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China's "Two-Legged Sheep" And The Cost Of COVID Discrimination

As China holds firm in its zero-COVID approach, discrimination against those who have tested positive is rampant. Some even find themselves homeless and jobless. Now, the government is trying to tackle the stigma, but it won't be easy.

China's "Two-Legged Sheep" And The Cost Of COVID Discrimination

A janitor dressed in protective gear in Hong Kong

Dan Wu

On July 9, the story of Afen, a young girl living in the restrooms of Shanghai Hongqiao train station, spread rapidly on Chinese social media. The girl was reported to be jobless and homeless because she had once contracted COVID. In post-lockdown Shanghai, many recruiters refused to give jobs to those who had been infected or who had worked in hospitals. Such demands in Shanghai’s labor market were not just seen in companies and firms but also in manual part-time jobs.

And even shelters might not host people who had tested positive for the virus. In Shanghai alone, thousands of workers like Afen were left with no choice but to live on the streets and struggle for their survival.

Another story of a girl who lost her job due to her infection history also caught the attention of millions of netizens. In a video, 24-year-old He Yuxiu recounted fleeing wartime Ukraine, where she had been studying. When she finally found a job teaching Russian in a Chinese school, she was sacked because she tested positive twice on returning to China. Yuxiu says that in China, "Social discrimination is the biggest issue after you’ve been infected with COVID-19."

Positive means guilty

As He Yuxiu makes clear, such cases are not unique. Discrimination against COVID-positive people has been part of the ongoing pandemic in China, visibly or invisibly. Apart from becoming "unemployable," individuals who have recovered from COVID could be barred from public places, and even refused from staying long-term in hotels.

Discrimination could also come from neighbors and acquaintances. During mass lockdowns, like the one that took place in Shanghai a few months ago, a whole living unit would go through tough restrictions if there was one positive case. So the "positive" person could be seen as "guilty," taking on tremendous blame and stress. There were even cases of making public apologies to neighbors for testing positive.

The new phrases used to refer to those who have tested positive also reflect this discrimination. From "little positive man" to "two-legged sheep" (the word "sheep" yáng has the same pronunciation as "positive" in Mandarin), patients are sometimes just called "male sheep" and "female sheep" or even just a sheep emoji. These are not just simple words, but a step-by-step stigmatization of the disease.

Apart from becoming "unemployable," individuals who have recovered from COVID could be barred from public places

Sam Balye

Life under "zero-Covid"

Observers say that China's Zero-COVID approach is to blame for discriminatory attitudes. The risk of having someone re-testing as positive is too high for companies to take because everyone in the workplace would have to go into isolation.

The same idea applies to living spaces and communities. There is even a joke that "where you will be tomorrow and whether you could go out depends on your neighbor." On the other hand, the mass population are not up-to-date on the latest scientific knowledge about COVID, so the fear from two years ago is still present.

China's COVID technology also creates conditions to identify those testing positive. Under the country’s COVID-19 control system, individuals need to carry a health code, which resembles an e-passport that tracks one’s travel history, residence and medical records. The code switches colors from green and yellow to red, indicating different levels of COVID exposure risks.

Privacy is easily violated to have total control over the virus

In order to track cases under the zero-COVID policy, one needs to show their health code when entering places and taking public transport. For many job seekers, it is obligatory to show their COVID testing history to recruiters. So a person's infection history is very obvious, leaving people vulnerable to discrimination. When a positive case is identified, the individual has to release information on their whereabouts and recent activities, and such information is widely circulated in group chats and social media.

A call to end discrimination

People are consequently at risk of cyberattacks and privacy leakages. There have been suggestions that the health code should show COVID testing results for the most recent month and have improved privacy protection. But with the ongoing zero-COVID approach, privacy is easily violated to have total control over the virus.

On July 13, at a State Council meeting, China’s Premier Li Keqiang called for equal employment rights and announced that discrimination against people recovered from COVID would be punished. Keqiang stressed the importance of stabilizing the labor market, making clear Beijing's wish for economic activities to go back to normal.

But with the zero-COVID approach and regional administrations still enforcing lockdowns and strict quarantine regulations, it is going to prove difficult to see an overnight change. And the millions of Chinese people who have had COVID might still finding themselves trying to live their lives in the face of discrimination and stigma.

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