Millions of people across China endured lockdowns yesterday as virus cases doubled to nearly 3,400 and anxiety mounted over the resilience of the country’s “zero COVID” approach in the face of the worst outbreak in two years.
A nationwide surge in cases has seen authorities close schools in Shanghai and lock down central neighborhoods in the southern tech powerhouse of Shenzhen as well as whole northeastern cities, as almost 18 provinces battle clusters of the Omicron and Delta variants of SARS-CoV-2.
The city of Jilin, center of the outbreak in the northeast, was partly locked down on Saturday, while residents of Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 bordering North Korea, were confined to their homes yesterday.
China has maintained a strict “zero COVID” policy enforced by swift lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters have emerged. However, the latest flare-up, driven by the Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases, is testing the efficacy of that approach.
Zhang Yan, an official at the Jilin provincial health commission, conceded that local authorities’ virus response so far had been lacking.
“The emergency response mechanism in some areas is not robust enough,” he said at a press briefing yesterday. “There is insufficient understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant ... and judgement has been inaccurate.”
Residents of Jilin 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 9 million people — was locked down on Friday, while at least three other small cities have been locked down since March 1.
The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun health commission were dismissed from their jobs on Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the political imperative placed on local authorities to contain virus clusters.
In Shenzhen, the southern city of around 13 million bordering Hong Kong, residents have been caught between nerves at a renewed outbreak and angst at the swift, draconian measures to squash clusters.
“It’s the worst since 2020,” a Shenzhen resident surnamed Zhang told reporters. “The closures are too sudden, my friend woke up in the morning to find her building was sealed overnight without warning. Her boss had to mail her laptop to her.”
The Shenzhen subdistrict of Futian, which was locked down yesterday, is home to 300,000 people and a thriving commercial district. It shares a land border crossing with Hong Kong, where the caseload over recent weeks has soared, alarming officials in Beijing.
In China’s biggest city, Shanghai, authorities have increasingly moved to temporarily lock down individual schools, businesses, restaurants and malls over close-contact fears rather than using mass quarantines. Long lines have been seen outside hospitals in the city as people rush to obtain a negative COVID-19 test.
As cases rise, the country’s National Health Commission announced on Friday that it would introduce the use of rapid antigen tests.
The kits will now be available online or at pharmacies for clinics and ordinary citizens to buy for “self-testing,” the health commission said.
Although nucleic acid tests will continue to be the main method of testing, the move suggests China might be anticipating that official efforts will not be able to contain the virus.
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