China abandoned ‘zero covid.’ But some don’t want to leave it behind.


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Jun 15, 2023

China abandoned ‘zero covid.’ But some don’t want to leave it behind.

In the middle of a five-day public holiday last month, when millions of Chinese

In the middle of a five-day public holiday last month, when millions of Chinese were vacationing across the country, Gugu was holed up at home.

The 43-year-old from Nanjing sent a message to her friends: "Don't come looking for me. Nobody ask me to go out to eat." Coronavirus cases were on the rise for the whole of May and a trajectory expected to continue through June; she would be staying at home as much as possible.

Gugu is a "zero covid" holdout, the name given to people in China who are still maintaining the strictest of infection control measures on their own, even as the rest of the country has moved on. She wears a face mask outside and keeps a separate room in her apartment where she uses ultraviolet lights to disinfect anything brought in from outside. "It's like a quarantine ward," she says.

These covid prevention enthusiasts ironically refer to themselves as "fangyi dingzihu," or "zero-covid nail houses," a reference to the stubborn homeowners who wouldn't sell to developers during China's construction boom.

Gugu, who is diabetic and has high blood pressure, felt safe under zero covid, China's notoriously strict approach to keeping the virus out through mandatory mass testing, quarantines, lockdowns and contact tracing, which ended in December.

China is now experiencing a surge in coronavirus infections, with 65 million cases a week expected this month.

But this time around, there are almost no restrictions, no testing, no quarantine requirements. Instead, most Chinese — as in most of the world — are living like it's 2019.

Not Gugu. "Now, there's no one looking after you. You have to look after yourself," she said, speaking on the condition that only her first name be used out of security concerns over an issue that is still politically sensitive.

Zero covid, known as "dynamic clearing" in official parlance, was closely linked with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and was a point of pride for the ruling Chinese Communist Party as it hailed the superiority of its system over that of Western governments.

The policy was the No. 1 political priority for three years, even as it paralyzed the economy and wore citizens down. Last November, that dissatisfaction boiled over, giving rise to the largest wave of social unrest the country had seen since pro-democracy protests in 1989. In December, as authorities struggled to contain the highly transmissible omicron variant, the zero-covid policy was dropped.

See what led protesters to a breaking point with China's ‘zero covid’ policy

But the fact that a segment of the population continues with it is evidence of the long shadow that the zero-covid approach still casts on China, and the difficulty Chinese leaders face undoing years of convincing the public of the dangers of the disease.

"The government's extensive campaign against covid heightened the danger of the disease, resulting in disproportionate fear and anxiety about the disease," said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Even after the campaign's conclusion, they are struggling to escape its shadow," he said.

The philosophy of "nail houses" can be summed up in three key objectives, according to Lin Yiwu, a self-identified nail house resident living in Beijing with his family.

"If possible, avoid catching it at all. Delay — the later you get it the better. And as much as possible, reduce the number of times you catch it. Delay, reduce and avoid," he said.

Lin — who masks, avoids crowded places and disinfects all deliveries to the house with ultra-violet lights — has found community online where the covid nail houses have formed a kind of online subculture. In private groups and forums, people share things like the hazmat suit they made for their six-month-old baby, tips on how to build an air purifier at home or what face masks are more breathable.

These groups began cropping up as soon as China lifted the strictest covid measures in December and cases exploded.

At the time, Yu Liang, 45, who lives with his parents, wife and young children in Shanghai, was determined to protect his family, who had previously caught the coronavirus during the city's outbreak and lockdown in the spring. His elderly parents, who have preexisting health conditions, suffered the most.

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Yu convened a family meeting where he asked everyone to continue wearing masks. He bought a gardening shelf and covered it with PVC sheeting to store the family's shoes and outerwear. (Such separated entrances are standard among nail households like his, he said.)

After looking high and low, Yu secured a fourth vaccine shot for each of his family members. Over the next two months when almost 90 percent of the country caught the virus, his family did not get reinfected.

"I think these measures are still effective," he said, seeing his efforts as similar to that of his country's at the beginning of the pandemic. "In some ways China, as the only place that maintained zero covid, was the original nail house."

Today, he continues to mask even though most of his co-workers don't. He has his children clean out their noses with saline spray every day before going to school. When he meets friends he tries to choose places with outdoor seating.

While most of the country has moved on from covid, even as it faces a second wave of infections, the gap between people like Lin and Yu, of the "zero covid camp" — as their critics call them — and those who aren't worried about covid prevention has only widened.

These fissures are playing out publicly and privately. "Everyone is [coronavirus] positive, but they are still out, going to work and inserting themselves into crowds," one nail house commentator wrote last week as infections increased.

"Your symptoms are light, and to you, it's just like a cold, but covid-19 is not the same for everyone. People who have no bottom line when it comes to civic duty are no different from barbarians," the post read.

Online, critics say the zero-covid camp is sowing fear by centering their lives around these measures. Others say they are living in their own world. After a flood of angry comments in response to unflattering news coverage of the covid nail house group on Weibo last month, the platform disabled further discussion under the hashtag "How should we view hardcore covid prevention enthusiasts."

Today, Gugu says she doesn't waste time blaming others, focusing on what she can do to protect herself. She and Lin both argue that their lifestyle is not isolating or oppressive. When cases are lower, Gugu travels for work and sees friends more regularly.

"It's like playing a game. You strategize and try things out. As time goes on, you get used to it, and you start to simplify these processes. It doesn't affect my life that much," Lin said.

Yu believes the point of China opening up was to let residents choose for themselves how they want to live.

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"If you want to lie flat, you can," he said, using a saying that carries connotations of having given up. "If I want to continue epidemic prevention efforts, I’ll continue. That's why we call ourselves nail houses, we are still resisting covid."

Official narratives about covid have, however, added to the confusion. "People remember being told, ‘You will have to go into mandatory quarantine. You will infect your family and neighbors,’" said Larry Au, an assistant professor in sociology at the City College of New York, who has researched covid narratives in China.

"People become distrustful of the institutions that are sending these different public health messages. People become disoriented. They don't know who to trust or who they can turn to," he said.

It's because of this confusion and lack of confidence in health officials that an 18-year-0ld business student in Shenzhen wants to escape the city and form her own covid-safe community. She plans to go to a remote mountainous area in Tibet this summer and hopes to convince people to join her in bringing back zero covid.

"We have now fully surrendered to covid," she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she has been attacked online and offline for her views. "These days in China, covid is seen as no worse than the flu. When it comes to information and prevention, we’ve fallen far behind Hong Kong and most Western countries."

In addition to disinfecting her entire body and all her items every time she returns home, she wears a respirator mask. When she wore it at a train station recently, a man started yelling obscenities at her.

Unlike many nail house occupants who blame the anti-zero-covid demonstrations in November for pushing the government to prematurely abandon the policy, the student says she supported the protesters’ right to speak. For this reason, she believes the views of those who want to continue zero covid should also be respected.

"We should consider how to improve zero covid and regulate it instead of abandoning it completely," she said.