By David Wallace-Wells
More than one-sixth of the people on the planet live in China. That’s 1.4 billion people who have spent the last three years in the world’s most intrusive pandemic surveillance state, designed to limit the spread of Covid-19 at almost any cost.
Americans, particularly on the right, have spent an awful lot of time and political energy complaining about pandemic overreach for the last two years. But our restrictions had nothing on China’s. In the United States, many statewide stay-at-home orders lasted just a few weeks. None exceeded three months, and most were only sporadically enforced. As protests erupted across China last month, one-third of the country was in partial or total lockdown — workers stuck in quarantine facilities, neighborhoods sealed, businesses and schools closed.
It is too soon to say whether the protests will mark the beginning of a true phase shift in China’s pandemic policy — so far, they have produced both a dramatic police crackdown and the relaxation of restrictions in some cities. But to a worldwide audience watching China with a mix of fascination and horror, mass public protest in the world’s last large “zero Covid” holdout seems to mark a global turning point. For several years now, many public health experts have acknowledged privately that the opportunity to contain and eradicate Covid-19 might have been lost as early as the winter of 2020. And for several years now China has tried to beat the disease back at the border anyway.
Remarkably, it has basically succeeded, almost entirely suppressing disease spread within the country’s borders for three years now, an effort that has put it on an entirely different pandemic timeline from most of the rest of the world. It has also made reflexive efforts to analogize the situation in China a bit suspect. Some Americans who believed our pandemic response was excessive have treated the protests as a tacit endorsement of the more laissez-faire approach we’ve embraced post-vaccines; others who might’ve argued for doing more here are also taking the protests as a sign that, in the end, compared with China, the United States got things right.