When a handful of new coronavirus cases materialized this month in a province surrounding Beijing – apparently spread at a village wedding party – Chinese authorities pledged to action.
They locked down two cities of over 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a crash test program for almost all residents, which was completed within days.
They closed transportation and called off weddings, funerals and, most importantly, a provincial Communist Party conference.
This week, the lockdowns expanded to include another city on the outskirts of Beijing, Langfang, as well as a county in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. The districts of Beijing itself, the Chinese capital, have also closed their doors.
More than 22 million people in all have been ordered to stay inside their homes – double the number hit last January when the Chinese central government locked down Wuhan, the central city where the virus was reported for the first time, in a move that was later considered extraordinary.
The outbreaks remain small compared to the devastation other countries are experiencing, but they threaten to undermine the country’s Communist Party’s success in containing the virus, allowing its economy to rebound from last year’s crisis and to his people to come back to something close. to a normal life.
The urgency of the government’s current response contrasts with that of officials in Wuhan last year who feared a backlash if they revealed the mysterious new diseases then emerging. Local officials had organized a Communist Party conference like the now canceled one in Hebei, despite knowing the risk of the disease spreading among the people.
From Wuhan, authorities have created a manual that mobilizes party cadres to respond quickly to new epidemics by cordoning off neighborhoods, carrying out large-scale tests and quarantining large groups if necessary.
“In the process of prevention and control of infectious diseases, one of the key points is to seek the truth from the facts, to openly and transparently disclose information about the epidemic and to never allow to conceal or to under-report, ”Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at a meeting of the State Council, Chinese cabinet, on Friday.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has reported an average of 109 new cases per day over the past week, according to a New York Times database. The numbers would be welcome in much worse countries – including the United States, which averages over 250,000 new cases a day – but they are the worst in China since last summer.
China’s National Health Commission on Thursday reported a coronavirus death on the mainland for the first time since May.
In Hebei, the province where the new epidemic is concentrated, authorities declared last week a “state of war” which shows no signs of overcoming soon.
Throughout the pandemic, officials have been particularly concerned about Beijing, the seat of the Communist Party’s central leadership. Last week, Party Secretary in Hebei Wang Dongfeng pledged to make the province “the ditch to safeguard Beijing’s political security.”
The epidemics, after so long with minimal numbers of cases, increased anxiety across China, where people in most countries felt the pandemic was a thing of the past.
New cases have also been reported in northern Shanxi Province and northeastern Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces. Shanghai on Wednesday urged residents not to leave the city and announced that people who had traveled to high-risk areas should quarantine themselves at their homes for two weeks and only leave after passing two tests, while those who had gone to the most at risk areas were quarantined. government facilities.
In Wuhan, rumors have circulated that the city may face another lockdown; while these seemed unfounded, officials have significantly stepped up temperature checks in some streets.
In Shunyi, a district in northeast Beijing that includes Beijing Capital International Airport as well as rural villages, residents have been ordered to stay indoors since a wave of cases just before the New Year. In Beijing’s main train stations, workers sprayed public spaces with disinfectant.
After a taxi driver tested positive this weekend in Beijing, authorities found 144 passengers for further testing, according to The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now, anyone taking a taxi or car in Beijing has to scan a QR code from their phone, allowing the government to track them down quickly.
The government has moved ahead with plans to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year next month, a public holiday where hundreds of millions of people traditionally roam the country to visit their families. As of Wednesday, more than 10 million doses had been distributed.
Even with the vaccinations, officials have already warned people not to travel until the holidays.
“These measures, if properly implemented, can ensure that no large-scale epidemic rebound occurs,” Feng Zijian, deputy director of the China Center for Disease Control, said in a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. .
Although the new restrictions have bothered millions of people, there does not appear to be any significant public resistance against them.
“As far as I’m concerned, I think measures like a citywide lockdown are actually quite good,” said Zhao Zhengyu, a Peking University student who is now confined to her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang. , where she was visiting during the winter break when the epidemic broke.
Many people in the city feared a repeat of the Wuhan lockdown, but she seemed unfazed.
Ms. Zhao’s parents now work from home, shopping only in a market in their residential complex. She lamented not being able to meet friends or study at the library, but said online learning has become a routine.
“Maybe we got used to it,” she said.
The response underscored the speed with which the government is mobilizing its resources to contain the outbreaks.
After announcing the lockdown in Shijiazhuang on Jan.6, authorities collected more than 10 million coronavirus test samples over the next three days – nearly one for every resident, officials said in a statement. press conference in the city. These tests gave 354 positive results, although some of the cases were asymptomatic.
A second round of mass nucleic acid testing began on Tuesday.
“In fact, it’s a kind of wartime system – using the means of war for social control in peacetime – and during a pandemic this wartime system works,” said Chen Min, writer and author. former editor of a newspaper called Xiao. Shu. Mr. Chen was in Wuhan last year when the city was closed.
The nature of the country’s governance gave it the tools to tackle the epidemic – even if some measures seemed overdone.
“Chinese cities impose a residential system – the smallest have several hundred inhabitants, the large ones have tens of thousands – and by closing the doors, you can lock up tens of thousands of people,” Chen said. during a telephone interview. “Now, whenever they encounter this kind of problem, they are sure to apply this method. It would be impossible in Western countries.
Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed to the research.