Ho Ngoc Binh was scared.
The 43-year-old resident of central China’s Hunan province is a cancer survivor and she just learned that despite having COVID-19 patients in her building, a two-week lockdown is in place. To prevent the spread of the virus is to lift up.
“Wear a mask and don’t go to crowded places – now we can only rely on ourselves,” Hu wrote in her family group chat on messaging platform WeChat.
After nearly three years of implementing a COVID-free strategy that sought to stamp out the virus wherever it appeared with lockdown measures, mass testing, and centralized quarantine, China suddenly began to relax. loosen some of the most stringent restrictions.
The change in policy that has stunted growth in the world’s second-largest economy and disrupted the lives of millions came in the wake of a financial crisis. anti-blockade wave sweep across the country.
The policy easing has satisfied many people, especially those with economic livelihoods have been harmedbut many are worried about what could happen next, with health experts predicting a rise in coronavirus cases in a country where the vast majority of people have not been exposed to the virus. and many elderly people are not fully vaccinated.
The COVID-free strategy also means that since 2020, the Chinese government has given the story of an unquestionably deadly virus and described the rest of the world’s decision to live with it. is a dangerous move.
However, it took the government no more than a few nights to begin dismantling the anti-pandemic regime it had worked so hard to build.
Within a week, the government dropped PCR testing requirements for entry to most public places, removing the national COVID-19 tracking app — a symbol that identifies pandemic measures China — and generally easing other such restrictive measures. people’s daily lives.
‘Leave it outdoors’
The sudden change has confused many and even – for people like Hu – fear.
People with underlying diseases or with suppressed immune systems are known to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 and Hu has been treated for ovarian cancer.
She recently passed the five-year mark since the last cancer cells were detected in her body, a clinical sign that the disease could have been prevented, but she says she is “extremely concerned” by the sudden change in COVID-19 policy and is canceling all non-essential travel outside of her home so she is not “at any risk”. any infection”.
“The doctors said they were afraid of the side effects the vaccine might have on me,” Hu told Al Jazeera.
“But now, we’re left out in the open, with no vaccines and no state protection.”
Al Jazeera spoke to five immunocompromised people who were not vaccinated. They all told stories of how the government was slow and unwilling to vaccinate them because of concerns about side effects.
Patients with underlying illnesses are now fearing that they won’t have enough time to get vaccinated before the virus hits their city or building.
Ding Siyang, a hemodialysis patient in Kunming, a city in southwestern China, said: “In the past, no one was in a hurry to get vaccinated, but now even though we want to get vaccinated. But the doctors are still hesitant because there is no guidance from the higher up.” speak. “We were all a little scared.”
The country’s aging population is also intimidating. Despite the government’s efforts to rush vaccinations for the elderly after easing the policy, only 60 percent of people over 80 have been boosted, according to the National Health Commission. Research conducted in Hong Kong showed that elderly people who received a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine were only able to protect against serious illness after a booster shot.
Due to relatively low vaccination rates among vulnerable people, experts have predicted a sudden increase in cases in the middle of winter in China could overload limited medical resources in China. most populous country on the planet.
Faced with the inevitable wave of COVID-19, the vulnerable are not the only ones scared.
After the relentless messages over the past three years, there is also anxiety among young people and healthy people — who, in common sense, should be better able to cope with the disease.
Experts have studied about effect of prolonged lockdown on people’s mental health since COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan three years ago and the city of 8.5 million people has been on lockdown.
The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, cites the first national survey of psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic in China since 2020, noting that “35% of respondents experienced distress, including anxiety and depression.”
“School closures are associated with adverse mental health symptoms and behaviors in children and adolescents,” it added, noting that relief from the lockdown in Wuhan Han, which was finally lifted, was appeased by “widespread anxiety about adapting to daily life and fear that the transmission of the virus would reverberate”.
Since then, China’s sporadic but prolonged lockdowns have left many “tired and depressed”, according to Xiao Lu, a psychotherapist in Shanghai.
She said: “Being separated from friends and family because of the fear of this disease that many once feared is a major cause for many.
Lu Xueqin, a 35-year-old resident of Changsha, central China, was vaccinated and boosted with a domestically produced Chinese vaccine, but her mind returned to the early days of the pandemic when medical resources were available. economy is pushed to the limit.
“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 clear: the extra protection offered by more vaccines and better treatments means the wave of Omicron variants has been more widespread but less severe. more important.
In China, however, Beijing’s frightening depiction of the virus since Wuhan has made it even more challenging for people to face the future of living with COVID-19.
Xiao Lu told Al Jazeera: “Anxiety will almost certainly flare up for many people who previously thought that being infected with the coronavirus was like a death sentence.
Although senior experts took to national television to inform the public that the new variant was not as deadly as the one that devastated Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, fear was still widespread. .
Lu worries that unless the government updates the public more positively on the changing nature of the epidemic, many others will suffer anxiety and even depression.
“It has been scientifically studied that uncertainty increases anxiety in susceptible people.” [anxiety]and a change in policy without proper communication with the public would make matters worse,” she added.
Such uncertainty and fear could have lasting effects as cases rise amid lax controls.
“Currently, the epidemic in China is… spreading rapidly, and under such circumstances, no matter how strong prevention and control is, it is difficult to completely cut off the chain of transmission.” Zhong Nanshan, a top government medical adviser, told state media on Sunday.
In a survey conducted earlier this month by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, among 4,000 consumers polled, fear of contracting COVID-19 was the top concern of those who said they would not traveling.
“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 barely summon the courage to leave my house now.”