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China’s ex-COVID patients live under the ‘dark shadow’ of stigma

China's ex-COVID patients live under the 'dark shadow' of stigma

This file photo taken on April 26, 2022 shows health workers conducting Covid-19 coronavirus tests at a makeshift site in Zhongguancun in Beijing. AFP

BEIJING — When Zuo tested positive for Covid-19 while working as a cleaner at one of Shanghai’s largest quarantine centers, she hoped it wouldn’t be long before she could pick up the mop and start earning again.

But four months later, she’s still struggling to get her job back — one of scores of recovering Covid patients facing a widespread form of discrimination in zero-Covid China, labor rights activists and health experts say.

With emergency lockdowns and mass tests, China is the last major economy to pursue the goal of completely eradicating the virus.

Those who test positive and their contacts are all sent to central quarantine facilities, while a flare-up at a factory can shut down production.

Rights groups say the tough rules are fueling Covid-related discrimination and locking thousands of people out of China’s already grim labor market – with migrant workers and young people being hit hardest.

“People are afraid they might catch the virus from us, so they avoid us,” said Zuo, who only gave her last name out of fear of retribution for speaking to AFP.

“During a job interview, recruiters check the Covid testing history, which goes back several months.”

China’s strict control measures have led to stigma not only from recovered patients, but also from their families, neighbors, friends and even frontline healthcare workers, said Jin Dongyan of Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences.

“It is unscientific to think that people who have been infected will continue to carry the virus and be contagious long after they have recovered,” Jin told AFP.

“Due to the lack of awareness, some fear that those who have been infected are more susceptible to reinfection, but in reality it is the opposite.”

Zuo is now fighting in court with her employer, who has refused to pay her wages since she became ill, citing her medical history as the reason for refusing her to return to work.

Her employer, a service company called Shanghai Yuanmao BPO, declined to comment, citing the pending court case.

“Treated like a virus”

China's ex-COVID patients live under the 'dark shadow' of stigma

This file photo taken on July 31, 2022 shows residents queuing to undergo nucleic acid testing for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a swab collection site in Guangzhou, south China’s Guangdong province. AFP

He Yuxiu is a Chinese social media influencer who goes by a pseudonym and lived in Ukraine until Russia invaded.

She fled the war and returned home. Then she found a job teaching Russian in north China’s Hebei province, relieved to have put her problems behind her.

But when her school learned she had contracted Covid-19 in Ukraine, she was fired.

“I never thought I would lose my first job because of this,” she said in a video posted to China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

“Why should we be treated like a virus when we defeated it?”

The stigma is rampant – job advertisements for factory workers in Shanghai published last month said applicants with a history of Covid-19 infections would be refused work.

The story of a young woman who lived in a toilet at Hongqiao Train Station in Shanghai for weeks because the stigma of infection prevented her from finding work or returning to her village went viral last month.

And a theater in the southern Chinese city of Foshan was forced to apologize after a notice denying entry to recovered patients sparked a public backlash.

‘Little Sheep People’

China's ex-COVID patients live under the 'dark shadow' of stigma

A sample to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus is taken from a woman at a swab collection center in Beijing in this file photo taken on August 1, 2022. AFP

Beijing’s National Health Commission and Ministry of Human Resources last month banned employers from discriminating against recovered Covid patients, while Premier Li Keqiang is calling for severe penalties for those flouting the rules.

But job seekers and activists are skeptical.

Factories in Shanghai continued to refuse to hire recovered workers even after the city announced tough anti-discrimination rules, labor broker Wang Tao said, fearing a mass outbreak or health inspections.

“Some factories give different excuses even though there is a shortage of workers,” Wang added.

“But all who are rejected have tested positive in the past.”

AFP contacted eight manufacturers described as discriminatory by Chinese state media – including iPhone maker Foxconn – but declined to comment.

“It is very difficult for workers to protect their rights as most employers offer different excuses and it is difficult to prove that a labor law has been violated in these cases,” said Aidan Chau, a researcher with rights group China Labor Bulletin .

“It is important that the unions take action. But many small and medium-sized factories don’t have them.”

People who test positive are often referred to as “little sheep people” on Chinese social media. In Mandarin, the words for “positive” and “sheep” are pronounced the same.

“For recovered patients, it is very difficult to return to our normal life,” said Zuo, the cleaner from Shanghai.

“No matter where we go, our infection history will follow us like a dark shadow.”

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