Chinese cities that were in lockdown just a few months ago are imposing pandemic curbs again, as the country’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 plunges it into a constant cycle of unpredictable, stop-start restrictions.
The snap mitigation measures come as China reported just 22 new infections in the whole country for Tuesday, the fewest daily cases in more than four months.
There were two infections on Monday and none on Tuesday in Shenzhen, where isolation orders were imposed for some housing compounds. The technology hub was locked down in March. In Jilin city, officials shut down public transportation and asked residents to avoid unnecessary activities amid mass testing, as 10 cases were identified earlier in the week. The surrounding province had only emerged from a lengthy lockdown in mid-April.
The fast action is based on the experience of Shanghai, which ultimately imposed a two-month hard lockdown this spring after an initially light-touch response failed to contain its outbreak. Officials are hoping the reflexive restrictions will help stamp out flare-ups and avoid harsher measures.
For residents and businesses, however, the approach means there is a constant threat of new curbs that could derail daily life.
It’s a feeling that 21-year-old Zheng, a college student who asked that his given name be withheld for privacy, knows well. While he just finished his third year studying engineering at a university in Jilin city, he’s only attended classes in person for five months of the past six semesters. That includes four months during his first semester in late 2019.
Since COVID emerged, Zheng said he’s either been locked down on campus or taken classes online from home. The limited, random days of freedom haven’t added up to much, he said, and he doesn’t have high expectations for the next academic year.
While the school could extend its reopening date, or create a closed-loop campus if there are cases, nothing is currently known, he said. The impact on his college days are clear, he said: completely wasted.
Testing is pervasive in China’s two largest cities, Shanghai and Beijing, where targeted restrictions and extensive contact tracing are quickly employed to root out infections. Shanghai reported eight cases and Beijing reported six on Wednesday.
There were another three local community infections found in the capital by 3 p.m. Wednesday, officials said. They were all found in the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, home to JD.com Inc., where a mass-testing drive was put in place through Friday. A lockdown was ruled out to minimize disruption in the area.
And new clusters continue to emerge elsewhere, prompting swift action from local officials fearful of spiraling outbreaks.
The southern city of Zhuhai late Tuesday ordered some entertainment venues including bars to close and banned people who had been in neighboring Macau in the past 14 days from entering indoor areas. Anyone entering a public indoor venue must show a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.
The shifting focus of China’s COVID concerns underscores the difficult task of stamping out a pathogen so infectious that the rest of the world has adjusted to living with it. China is facing pressure to boost economic activity ahead of a Communist Party congress later this year where President Xi Jinping is expected to clinch an unprecedented third term as leader.
While other countries that sought to eliminate COVID have moved on as vaccines emerged and the virus became endemic, China has held fast to the strategy that has delivered it one of the lowest COVID death rates in the world.
Still, the approach is leaving the country isolated and forced to deploy ever more extreme measures to keep the virus at bay. In the capital, for example, children over age 3 now need to show a negative test result and specific health code to enter public parks, a move that was criticized on Chinese social media Wednesday.