Infections are slower in Xi’an, but other cities in China face lockdown misery amid new COVID-19 wave

Volunteers wearing protective suits pack meals for delivery to people during lockdown in Xi’an in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province on January 4.Zhang Bowen / The Associated Press

The number of new coronavirus infections is declining in Xi’an, a city in central China that has become symbolic of the country’s draconian zero-COVID policy in recent weeks. But while Xi’an officials are preparing to ease the restrictions, other cities are once again shutting things down.

New clusters of cases have been reported in Zhejiang and Henan provinces. The latter has already closed its borders, and there are fears that the Lunar New Year travel period, which begins next week, could result in more infections – and more lockdowns.

“I did not dare send news I saw from Xi’an to my family because I did not want to increase their psychological burden,” said Gao Xiaoyi, a Henan financier. “The most important thing for the Chinese is the reunion” of families to celebrate the lunar new year.

Gao grew up in Zhengzhou, a city now on the verge of lockdown after an eruption in nearby Yuzhou. “My parents did not tell me about the situation because they did not want to distract me,” she said. “I did not know until I saw the news today that the number of new cases suddenly increased.”

China has maintained a tough zero-COVID strategy since early in the pandemic and sporadically shut down entire neighborhoods and even cities down to eradicate infection. While this has proven effective in keeping COVID-19 numbers down, it has led to widespread misery for those affected, especially in border areas where it is a daily struggle to prevent the virus from entering the country.

The number of confirmed cases in Xi’an since the latest outbreak began on December 9 is less than 2,000 in a city of about 13 million people. By comparison, there have been more than 3,200 cases in Toronto, which has fewer than three million inhabitants, over the past week.

In addition to trying to prevent the virus from spreading during the lunar new year, known as the Spring Festival in China, the government is also concerned about next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. The Tokyo Games last summer were marked by fears that they would be canceled due to an increase in cases in Japan.

“There’s a clear sense of dread, especially with the spring party on the way and the amount of people who want to travel,” said Erin Zhang, a business development manager in Shanghai. “I would not be surprised if more cities were closed” after the holidays.

In late December, as the number of cases began to rise in Xi’an, several officials were fired for “insufficient rigor” in the enforcement of coronavirus protocols, which could explain why the city subsequently went into overdrive with restrictions and enforced the strictest and largest lockdown since Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic.

Millions of people have been locked up in their homes for two weeks and there have been reports of families running out of food after being given some time to store. The government promised free supplies, but they did not go out. Tens of thousands have been quarantined in rapidly expanding facilities, while people seeking medical attention for reasons other than COVID-19, even emergencies, have reported being sent away from hospitals overwhelmed by the rise in infections.

In the most shocking case, a woman who was eight months pregnant was denied access to Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital for two hours because she could not test negative for the virus. She was eventually admitted after staff saw that she was bleeding – she had had a miscarriage. After widespread outrage online, several hospital officials were “disciplined for their poor anti-virus performance,” state media reported Thursday.

Gao said “it’s hard to believe such a thing is happening today.

“Xi’an is the capital [of Shaanxi province], but no one expected such chaos in such a big city, ”she added. “It tells us that the glory of a city being its capital does not necessarily help its people.”

Several commentators linked the situation in Xi’an to problems with local government in China, where officials are often given strict targets by Beijing or provincial governments but lack the power or flexibility to easily hit them. “Higher levels delegate a lot of responsibility, but often without also delegating the necessary rights (and finances) to fulfill these obligations, leaving localities to fend for themselves,” studies Professor Christian Goebel in China from the University of Vienna. wrote in a broadly divided analysis. “If it succeeds, the center takes the credit. If it does not, local officials will be blamed and given the boot. ”

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently tweeted that “in localities with relatively low state capacity, local officials who are concerned about their career prospects are more likely to turn to draconian measures that are appropriate. to all. (eg arbitrary full lockdown) in the implementation of zero Covid strategy. “

This week, Zeng Guang, a member of China’s National Health Commission, said the eruption in Xi’an was likely driven by the Delta variant, adding that city officials “lost control at an early stage.” The more transferable Omicron variant is not yet widespread in China due to the country’s harsh border quarantines.

Delta’s entry into China suggests that Omicron will also eventually slip past control. This is particularly alarming because research has suggested that Sinovac, the most commonly used vaccine in China, is not effective against Omicron without a booster, although two doses still prevent serious illness in most patients.

Chinese officials have persistently defended the country’s zero-COVID approach, and reversing the course at this stage could be catastrophic: A recent study by researchers at Peking University found that if China lifted its pandemic control and pursued a similar “live with COVID” -strategy. compared to many other countries, “it would have a devastating effect on the medical system in China and cause a great catastrophe in the nation.”

While there was widespread sympathy for the residents of Xi’an online, there were also signs of anger. The Wuhan lockdown took place at the beginning of the pandemic as there were no vaccines or an effective treatment plan. Today, about 80 percent of China’s population is vaccinated, and test and treatment protocols are firmly in place, leaving many wondering why such stringent measures were still necessary.

Zhang said seeing the rest of the world live with coronavirus has made her less worried about infection than being caught by a lockdown or endless tests. She said she and her friends are not “really talking about capturing COVID, we’re talking about quarantine measures, and how intense they are, and how stressful it all is.”

Alexandra Li contributed to this report from Beijing

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