Millions on new lockdown as China faces worst COVID outbreak in two years
Millions of people across China suffered from lockdown on Sunday as virus cases doubled to nearly 3,400 and concern grew about the resilience of the country’s ‘zero Covid’ approach in the face of its worst outbreak in two years.
The surge in cases nationwide has seen authorities shut down schools in Shanghai, lock down central neighborhoods in Shenzhen’s southern tech energy hub as well as entire northeastern cities, with nearly 18 counties battling combinations of Omicron and Delta variants.
Jilin city – the epicenter of the outbreak in the northeast – was partially closed on Saturday, while residents of Yangi, a metropolitan area of about 700,000 people on the border with North Korea, were confined to their homes on Sunday.
China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has maintained a strict ‘zero Covid’ policy enforced by rapid lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters emerge.
But the most recent outbreak, driven by a highly transmissible and elevated Omicron variant in asymptomatic cases, is testing the efficacy of this approach.
Zhang Yan, an official with the Jilin Health Commission, acknowledged that the response of local authorities was missing.
“The emergency response mechanism in some areas is not strong enough,” he told a news briefing on Sunday.
“There is insufficient understanding of the properties of the Omicron variable… and the judgment is inaccurate.”
Jilin residents have completed six rounds of mass testing, with the city reporting more than 2,200 cases of the Omicron variant since Saturday.
The neighboring city of Changchun – an industrial base of nine million people – was closed on Friday, while at least three other small cities have been closed since March 1.
The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun Health Commission were sacked on Saturday, state media reported, citing the political imperative placed on local authorities to contain virus clusters.
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In Shenzhen, the southern city of about 13 million people on the border with Hong Kong, residents have been trapped on their nerves by renewed outbreaks of the disease and by anxiety over swift and draconian measures to crush crowds.
“It’s the worst since 2020,” a Shenzhen resident surnamed Zhang told AFP. “The closures were so abrupt, my friend woke up in the morning to find her building was closed all night without warning. Her boss had to mail her laptop to her.”
Shenzhen’s Futian District, which closed on Sunday, is home to 300,000 people and a thriving business district. It shares a land border crossing with Hong Kong, where the number of cases has surged in recent weeks, alarming officials in Beijing.
Hong Kong currently has one of the world’s highest death rates from the virus, with the Omicron variant penetrating its elderly population among whom vaccine frequency is spreading.
In Shanghai, China’s largest city, authorities temporarily closed individual schools, businesses, restaurants and malls over fears of close contact rather than the use of mass quarantine.
Authorities advised residents not to leave the city unless necessary and tourist attractions began requiring visitors to submit negative Covid tests.
“I have friends I went out with a few days ago but they were suddenly quarantined recently,” Serena Lee, a Shanghai resident, told AFP.
The government’s approach “will protect citizens,” she said, adding: “In the long run, that’s good.”
Long queues were seen outside hospitals on Sunday as people rushed for tests.
“There’s no other way,” said one data analyst, surnamed Zhang. “We definitely have to do what the government has arranged.”
With cases rising, the country’s National Health Commission announced Friday that it will make rapid antigen tests available to citizens to purchase online or from clinics for “self-testing.”
Although DNA tests will continue to be the main method of testing, the move indicates that China may expect that official efforts will not be able to contain the virus.
Last week, a senior Chinese scientist said the country should aim to coexist with Covid, like other countries, as Omicron has spread like wildfire.
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