China is on red alert as the nation is considering rolling out “the most complicated and severe prevention and control” measures to contain the spread of Covid, which is reportedly rapidly worsening as officials struggle to get a hold of the endemic virus. Liu Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention warned this week that the Chinese capital is currently facing one of the toughest outbreaks since the pandemic first began, warning that leaders are under huge pressure to contain the spread.
It comes after the reported deaths of three people in Beijing over the weekend, which marked the first fatalities from COVID-19 in six months, with cases on the up despite its tough zero-Covid policy.
According to the National Health Commission, there were 26,824 local infections across the country on Sunday, close to April’s peaks. Speaking at the 420th press conference on the prevention and control of Covid in Beijing, Mr Xiaofeng said there were clear regional differences, but warned that officials are still scrambling to get a clearer understanding to roll out better-targeted measures and conduct and more unified response.
The senior health official implied that measures to control the COVID-19 epidemic are expected to get even tighter to limit the spread, but warned that the situation is getting increasingly harder to manage.
Students are now set to have their classes moved online as schools gear up to shut in some regions, with residents in some of the worst-affected areas ordered to stay at home. China’s zero-COVID policy calls for cities to use more targeted clampdown measures and avoid widespread lockdowns.
But while Beijing officials scramble to contain the virus, with 962 new infections, up from 621 a day earlier, other regions are also finding it difficult to limit the spread. Zhengzhou in central Henan province to Chongqing in the southwest have also reported high numbers of local cases, while Guangzhou in southern China ordered a five-day lockdown for its most populous district.
The Chaoyang district of Beijing, which has a population of 3.5 million people, has also called on residents to stay home and has moved schools online. People are also being urged to work from home, while shops apart from those selling groceries mostly appear shut.
Jia Xi, 32, a medical industry salesman, told Reuters: “You can’t go anywhere. Everything’s closed. Customers cannot come, either. What can you do? You can do nothing.”
While China has an overall vaccination rate of over 92 percent who have received at least one dose, that number is far smaller among the elderly, especially those aged over 80, where it is only 65 percent. The total official toll to 5,227 in the capital has now reached 5,227, following the first recorded deaths from the virus since May.
The rest of the world has opened up its borders and relaxed Covid restrictions nearly three years after the outbreak first began, but Beijing residents are being urged not to travel between city districts.
The tough measures have proved disruptive to both the national economy — with Mainland China shares pushing lower as Covid’s toll raises concerns — and also the population, as public anger at the measures taken by the authorities has soared, despite the nation’s strict censorship laws.
But according to Chinese officials, the zero-tolerance approach has resulted in significantly lower case and mortality numbers in comparison with other countries. Despite having a population of 1.4 billion, the largest on the planet, China has only reported 286,197 cases in total since 2019, although different estimates vary and the accuracy of this figure has also been called into question.
Hu Xijin, a commentator with the state-owned Global Times, tweeted: “The epidemic in China is already severe, with 24,000+ new infections in a single day, and [the] situation in Beijing is also serious. But Beijing has not been in lockdown on a large scale. This time, China is hopeful to find a new way to break through the siege of Omicron with few deaths.”
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Beijing has also repeatedly ruled out a shift away from it zero-Covid policy, despite public backlash. Last week, students and staff at Peking University in Beijing were told would not be allowed to leave the grounds unless absolutely necessary after just one case was discovered on campus.
Guangzhou, which is currently suffering from the largest outbreak, is also mulling over increased localised lockdowns, which has sparked huge concerns for residents and triggered protests in the city. Residents reportedly tore down barriers and marched down streets in revolt.
Chet, a resident of the city who lives near to where a heated protest took place, told Reuters: “It was quite tense out there last night. Everyone made sure their doors were locked. When it happened so close to me I found it really upsetting. I couldn’t sleep last night after watching those images.
But officials continue to argue that they must avoid a “one-size-fits-all” response, despite the rising case numbers.