‘No one remembers us’: China’s ‘big white’ pandemic workers reel from end of zero-Covid

For about a month last year, Liu, a 31-year-old migrant labourer, donned a white hazmat suit and enforced localised lockdowns in Beijing, an unpopular job that put him on the front line of China’s fight against coronavirus.

Once praised by President Xi Jinping for having “braved hardships and courageously persevered” in the face of the pandemic, workers such as Liu were left jobless, disillusioned and angry by the abrupt end of China’s zero-Covid policy last month.

“The opening was very sudden,” said Liu, who now works as a courier in the capital. “We all found out through the media.”

The Chinese state over the past three years mobilised millions of workers, who formed the backbone of the country’s battle to contain the virus with lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing.

Colloquially known as dabai, or “big whites” owing to their distinctive personal protective equipment, many were doctors and nurses, civil servants and local volunteers who were reassigned to administer Covid tests or staff temporary fever wards.

Others were migrant labourers who did low-paid, unskilled tasks such as checking digital health codes, sanitising public areas and guarding housing compounds that had been locked down.

“If you look over the three-year period, there was a kind of evolution [from] the reliance on volunteer party members to then reliance on employees, not necessarily people medically trained,” said Susan Shirk, a China specialist at the University of California, San Diego.

Former dabai told the Financial Times they had been stranded by the government’s chaotic exit from zero-Covid, which for almost three years closed the country off from the rest of the world and subjected hundreds of millions of people to rolling lockdowns.

As cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen scrapped PCR testing and quarantine mandates, legions of workers were suddenly rendered unemployed, aggravating tensions between Chinese authorities and the low-skilled essential labourers.

Many dabai had already complained of harsh working conditions, long hours and pay cuts as the pandemic dragged into a third year and cash-strapped local governments struggled to fund the system of mass testing and quarantine, which required a sprawling workforce.

Covid swabbers with medical training could earn about four times as much as unskilled workers, who received as little as Rmb3,500 ($520) per month, according to job postings seen by the Financial Times.

Some local governments have threatened migrant workers, including employees of Covid testing providers, who resorted to public demonstrations to demand unpaid wages.

Dabai also became frequent targets of public anger, as symbols of the government’s repressive strategy of stamping out the virus by restricting movement.

Some were also caught abusing citizens. Frustrated internet users compared dabai to Mao Zedong’s zealous red guards who carried out the Cultural Revolution. Videos circulated on social media of workers beating locals for breaching restrictions. In one case, a worker killed a dog whose owner was sent to a centralised quarantine facility.

“[Some workers] did a lot of vicious things,” said a 36-year-old music teacher who volunteered as a dabai in Shanghai for four months but quickly became disaffected by the conduct of colleagues. “These people thought just because they wore the white suits, they were exempt from accountability.”

Meanwhile, the cost to local governments of maintaining an army of pandemic workers was considerable, particularly for smaller cities with limited fiscal resources.

“The government sees migrant workers as easily jettisoned, they have so few rights,” said Mary Gallagher, an expert in Chinese law and labour politics at the University of Michigan. “It’s hard for these types of workers to coalesce into a labour movement.”

Rory Green, chief China economist at TS Lombard, downplayed the impact of the job losses on China’s wider labour market, where urban unemployment stood at 5.5 per cent in December, though for young people the picture was considerably worse, at 16.7 per cent.

“Pre-Covid, a quarter of all jobs in China were in accommodation, catering, retail and tourism,” he said. “The recovery here will relieve a lot of labour market pressure.”

Many volunteers and medical workers have been able to more easily transition into other jobs. “Other people working at our booths were simply reabsorbed into hospital jobs,” said a nurse working at a testing booth at Beijing Children’s Hospital.

But even those with medical training were affected by the sudden end of zero-Covid.

Yajie, a 21-year-old medical student who spent two months working for the local health commission of Lu’an, a city of 4mn in Anhui province, received a subsidy of Rmb100 per day as well as room and board. But she said working as a dabai had set back her medical career.

“Because of [our work] fighting the epidemic, my classmates and I missed our opportunity to do internships,” she said. After the restrictions ended, “none of us ever received a formal volunteer certificate or recognition”, she added. “No one remembers us.”

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