ON JANUARY 10th an office worker surnamed Zhou was diagnosed with covid-19 in Xicheng, a district of Beijing. For officials under orders to keep the virus out of China’s capital, this single case was grim, career-threatening news. They responded with a vigour that some other countries reserve for wartime invasions. As is the norm when anyone in China tests positive, Ms Zhou’s movements for the previous ten days were made public, down to noodle bars where she ate and train lines that she took. Internet users fumed that she had twice visited Shijiazhuang, a drab city of 11m people in the next-door province of Hebei, which has seen more than 400 virus cases since the new year. She should have stayed at home, or at least avoided the metro, netizens growled.
Almost 100 of Ms Zhou’s close contacts and thousands of workers near her office were swiftly tested. Authorities tested and quarantined her neighbours in Gu’an, a Beijing commuter town just inside Hebei. On January 12th officials took still sterner measures. Roads out of Gu’an were sealed and 500,000 residents told to quarantine for a week. Several cities in Hebei province, including Shijiazhuang, its capital, have been locked down to quell outbreaks. Some 22m people have been trapped at home.
In Beijing, growing fears of a second wave have led to ever-tighter rules. These range from the irritating—some pharmacies stopping over-the-counter painkiller sales, to prevent people hiding fevers—to the heartbreaking. Chinese New Year, which this year falls on February 12th, has been, in effect, cancelled for government workers: they may not travel home to see families around China. Almost every movement in the city must be registered by scanning a health code with a smartphone, whether visiting a shop or catching a taxi. After commuters spent hours snarled at highway checkpoints into the capital, social media described inventive workers skating down rivers frozen by the coldest winter in years. New rules duly banned skating into Beijing.
Such restrictions are burdensome, indeed a bit sinister, but effective. At the time of writing, Beijing has detected 44 cases of covid in the past month, after millions of tests. For comparison, London is finding more than 8,500 new cases a day. Foreign chaos prompts head-shaking disbelief from Chinese, who ask if it is true that some Westerners refuse to wear face masks. China’s strict virus controls are rarely criticised, even in private. Indeed, a common grumble is that rules are not being enforced harshly enough.
A lazy explanation for this virus exceptionalism is that people in China do not care about personal freedoms or privacy. That is unfair to citizens of a large country with complicated views towards authority. Instead, a year into this pandemic, a simpler difference stands out. Lots of ordinary Chinese take covid-19 seriously in a way that is not always true in the West. In particular, the idea of catching it inspires real fear, even dread. The reasons include politics and propaganda, economics, culture and history.
Intrusive virus controls have their own, self-reinforcing logic. In China, each individual case disrupts many lives. Beijing’s worst outbreak to date started in a wholesale food market last summer, infecting at least 368 people. Its first officially diagnosed patient, on June 11th, was Tang Jingzhi, the owner of a noodle shop. Interviewed this week on a stroll through his local park, Mr Tang, an amiable 52-year-old Beijinger, recalls how he reported a low-grade fever to local doctors, only to be called back later that night. “When I arrived the fever clinic was sealed off, all the doors and gates were closed and they greeted me in protective suits.”
Weeks of treatment followed. Chinese netizens spread false rumours that he had visited an infected city in the north and had covered his tracks by using an unregistered smartphone. Happily, doctors and virus-control officers confirmed that he had fallen ill after buying salmon for his ten-year-old son at the market in Beijing. Still, his restaurant was closed for two months, leaving him to pay staff salaries from savings. His wife and son were quarantined for three weeks, then avoided friends until school started in September, fearing their reactions. State media commended Mr Tang for reporting his illness, easing his return to society. He praises China’s government for its virus control and “cannot fathom” Western responses to covid-19. In China, people understand that society is safe only when all play their part, he says: “If I am irresponsible and harm other people, it may come full circle and hurt me.” China is an ageing society and not yet rich, he adds. Serious illness is feared because it can cause financial ruin.
In China, shame is a powerful tool
A prominent psychologist, Lu Lin, reports that a study of 1,000 covid patients found about a third suffering from depression and anxiety long after recovery. Research continues into the precise role played by social stigma and discrimination, says Professor Lu, the president of Peking University Sixth Hospital. But he cites real-life cases, such as that of an old woman who was excluded from a dancing club even after she had shaken off the virus. Some social pressure can be useful. “For young people, you should not think just of yourself, you should think of your community,” he says.
Official media have played up the deadly nature of covid-19, while striving to erase memories of disastrous early cover-ups in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged. In part, propaganda chiefs want to demonstrate the superiority of modern Communist Party rule. In part, they are drawing on older traditions. An outbreak of bubonic plague during the civil war in 1947 saw party workers in the north-east recruit villagers with a “patriotic hygiene” campaign involving compulsory vaccinations and fines for failing to report deaths. Further back, in the last days of the Qing dynasty, reformist officials fighting plague in Manchuria in 1910-11 linked modern medicine with national rejuvenation, stressing the need to quarantine “irresponsible” migrant workers and make them wear face masks. In China, the urge to control has deep roots.■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The stigma of covid-19”