China is playing lockdown whack-a-mole in its battle against a second wave of Covid-19 cases

Hidden dangers.
Hidden dangers.
Image: Reuters/Yew Lun Tian
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As much of the rest of the world continues to find ways to contain and emerge from the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak, China is now facing the specter of a second wave of infections, with many of the new reported cases located in the country’s northeast region.

Shulan, a small city in Jilin province, which neighbors North Korea and Russia, has been put under a partial lockdown since Saturday, with all non-essential transportation banned for its over 630,000 citizens. The city has reported 13 locally transmitted cases as of today, ending Jilin’s more than two-month streak of reporting no new cases, according to Shulan’s mayor (link in Chinese), who said the city is in “wartime” mode. The source of the infections are still under investigation, according to the Shulan government.

Shulan was also classified as the only “high-risk” Covid-19 area yesterday in China, three days after the central government classified all counties in the country as low-risk.

The measures implemented in Shulan are reminiscent of those that were taken in the early days of the pandemic’s spread in China in January following the announcement of the outbreak in Wuhan. According to Jilin’s health commission (link in Chinese), all schools in Shulan have been ordered to shut, while the city’s residential compounds have banned residents from going outside or coming in unless they have special needs such as needing urgent medical treatment. Each household can only send one delegate out to purchase groceries each day. Most public facilities, including some government service centers, are also shut, although leaders of some government departments are still allowed to go into the offices to deal with Covid-19 related issues.

The outbreak in Shulan comes after authorities have re-imposed lockdowns in other parts of the northeast region in recent weeks. Parts of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, for example, were put under lockdown in late April after the city reported 52 imported cases. Another emerging concern is Suifenhe, a border town that saw a sharp increase in infection numbers as Chinese nationals returned home from Russia last month.

The restrictions in Harbin are being lifted gradually as the case numbers start to drop, although all of China’s land border checkpoints with Russia remain closed.

The re-imposition of strict lockdown measures in different parts of China underlines the difficulties that governments are likely to face as they emerge from lockdowns, with suppression measures switched on and off depending on whether cases rise or fall. South Korea, for example, ordered the closure of bars and nightclubs in Seoul again over the weekend just days after it declared the end of social-distancing measures, after a new cluster of infections developed linked to a man who visited nightlife venues. The re-opening of schools there has also been delayed. China’s approach, however, is comparatively more stringent as it has moved to re-impose sweeping lockdowns even though the number of new Covid-19 cases in places like Shulan and Harbin are a relatively small proportion of the population.

China reported 10 new local coronavirus cases (link in Chinese) and seven imported ones yesterday. Among those, were five linked to a compound in Wuhan, the city’s first new cluster of cases since its months-long lockdown was lifted at the start of April. Wuhan’s health commission said yesterday (link in Chinese) that it would enhance its measures for containing the coronavirus, including stepping up the lock-down and control of residential compounds to make sure that “the outbreak does not return.”