Word of the Week: Zero-COVID Nail Houses (防疫钉子户, fángyì dīngzihù)

“Zero-COVID nail houses” (防疫钉子户, fángyì dīngzihù) are people who still adhere to strict virus prevention measures despite the end of the national zero-COVID policy. It is often used self-deprecatingly by “nail houses” themselves in group chats dedicated to sharing their experiences. The term is a riff on China’s mass demolition-era “nail houses,” a phrase which has entered the lexicon as a humorous catch-all for holdouts who refuse to go along with changes to the status quo. It is also a play on “Epidemic Prevention Hobbyists” (防疫爱好者, Fángyì àihào zhě), the derisive term for the volunteer army mobilized by the government to enforce public compliance with the zero-COVID policy. 

The abrupt end of China’s zero-COVID policy last December, although welcomed by many, was followed (or perhaps preceded by) a deadly wave of infections that may have claimed up to 1.5 million lives. Hundreds of thousands of those deaths could have been avoided by better planning, according to reporting from the Associated Press. The abrupt swing from zero-COVID to uncontrolled outbreak left many survivors struggling with unexpected medical debts. The policy and its rapid denouement also left psychological scars. Many asked what it was all for. One comment beneath whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post lamented, “We worked so hard and so long to beat the virus, but we ended up coexisting with it, the same as the rest of the world.” Some demanded an apology from the government. Others, such as the “zero-COVID nail houses,” seem to have simply not accepted that the policy is over. 

The Beijing-based TrumanStory media outlet, which publishes to the public WeChat account @真实故事计划, profiled a number of “zero-COVID nail houses” whose attempts to avoid COVID extend far beyond commonsense precautions such as masking and proper ventilation, and seem to veer into the realm of trauma response:

Self-described “zero-COVID nail houses” mostly fall into two camps: the Proactive Prevention Party and the Withdraw from the World Faction. Long Xiaoxuan [31, living in Guangdong] is a representative member of the Withdraw from the World Camp. He’s been in a self-imposed home “quarantine” since December 23rd of last year, over four months now. He has not left his building once. 

[…] Before, Li Chun [24, college student] loved going out with friends to shop, stroll, and check out restaurants. Now she rejects all her friends’ invitations because she doesn’t dare to eat out. After rejecting several such invitations, her friends eventually caught on and stopped inviting her out. “I get zero social interaction,” she says wryly. Li Chun continues to cook for herself. She never travels or goes to the movies. While others her age enjoy the delights of spring, she paints a solitary figure. 

Since the advent of “opening up,” Li Chun has come to believe that few people are “real friend” material because their beliefs don’t match up. When the winter outbreak was at its worst, a boy in her class posted to WeChat that he was going to “charge into the flock” [a pun on testing positive, which sounds like “sheep”]. Another friend joked with Li Chun, “Once you test positive, then you can grab dinner with us again.” She literally shook with anger. After a while, Li Chun got tired of trying to convince them not to make these kinds of jokes. [Chinese]

The intense isolation felt by the COVID-cautious since government pandemic-control measures ended is a universal experience, and not at all exclusive to China. In the United States, those maintaining strict prevention measures join “Still COVIDing” Facebook groups that are highly reminiscent of China’s “zero-COVID nail house” group chats. From Ellen McCarthy at The Washington Post: 

[Jeremy Pelofsky and Christine Grimaldi] are among the Americans who are still going very far out of their way to avoid the virus. They don’t dine indoors at restaurants. They continue to practice social distancing. They wear highly protective masks if they must visit a doctor or stop at a pharmacy. Some are home-schooling their kids. Others are refusing to return to the office. They populate the dozens of social media groups whose members identify as “Still COVIDing.”

[… Lindsay Poveromo-Joly] sees her continuing efforts to keep the virus out of their home as totally rational. She’s worried about her youngest child, a daughter who is now six and has twice been hospitalized with severe cases of the flu, and about her husband, who is a diabetic. That worry didn’t disappear with access to vaccines. So now her kids are home-schooled. They bought a new house with a home office for her husband so he could continue to working remotely. She has repopulated her social circle with new friends who are making similar choices.

Most of their social circle is made up of other home-schooling families, who they see regularly for outdoor gatherings and play dates. Rather than send her daughter to a nearby gym for tumbling class, Poveromo-Joly found a gymnastics instructor who will teach the little girl outside. When other fourth graders boarded a bus to see the state capitol in Tallahassee, Poveromo-Joly packed up the family, rented an Airbnb and did their own tour of St. Augustine.

“Do I talk to a lot of the people from our old life? No, unfortunately,” she says. “For a while people tried to make it work. But sometimes you do lose relationships.” [Source]

In China, the central government wants the pandemic over. In February, the central government declared a “decisive victory” over the virus. The zero-COVID policy, “a people’s war,” has now literally been consigned to the history books. Globally, the Chinese government is engaged in a censorship campaign aimed at stifling scientific inquiry into the virus and its impacts. Nonetheless, remnants of the three-year long campaign still exist. Massive quarantine facilities still stand in some provinces. Many of the migrant workers who served as “big whites,” pandemic policy enforcers, remain unemployed. “Zero-COVID nail houses” continue to soldier on. The TrumanStory profile on them ended on this note

That afternoon, Li Chun sent a message to the “iron nail” group chat. It was about the experience of a fellow “iron nail” who, despite continuing prevention measures, caught the virus for the first time. “I’ve let down my fellow ‘nail houses,’” the infected former “nail house” said.

A group chat member responded along the lines of “those of us who still remain are the strongest.”

“It’s a cruel thing to say, but nature is inherently crueler.” [Chinese]

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