Since March last year, China’s new Covid-19 infections have remained low after the government controlled the pandemic by sealing the country’s borders and imposed strict lockdowns. But in recent months, the country began to see small-scale outbreaks driven by the delta variant.
In May, the southern city of Guangzhou saw China’s first Covid-19 outbreak caused by that variant, which scientists say is more easily transmitted than other strains of the virus, and may cause more severe illness. While most recent outbreaks were quickly confined to the region where they started, that has not been the case with the new outbreak that originated last month in Nanjing in eastern China. Though the numbers of new infections are low, state-run media have called the outbreak China’s most serious since the early days of the pandemic because of the number of provinces affected. China reported 328 local cases in July, nearly equal to the number of cases reported in the previous five months, and cases have been confirmed in at least two dozen cities.
The new wave has prompted local authorities to fall back on last year’s tools for containing the pandemic. Some cities have urged or required millions of residents to stay at home, banned private cars from roads, and restricted intercity travel. Others have assigned workers to monitor residential buildings, and even offered cash bonuses to report people who have traveled to high-risk areas of the country.
The new restrictions come as some other countries, most notably the UK, have begun adopting a strategy of focusing on hospitalizations and not new case numbers in order to guide restrictions—a strategy called “living with Covid.” In China, though even a small number of infections can still cause authorities to invoke tough restrictions, leading to fresh questions about the sustainability of Beijing’s Covid-zero strategy of keeping new cases as low as possible.
A key outbreak began at a major airport
On July 20, the Nanjing Lukou airport, a major transportation hub, recorded around a dozen new Covid-19 cases among its cleaning staff. Local health officials believe those cases are linked to a flight from Russia that arrived at the airport on July 10. From there, the disease spread quickly to other places as domestic tourism saw an uptick in the summer months.
Some of that spread may have occurred after thousands of people attended a theater festival in Zhangjiajie, a popular tourism destination in Hunan province, and then returned home. The city has seen more than a dozen confirmed local cases since late last month. Meanwhile, Beijing, which saw five local cases since July 28, has limited travel from many other cities. Overall, around 303 new infections were linked to the Nanjing outbreak as of the end of July, according to Chinese news outlet the First Caijing.
In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 virus was first noticed last year, there were twelve new Covid-19 cases reported this week, the first new local transmissions in the city in nearly a year.
Still, according to a local resident, people in the city are “relatively calm” after the new cases emerged, though there have been some cases of people snapping up water, food, and masks.
“People’s feeling of security became too high, after the official propaganda drummed up [the government’s] efficiency of controlling the pandemic,“ added the resident. “They let their guard down.”
Chinese cities are avoiding the word “lockdown”
While authorities in China have fallen back on lockdowns, or partial lockdowns, they aren’t exactly calling them that.
Yangzhou, a city of 4.5 million residents located near Nanjing, announced Tuesday (Aug. 3) that it had adopted “closed-off management” at all residential compounds, with the term referring to partial lockdown measures. Meanwhile, the city of Zhuzhou in Hunan province asked its around 4 million citizens to “rest for three days” at home starting Aug. 2 and not leave the city unless they can provide negative Covid-19 testing results.
Zhangjiajie meanwhile last week ordered all of its 1.5 million residents not to leave their residential compounds unless absolutely necessary, and asked government workers to work from home. Yesterday, it banned everyone currently in the city from leaving. Some local health and tourism officials have lost their jobs or faced other penalties over the flare-up.
In addition to lockdowns, Chinese cities including Wuhan are conducting mass scale Covid-19 testings. In Nanjing alone, its around 9 million residents have gone through three rounds of tests ever since the outbreak.
Co-existing with Covid
The efforts suggest that China intends to continue with its policy of zero tolerance for new local cases. But how much longer can it keep doing so?
Countries with high vaccination rates are easing internal rules, gradually opening up their borders and allowing a degree of transmission. China has vaccinated more than half of its people, but continues to impose snap restrictions when cases rise, which could hamper its economic recovery. It also shows no signs of easing its border controls, which means countries that used to count on Chinese tourism are weathering difficult economic times. Meanwhile, athletes to the Winter Olympics that Beijing will host in February may face quarantine and testing regimes as stringent as those in place in Tokyo right now.
While the efficacy rates of Chinese vaccines are generally lower than those of other Covid-19 vaccines, prominent Chinese medical expert Zhong Nanshan has said Chinese Covid-19 vaccines are effective at reducing the risk of contracting symptomatic and severe cases caused by the delta variant.
Zhang Wenhong, another highly respected Chinese medical expert who is often compared to Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, posted on social media platform Weibo last week that people need to learn to live with the virus.
“Even if every one of us is vaccinated in the future, Covid-19 will still spread, but the level of spread will be lower, and the rate of death caused by the pandemic will be reduced,” he wrote. ”What we have experienced wasn’t the most difficult, what is really difficult is whether we can have the wisdom to co-exist with the pandemic in the long run.”