China Battles Largest COVID Outbreak Since Wuhan in 2020

Over 50 million people are under some form of lockdown across China as the country struggles with its single biggest coronavirus outbreak since Wuhan in 2020. All of Jilin Province has been put under lockdown, as have the cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Langfang; certain sections of Shanghai and Xi’an are under partial lockdown, as well. Since the beginning of March, over 10,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported in 28 of China’s 31 provinces, municipalities and regions. The central government remains committed to a “dynamic zero-COVID” policy that necessitates the use of costly, but so-far effective, lockdowns. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo reported on China’s latest outbreak and official attempts to balance official “zero-COVID” policy with the need to preserve daily and economic life

Patients with mild symptoms no longer need to be hospitalized but are instead being sent to centralized quarantine centers, officials said Tuesday. Officials in Shanghai, where schools have been shut, said they were not planning to institute a citywide lockdown.

[…] But many provinces and cities are still implementing controls as strictly as before. Almost 36 million people in towns and cities from Hebei province to Shenzhen have been restricted to their homes or housing compounds. Key industrial hubs such as Dongguan, Changchun, Jilin city and Shenzhen have placed their residents under “closed management,” forcing businesses and factories to suspend operations.

[…] Despite signs of wavering, China has officially promised to continue its zero covid policy. Lei Zhenglong, deputy head of the National Health Commission’s Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency published Wednesday that experts have judged the current zero covid policy to be effective against the omicron variant, even though the BA.2 version was spreading faster and undetected. He said the nature of the current outbreak requires “our prevention and control measures to be earlier, faster, stricter and more effective.” [Source]

The largest and most severe outbreak is in Jilin, a province in northeastern China that shares a border with North Korea. An official in the province said residents and officials must “urgently mobilize and act to overcome difficulties with clenched teeth — we are racing against time.” One viral Weibo post from a student at Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University revealed that students lacked sufficient toiletries and had been forced to quarantine in the library, where they were sleeping on tables. Later reports indicate that approximately 300 buses were sent to evacuate over 6,500 people from the campus, and that the university’s Communist Party Committee secretary was sacked. Sun Chunlan, the Politburo’s top COVID-policy enforcer, traveled to the province and ordered that the “most thorough” measures be taken against the virus. Sun previously played a role in curbing COVID outbreaks in Wuhan, Xinjiang, Zhengzhou, and Xi’an, among other areas. (Despite her pivotal role in China’s COVID fight, Bloomberg reports that Sun was passed over for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee due to her gender, a common phenomenon for China’s female cadres.) At Reuters, David Stanway, Roxanne Liu and Albee Zhang reported on Jilin’s “last-ditch battle” against the virus

Authorities have called for blanket testing in Jilin, with provincial Communist Party secretary Jing Junhai urging health departments to ensure “not a single person is missed”, the official Jilin Daily newspaper reported.

[…] Though Jilin’s infections had halved compared to a day earlier, China’s daily number of new local symptomatic cases was still over 1,000 for a fourth consecutive day, and Jing described the efforts to stamp out China’s worst regional outbreak in two years as having entered “a critical stage of the last-ditch battle”.

[…] Jilin province, which has banned its 24 million residents from leaving without notifying local police, has added eight temporary hospitals with over 10,000 beds in total and two temporary quarantine facilities, and is preparing to add five more quarantine sites with over 27,000 rooms, state television reported on Wednesday. [Source]

Although China has not yet reported any deaths from the virus during the recent surge, there may have been deaths due to medical neglect or delayed treatment, just as there were earlier this year in Xi’an, where a man having a heart attack was denied treatment at a local hospital due to COVID protocols and subsequently died. A four-year-old girl in Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin, died of acute laryngitis after she was unable to receive treatment in a timely manner. The recent Omicron outbreak is particularly concerning because 40 percent of China’s over-80 population remains unvaccinated. The low vaccination rates among the elderly are at least partially attributable to the country’s unique vaccination strategy: Chinese policy-makers focused on vaccinating cold-chain workers, border and port inspection officers, and others handling imported goods or interacting with foreigners over inoculating the elderly. In many provinces, the elderly were only offered access to vaccines alongside the rest of the general population. Omicron has exposed the downsides to that strategy: 65 percent of China’s severe COVID cases occur among people over 60, and 65 percent of severely ill seniors are unvaccinated. 

The affected provinces and municipalities have introduced lockdowns of differing levels of severity. Shenzhen has instituted a local lockdown that will last for at least one week and will involve three rounds of city-wide testing. Shanghai has placed at least 18 of its over 60 colleges and universities under lockdown, likely affecting over 100,000 students. One student told Sixth Tone, “​​We did not have enough mental preparation, as well as enough time to stock up resources.” Shanghai and Shenzhen requisitioned apartments and dorm buildings, respectively, to serve as quarantine centers. In both cases, residents and students were given little-to-no notice. Shanghai initially gave residents only two hours to move out of their homes—although after a backlash, it later extended the deadline to a full 24 hours. In Shenzhen, officials seized dormitories at the Shenzhen Institute of Information Technology without notifying students beforehand. Commuters, too, have found themselves in Kafkaesque situations: one woman and her friends were stranded on a bridge linking Beijing with the nearby city of Yanjiao, in Hebei Province, after both cities instituted entry bans while they were in transit. In a now-deleted Weibo post describing her plight, the woman wrote, “If it weren’t happening to me, it would be hard to believe such a thing could occur.” It is unclear if the post was censored by Weibo or removed by the author herself. 

Chinese citizens’ reactions to the lockdowns are by now so familiar as to inspire searing parody. One anonymous netizen described the typical sequence like this: “(1) Curse the local government; (2) Doxx and heap online abuse on the first local COVID patient; (3) Shift focus to the real story: America & Europe are strewn with corpses; (4) My city’s sick—stay strong, XX! [where XX represents either the city’s name or an anthropomorphized avatar for it]; (5) We’re out of lockdown, be grateful to the motherland; (6) Our system is superior, we’ve triumphed again.” Similar dynamics are at play again. Shenzhen residents have taken particular offense at that city’s effort to brand its lockdown as “slow living in Shenzhen,” i.e. a leisurely respite from the breakneck pace that defines Shenzhen’s work culture (once celebrated by the city’s Party Committee.) Others have cursed the neighboring city of Hong Kong’s reluctance (or inability) to impose a mainland-style lockdown, blaming it for Shenzhen’s own struggles. 

The lockdowns have put an extra burden on China’s working poor. In January, the country was shocked by contact tracing records of two coronavirus patients in Beijing that revealed the gulf separating the capital’s “haves” from its “have-nots.” Now, Shenzhen’s “entry, no exit” lockdown policy has left the city’s food delivery drivers stranded with an unenviable choice: remain in the city for work, without a place to rest, or head home to their rented rooms on the outskirts of town, with no clear timeline for a return to work. An essay reporting their plight was censored on WeChat.

Updated at 12:52:05 PDT on Mar 24, 2022: The reference to the number of people evacuated from Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University originally contained a typographical error, which has now been corrected.


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