Watching the live telecast of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 from her home in Chengdu, 34-year-old Chen Xuanya (pseudonym) is full of envy. Living under China’s stringent anti-Covid policy, the sight of a maskless audience moving freely feels like an unattainable ideal world. But for 68-year-old Li Ying (pseudonym), the spectacle of maskless crowds seems like a horror scene from a disaster film.
The resurgence of coronavirus infections in China has further intensified the public debate over the tightening and loosening of Covid-19 controls, with the two camps divided by age. China’s working youths support reopening, while older retirees continue to defend the country’s strict dynamic zero-Covid policy.
The Chinese capital Beijing reported three new Covid-related deaths on 19 and 20 November, triggering online furore. The deceased were elderly aged between 87 and 91 with underlying health conditions. Even before contracting Covid-19, one suffered from cerebellar atrophy and the remaining two were disabled. Many young Chinese netizens thus questioned if it is worth sacrificing the Chinese economy and the freedom of the majority of people to protect a minority of high-risk groups.
“While the elderly with underlying health conditions should be protected, this high-risk group could also die from a common cold or fever.” — 34-year-old Chen Xuanya (pseudonym)
Chen, a designer, also had her doubts after learning about the Covid-19 deaths. She said, “While the elderly with underlying health conditions should be protected, this high-risk group could also die from a common cold or fever.”
She added that the sacrifice of the general population for the sake of the minority amid the pandemic is disproportionate. “Such as those who delayed going to the hospitals because of the pandemic. What if they die of other diseases due to all these anti-epidemic measures? What’s the point of control then?” she asked.
Chinese youths bear the economic brunt of Covid-19
Compared with the old-age pensioners, working youths are bearing the brunt of the sluggish economy and volatile epidemic prevention policies. The unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 remained high at 17.9% in October, while the implementation of online classes in several regions has also increased the burden on young families.
... the prolonged stringent anti-Covid measures in China are expected to have a greater impact on the younger generation.
Singapore Management University's Assistant Professor of Economics Ma Lin pointed out that the younger generation around the world are naturally hit harder by anti-Covid measures. European and US studies show that blue-collar workers and young frontline workers are feeling the most strain.
Unlike in Europe and the US where most Covid-19 restrictions were only adopted for a few months, the prolonged stringent anti-Covid measures in China are expected to have a greater impact on the younger generation.
While Chen’s salary remained intact during the pandemic, she laments that her goals have been disrupted and her life is now in a state of flux. She registered her marriage this year, but has yet to set a date for her wedding as she hasn’t met her in-laws who are based overseas. In the face of uncertainties in the pandemic, she has also put on hold her plans to start a family.
She shared, “Previously, I could just go anywhere I wanted, but now it’s almost impossible. I’m baffled by how China’s controls are getting stricter when the virus has become less deadly, and other countries are treating it as a common cold.”
Health and safety the priority for the elderly
But Li Ying has a very different view. She lives in Beijing’s Chaoyang district and has gone through relatively the same lockdown controls as Chen in the past year. However, her support for the dynamic-zero policy remains firm.
Li, who retired 13 years ago, receives a monthly pension of several thousand RMB, which has not been impacted by the pandemic. Meanwhile, personal freedom is a foreign concept for her. She believes that health and safety has to be the top priority, and the community working together to protect vulnerable elderly should be a given.
Li is in good health but often comes across frail residents in their 80s or 90s in her residential compound, so she sees for herself the possible damage Covid-19 might wreak.
“Every night, the elderly in our estate watch the news and inform each other about any updates from the government.” — 68-year-old Li Ying (pseudonym)
Li is uncertain of how the virus harms the body, but is able to list in detail the preventive measures in the community, on which days disinfection is carried out, and which compounds are quick in reporting cases. The control measures that many young people see as fetters make Li feel more at ease.
She said, “Aside from staying at home more because of trouble walking, many elderly people are also worried about the pandemic. Every night, the elderly in our estate watch the news and inform each other about any updates from the government.”
Generation gap: Differences in lifestyle and awareness
Chang Chih-Chung, the vice-dean of Kainan University's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said that the main reason for the generation gap on control policies is the difference in awareness among the different age groups in China.
He explained that young people have a wider pool of information, including foreign news, which prompts them to question the necessity of strict Covid-19 controls. Despite the greater risk from the virus, the elderly only have a handful of activities in their daily lives, so the controls have less impact on them.
The Chinese authorities are holding fast to the dynamic-zero policy mainly because the elderly make up a high proportion of the population.
The Chinese authorities are holding fast to the dynamic-zero policy mainly because the elderly make up a high proportion of the population, and a large-scale outbreak might lead to severe cases and deaths among them and those with pre-existing illnesses. According to China’s seventh national census conducted in 2020, those aged above 65 accounted for 13.5% of the population.
Chang stressed that the authorities’ narrative of pushing on with the dynamic-zero policy to protect the elderly would create a dichotomy between the positions of the young and the old. But with the elderly being part of most households, the young people would not go against the elders at home but will direct their unhappiness at government policies instead.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “新一波疫情不断加剧 中国捍卫清零或开放民间意见分歧”.
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