Lockdown in China amid Omicron fears

Despite zero COVID policy, cities report fresh cases in run up to Winter Olympics, Chinese New Year

Published - January 11, 2022 09:20 pm IST - HONG KONG

Deja vu: Women wearing face masks sitting outside a mall in Beijing on Monday.

Deja vu: Women wearing face masks sitting outside a mall in Beijing on Monday.

Several cities in China have locked down hundreds of thousands of their residents and carried out mass testing amid concerns that the spread of the Omicron variant could threaten the country’s “zero COVID” strategy.

Cities in central Henan province as well as the municipality of Tianjin in the north, near Beijing, have reported local spread of Omicron cases, prompting the sweeping measures. The timing is of particular concern for China’s authorities with both the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the annual Chinese new year holiday in the first week of February.

Henan accounted for most of the 110 new local cases reported in China on Monday – a high number for a country following a “zero COVID” approach including continued restrictions on international travel for close to two years – with the rest in Tianjin and in northwestern Shaanxi.

Also read: Anyang in China too goes into lockdown ahead of Winter Olympics as COVID-19 cases spiral

Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi, had been the epicentre of an outbreak in December, reporting 2,000 cases in recent weeks, prompting days of a strict lockdown. Residents in recent weeks took to social media to complain of food shortages as well as medical treatment being denied for other illnesses because of the stringent measures. After a pregnant woman posted on social media saying she had lost her baby after being prevented entry into a hospital, authorities moved to sack local officials and instructed hospitals to accept patients, as many residents questioned the costs of all-out containment.

The situation in Xi’an has since somewhat eased and after weeks of a lockdown, Xi’an reported 13 cases on Monday, with the focus now shifting to Henan in central China. The concern in Henan and Tianjin is because the Omicron variant has been detected in the community. Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital, on Monday closed schools and carried out mass testing. At least two Omicron cases have been reported in Henan with the number expected to rise.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong, which last week put in place a 6 p.m. curfew for dining venues, announced fresh restrictions citing community transmission, although the Special Administrative Region only reported 21 cases on Tuesday, of which 13 were imported.

Nevertheless, because of the continuing “zero COVID” approach in Hong Kong, the city moved to close kindergartens and primary schools after three children tested positive, having been infected by their parents.

The latest cases in Hong Kong have also triggered a political controversy after as many as a dozen senior government officials as well as 20 lawmakers last week attended a birthday party of 200 guests, with two attendees later testing positive.

Senior officials, including the Home Secretary Caspar Tsui and the head of the police force, were among the dozens of guests subsequently sent to the government’s centralised quarantine facility in Penny’s Bay and were reprimanded by the government for attending the event.

Hong Kong has also announced a two-week suspension of flights from eight countries — India, Australia, U.S., U.K. Canada, France, Pakistan and the Philippines. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Hong Kong will, starting January 15, also ban travellers from all “high risk” nations — currently most countries are classified in the high risk category — from transiting through Hong Kong airport.

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