggage while waiting to board a train.  One looks at his cell phone.
Beijing’s scary portrayal of the virus since Wuhan has made it harder for people to grapple with the concept of living with COVID-19 [Martin Pollard/Reuters]

Since then, the sporadic but ongoing lockdowns in China have left many people “tired and depressed,” according to Xiao Lu, a Shanghai-based psychotherapist.

“Being separated from friends and family for fear of this disease, which many feared, is a major trigger for many people,” she said.

Lu Xueqin, a 35-year-old resident of Changsha in central China, is vaccinated and boosted with China’s domestically made vaccines but recalls the early days of the pandemic when medical resources were stretched.

“I really don’t want us to go back to those days,” Lu said.

Since Wuhan in early 2020, vaccines have been developed and the virus itself has evolved. The difference between then and now is obvious: the added protection offered by a wide range of vaccines and better treatments mean the wave of omicron variants is more widespread but less severe.

In China, however, Beijing’s fear-mongering portrayal of the virus since Wuhan has made it harder for people to face a future of living with COVID-19.

“For many people who previously thought that contracting the coronavirus was almost like a death sentence, fear will almost inevitably shoot up,” Xiao Lu told Al Jazeera.

Although senior experts have taken to national television to inform the public that the new variant is not as deadly as the one that stalked Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, fear is pervasive.

Lu fears that unless the government more aggressively informs the public about the changing nature of the infection, many more will suffer from anxiety and even depression.

β€œIt has been scientifically studied that in people who tend to be insecure, it further fuels anxiety [anxiety]and changing policy without proper communication with the public will make matters worse,” she added.

Such uncertainty and fear could have long-lasting effects as cases surge under looser controls.

“Currently, the epidemic in China … is spreading rapidly, and under such circumstances, no matter how strong the prevention and control, it will be difficult to completely break the chain of transmission,” Zhong Nanshan, a senior government health adviser, told state media on Sunday .

In a survey of 4,000 consumers surveyed earlier this month by consultancy Oliver Wyman, fear of contracting COVID-19 was the top concern among those who said they did not want to travel.

“You must be joking,” Lu replied when asked if she plans to travel from her home in Changsha when the rules are relaxed. “I can hardly muster enough courage to leave my house now.”

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