China: millions of confined people face a record outbreak of COVID-19 cases in two years

Millions of people were in lockdown across China on Sunday as the country recorded its highest rate in two years of daily coronavirus cases amid public angst over the persistence of the government’s zero-COVID policy is being felt more and more.

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Due to a spike in cases across the country, authorities closed schools in Shanghai, locked down central districts in southern tech hub Shenzhen, as well as entire cities in the northeast, while nearly nineteen provinces fight against local foci due to the Delta and Omicron variants.

The large city of Jilin, in the northeast, has been partially confined, with hundreds of neighborhoods placed under bell jars, an official announced on Sunday. Yanji, a town of 700,000 people on the North Korean border, has been completely confined.

China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has applied a zero-tolerance policy to the outbreak. It reacts to epidemic outbreaks with local confinements, mass screening, and control of its population through tracing applications.

The country’s borders remain virtually closed.

But this record of daily cases, caused by the Omicron variant, undermines this approach.

“The emergency response mechanism in some areas is not robust enough, the understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant is insufficient (…) and the judgment has been inaccurate”, admitted during a press briefing of the government Zhang Yan, health official of Jilin province.

“It also reflects the rapid rise (…) of the virus in the various regions and the lack of (…) medical resources”, causing delays in admission to hospitals and treatment of patients, he said. he adds.

Residents of Jilin, which has reported more than 500 cases of the Omicron variant, had completed their six rounds of mandatory drug tests by Sunday, according to local authorities. On Saturday, several hundred neighborhoods in the city were confined.

Changchun, a neighboring city and industrial base of 9 million inhabitants, was put under a bell on Friday.

Jilin’s mayor and Changchun’s health official were removed from their posts on Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the political imperative imposed on local authorities to tackle outbreaks.

China has so far managed to keep coronavirus cases very low thanks to localized lockdowns and mass testing and its closed borders.

But the weariness of this strict approach is increasingly heard in China. Several officials are now advocating softer, targeted measures to contain the spread of the virus, and economists are warning that drastic measures are hurting the country’s economy.

In Shenzhen, a city of around 13 million people bordering Hong Kong, residents have expressed anguish over the surge in cases and the drastic response from health authorities, who have put Futian district on lockdown. (300,000 inhabitants).

“It’s the worst since 2020,” a Shenzhen resident named Zhang told AFP. “The closings are too sudden, my friend woke up in the morning to find her building had been sealed off overnight without warning. Her boss had to mail her laptop to her. »

Hong Kong currently has one of the highest death rates in the world from the virus, with Omicron hitting its elderly population who are still reluctant to get vaccinated.

Thousands of expatriates have also left the city, mainly due to the closure of schools and severe restrictions that have reduced any gathering or movement to near zero.

But Chinese health policy has generally been more targeted since the rise in cases, which began in February, than in December, when the city of Xi’an and its 13 million people were in full lockdown for two weeks.

In China’s largest city, Shanghai, authorities opted for social distancing by temporarily closing schools, businesses, restaurants and shopping malls rather than mass quarantines.

Long queues were also seen outside hospitals across the city, with people rushing to get a negative COVID test.

Faced with rising cases, the national health authority announced on Friday that it would introduce the use of rapid antigen tests, which could indicate a form of relaxation of the Communist Party’s health policy.

Last week, a top Chinese scientist said the country should seek to live with the virus, as other countries have done.

But the government has not ruled out the possibility of resorting to strict confinements.

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