Sat. Nov 27th, 2021


Three leading Chinese health scientists have challenged the government’s monitoring of cell phone location data to identify close contacts of Covid-19 cases, in a rare case of public opposition to the country’s draconian pandemic prevention strategy.

The trio is led by Chen Fujun at Huaxi No 4 Hospital in the southwestern city of Chengdu, which imposes travel restrictions and mandatory tests for cell phone users who strayed within 800m of a confirmed case for more than 10 minutes.

In a letter dated November 8 and seen by the Financial Times, Chen and doctors Li Jiayuan and Wang Chuan wrote that the program could lead to “an over-utilization of medical resources, growing public panic and the disruption of people’s normal lives and work”.

“We need to consider the sustainability of these measures,” the doctors added, suggesting the pandemic could be here to stay.

Since the onset of the pandemic in China, public criticism of the government’s response is severely limited by censorship and fears of retaliation. Some journalists have been jailed for reporting on Beijing’s early misuse of the virus, while other critics have been hit by waves of online attacks by nationalists.

The doctors’ critique highlights the growing challenges facing the Chinese government as it deals with its “zero covidRestraint strategy despite repeated outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said Chengdu’s measures were “excessive” and reflected poor risk assessments by the authorities.

The government, he added, apparently believes that the country’s only two options are “zero cases or. . . [a] worst case scenario where the entire healthcare system is overwhelmed and social stability is undermined ”.

Chengdu’s latest initiative was adopted after a nationwide outbreak that began in late October infected more than 1,000 people in dozens of cities.

Despite only 33 new cases since the end of last month, Chengdu authorities have started forcing local residents, whose cellphone signals showed that they were close to confirmed cases, to go into self-quarantine for three days and pass two virus tests before could return to normal. life.

Within three days after the implementation of the rules, the police in Chengdu identified 82,000 people who they believe were in the vicinity of only nine people with confirmed Covid infections.

Some provinces have introduced even stricter regimes. Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, has reported only two new cases since mid-July. But in October, it said residents whose cell phone data puts them near confirmed cases would have to take three virus tests over seven days before they could travel freely.

Other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, have used cell phone location data in their efforts to contain the pandemic. But none of them have defined close contacts as widely as Chinese cities have.

Singapore, one of the world’s most active contractors of contact detection, considers people to be close contacts only if they come within 2m of a confirmed case.

The three Chengdu doctors said the city’s improved contact detection program would identify many people as close contacts, even if they only had a very slim chance of becoming infected.

“There must be a limit to the scope of [close contact] screening, ”the doctors said, adding that local officials should refrain from“ inappropriate use of big data ”to fight the pandemic.

The doctors did not respond to requests for comment. Local authorities maintain that such inconvenience is inevitable as long as China maintains its zero-covid policy.

“We would rather mislabel a thousand close contacts than miss a single real case,” said a Chengdu public health official, who asked not to be identified. “It is for the sake of the public interest.”

But people identified by Chengdu’s surveillance system are also skeptical about its effectiveness.

Lucy Yang, a financial consultant in Shanghai, was stunned when she received a text message from the Chengdu Center for Disease Control and Prevention on November 7, describing her as a close contact in a Covid case. Although she had been in Chengdu for only two weeks before, she was subject to travel restrictions and had to pass two virus tests within 72 hours.

“I had a one-day trip to Chengdu on October 22 and the city’s first confirmed case during the latest outbreak was only on October 28,” Yang said. “The tracking system clearly has an accuracy problem.”

Additional post by Tom Mitchell in Singapore



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