A tale of two cases: Covid infections lay bare Beijing’s wealth disparity

HONG KONG – One person toiled at dozens of construction sites across the city. The other shopped in luxury stores and went skiing. Both got Covid.

The movements of the two coronavirus patients in Beijing, which is trying to contain an outbreak before it hosts the Winter Olympics starting this week, painted strikingly different portraits of the city they live in. The contrast between the two cases has fueled public debate over China’s income inequality as President Xi Jinping promises to redistribute wealth from top to bottom.

Health authorities in China, which has been following a “zero Covid” strategy since the start of the pandemic, are conducting careful contact tracing for each case to minimize the risk of further transmission. The activity log they released for the first patient, a migrant worker surnamed Yue, prompted some online commentators to describe him as “the man leading the most difficult life in China.”

According to the activity log, from Jan. 1 to Jan. 18, Yue commuted between about 30 different construction sites in Beijing, working day and night in five districts. On New Year’s Day he worked until almost 5 a.m., on January 10 he was in five different locations in one day. The activity log showed Yue, 44, had worked for two weeks without a day off.

He told Chinese media that he was going home to Shandong Province for the Lunar New Year holiday when he found out he had the virus.

In contrast, the second patient — a 26-year-old bank teller surnamed Li — frequented high-end malls and luxury stores like Dior and jewelry chain Chow Tai Fook. She also went skiing on the outskirts of Beijing and watched a live comedy show.

Yue, contacted via Weibo, and his wife, contacted via phone, did not respond to requests for comment. Li could not be reached for comment as her full identity is unknown.

Users on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo said the two patients’ activity logs embody the country’s widening wealth gap and the struggles of those at the bottom of Chinese society.

“The man and woman seem to live in the same place, but [their activity logs] suggest they live in two separate worlds,” one user commented.

China has grown at a dizzying pace over the past four decades and, along with its economy, has raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the number of people in China’s middle-income bracket grew from about 100 million in 2010 to over 400 million in 2019, about 30 percent of the total population.

But this economic growth has also widened China’s wealth gap, and it is now among the most unequal countries in the world. Last year, Xi vowed to address the issue by launching a “shared prosperity” campaign, which he says will include efforts to “regulate excessively high incomes” and “encourage high-income people and businesses to return more to society.” would include.

Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said Yue’s case shows the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on low-income groups compared to the United States.

“We must be aware that the poor are more vulnerable to the pandemic as they have unequal access to resources that could help them avoid the risk of contagion,” he wrote in an article published on his WeChat account would.

in one report British aid group Oxfam, released in January, said the pandemic had created 20 new billionaires in Asia, despite pushing 148 million people across the continent into poverty.

Yue’s case sparked online discussion about the hardships facing hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China, who often struggle to access public services like health care.

“The pandemic has already widened the wealth gap, and the welfare system isn’t well-rounded here — you’ll run into obstacles almost anywhere,” wrote one Weibo user.

Others disagreed, arguing that Yue represented normal working-class life.

“They use their own power to make money, people shouldn’t feel sorry for him,” wrote one Weibo user. “Craftsmen don’t need pity, they need respect.”

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