China: confined metropolises, factories shut down due to an outbreak of COVID-19

The 17 million people of Shenzhen, the tech hub of southern China, were locked down on Monday due to a record spike in COVID-19 cases, forcing an iPhone manufacturing plant to suspend operations, while restrictions have been imposed in other major cities across the country, including Shanghai.

Shenzhen authorities announced on Sunday the entry into force of containment as epidemic outbreaks linked to the neighboring territory of Hong Kong, where the virus is wreaking havoc, appear in the city.

Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier, announced on Monday the suspension of its activities in Shenzhen, the confinement affecting the operation of its factories.

Foxconn, which employs tens of thousands of workers in the city, said it had transferred its production to other sites.

Shenzhen is one of ten cities in China currently under lockdown.


Health authorities have warned that even stricter measures could be taken, at a time when Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy seems to be causing fatigue among the population, raising questions about its merits in the face of the variant. Omicron.

Authorities identified 2,300 new cases across the country on Monday. Nearly 3,400 had been counted the day before, the highest figure since the start of the pandemic.

“There have been many small outbreaks in neighborhoods and factories,” said Huang Qiang, a representative of Shenzhen authorities, at a press briefing on Monday.

“This suggests that there is a high risk of spread within the population and more precautionary measures are still needed.”


Photos shared with AFP by a Shenzhen resident showed the entrances to a residential compound blocked by wide barriers, as residents took to social media to amuse themselves with how they hurriedly retrieved their laptops from the office before the entry into force of the containment.

Tech stocks tumbled on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday as investors worried about the impact of the virus’ spread in Shenzhen, home to the headquarters of tech flagships Huawei and Tencent as well as Foxconn’s biggest factory.


In Shanghai, China’s most populous metropolis, residential neighborhoods are cordoned off and the authorities are doing everything to avoid general confinement.

The city reported 170 new cases on Monday, prompting concern among businesses about economic hardship ahead.

A restaurateur with four establishments in different neighborhoods spoke of the difficulty of coping with the restrictions. “The policies are different depending on the neighborhood,” he told AFP, on condition of anonymity. “I want to close one and keep the others open, and see how it goes later. What can I do but hold on?”


Other places are in an even more complicated situation.

Jilin province in the northeast recorded more than a thousand cases for the second day in a row.

At least five cities in this province have been confined since the beginning of March, including the major industrial center of Changchun, which has a population of nine million.


While the number of cases remains low compared to the situation experienced in other countries, it remains remarkable in the context of China where the authorities have continued, since 2020, to apply a policy of zero tolerance in the face of the epidemic.

In recent days, at least 26 officials from three provinces have been sacked over their mishandling of the outbreak, state media reported.

So far, China has managed to control sporadic outbreaks through local lockdowns, mass screenings, population control through tracing apps as the country’s borders remain virtually closed. But the appearance of the Omicron variant undermines this drastic approach, at a time when most other countries have chosen to live with the virus.

Prestigious virologist Zhang Wenhong said on Monday that China could not yet relax its “zero-COVID” policy despite the low death rate linked to Omicron.

“It is very important for China to continue to adopt the COVID-zero strategy in the near future,” Zhang wrote on social media.

“But that does not mean that we are going to permanently adopt the strategy of containment and mass screening,” he added.

Zero COVID on borrowed time?

The Omicron strain is putting China’s coronavirus strategy under pressure like it has not seen since the first wave of COVID two years ago. Forced to reconfine millions of inhabitants, how long can China continue its zero Covid policy?

As soon as cases of COVID appear, the authorities take measures to contain infected people and their environment in the broad sense. Whole neighborhoods can find themselves cut off from the world overnight.

During the initial wave in early 2020, nearly 60 million people in Hubei province found themselves in quarantine for more than two months.

With the arrival of Omicron, entire cities find themselves confined, in particular the metropolis of Shenzhen, at the gates of Hong Kong. Its 17 million inhabitants have had to stay at home since Sunday.

Throughout the country, the essential tracing applications make it possible to quickly find contact cases and lock them up if necessary.

It is not uncommon for a shopping mall, high school, leisure park or office building to be blocked at any moment after a contact case is detected. And that the people concerned find themselves stuck inside for hours, even days, waiting for the result of their screening test.

At the same time, China practically closed its borders in March 2020, reducing international flights to a bare minimum.

If official figures are to be believed, in the space of two years, China has recorded barely 115,000 cases of contamination, including 4,636 deaths to be exact. A fraction of the balance sheets accumulated in the rest of the world.

The communist regime sees it as a validation of its authoritarian political system, and its media extensively dwells in contrast on the catastrophic health situation of the great American rival.

If Beijing were to change its approach, it would have to start by changing the perception of the virus in the population. A risky exercise for President Xi Jinping, who seeks to be reappointed at the end of the year at the head of the ruling party and presents himself as the man who protected China from the epidemic.

Locking down entire regions, particularly the most industrialized ones, is seriously disrupting supply chains, including internationally.

Entire sectors such as tourism, transport or catering continue to suffer from restrictions. Millions of migrant workers also find themselves regularly stranded in their province, unable to return to their place of work.

In addition to the economic cost, the human cost is high. Many confined residents have complained of supply problems.

At the very beginning of the year, the drama of a woman who suffered a miscarriage at the door of a hospital had moved social networks. Her last test no longer valid, she could not be hospitalized.

Rare voices that have risen to demand a change in policy have been branded traitors to the fatherland on social media. But things could be changing.

Earlier this month, a prestigious epidemiologist, Zeng Guang, opined that zero COVID could not stay on the agenda forever and called for “coexisting” with the virus.

In the absence of contamination, the population has only achieved herd immunity through vaccines, he pointed out, while the country has only administered to its citizens products of national manufacture.

But given China’s overcrowding and lack of hospital beds, a relaxation of precautionary measures could result in “colossal contamination”, researchers at Peking University warned in late 2021.

Chinese authorities are closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong, where hospitals are struggling to cope with a recent outbreak.

The semi-autonomous territory on China’s doorstep now has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world.

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