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For several weeks now, Shanghai has been under lockdown as part of China’s absolutist ‘zero covid’ policy. What was intended to be a snappy freeze of the country’s financial hub has caused despair and anger among its residents barricaded at home. Haplessly locked in, with some families said to be short of food, the city’s people have been under the watch of security patrols so harsh that only an autocracy could stomach it. What goes on in China tends to stay there, given its clamps on information, but outsiders with business contacts in the city have got wind of horrors that lend credence to tales of children kept apart from parents, police beatings and off-balcony suicides. State strictness was portrayed as an advantage held by Beijing over supposedly squishy administrations answerable to their electors. Till recently, ‘zero covid’ also served as a global boast, with the so-called People’s Republic basking in the illusion of superior pandemic control. While cases may not have fanned out across China yet, with Jilin the only hard-hit province other than Jiangshu and Hebei that host its two biggest mainland cities, the failure of its approach is now apparent.

China’s covid wave was led by versions of Sars-CoV-2 so stealthy and infectious that experts had warned the misery of house arrest would far exceed the efficacy of its infection curbs. Driblets of data, while unreliable as absolute numbers, offer indicative trends. Local health authorities admitted 39 deaths in Shanghai on Saturday, a new peak. By casting what was claimed to be a wide testing net, the city also logged 21,058 new cases that day, 2,312 less than Friday. The point of putting out these figures, it would seem, was to signal an end in sight to a nightmare that could not be hidden. But China’s official count of new cases, as reported elsewhere, was only a fraction of those figures. Even going by charts of the World Health Organization, it recorded only 5,508 cases nationwide on 22 April, with daily infections having peaked at a week’s rolling average of under 44,000 in early March. In other words, a drop-off had already been advertised. Shanghai’s relentless woes, however, point to quite another story. The country’s crisis is clearly much worse than Beijing has let on.

The trouble with masking reality is that even higher-ups who should know better can get foxed by masks, making the actual achievement of goals that much harder. President Xi Jinping’s autocratic rule is seen to have tightened its grip, thwarted scientific efforts to pin down the deadly bug’s origin and raised the overall premium on truth. The longer he now delays a covid ‘glasnost’, a new openness, the harder it may become to retain pretences of success. To be sure, India had been accused of covid undercounts too, and was called a nation with “its own problems" by US President Joe Biden, but our broad covid trends from one wave to another have not really been in dispute. That makes a key difference. The risk of falling for a self-projected image tends to worsen once statistics get fudged out of policy-worthy shape, a folly that may have begun to take apart Chinese-crafted portrayals of health stability. What needs to be dispelled globally is the notion that a tough regime would do a more efficient job of keeping a lid on the virus’s spread than the people-sensitive authorities of a noisy democracy; no reliable data exists to back that assertion. And the barricaded people of Shanghai surely deserve better.

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