BEIJING (AP) – The delta variant challenges China’s costly strategy of isolating cities, prompting warnings that Chinese leaders who were convinced they could prevent the coronavirus from entering the country need a less disruptive approach.
As the highly contagious variant pushes rulers into the United States, in Australia and elsewhere to renew restrictions, President Xi Jinping’s government is tackling the most severe outbreak since last year’s peak in Wuhan. The ruling Communist Party is reviving the tactics that shut down China: access to a city of 1.5 million people has been cut, flights canceled and mass tests ordered in some areas.
This “zero tolerance” strategy of quarantining every case and trying to block new infections from overseas helped contain last year’s outbreak and kept China largely virus-free. But its impact on the work and lives of millions of people is prompting warnings that China must learn to control the virus without repeatedly shutting down the economy and society.
Zhang Wenhong, a doctor from Shanghai who rose to prominence during the Wuhan outbreak, said in a social media post that the latest outbreak suggests that China’s strategy may change since the virus does not go away.
âThe world must learn to coexist with this virus,â wrote Zhang, who has 3 million followers on the widely used Weibo platform.
China’s controls will be tested when thousands of athletes, journalists and others arrive for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. And the ruling party faces a politically sensitive change of leadership at the end of 2022, for which leaders want favorable economic conditions.
Last year, China shut down much of the world’s second-largest economy and cut off almost all access to cities with a total of 60 million people – tactics emulated on a smaller scale by governments from Asia to the Americas. . It caused China’s most painful economic contraction in five decades, but Beijing was able to allow business and domestic travel to resume in March 2020.
The new infections, many in people already vaccinated, have rocked global financial markets, which fear Beijing’s response could disrupt manufacturing and supply chains. The main stock indexes of Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong fell on Tuesday but rose again on Thursday.
China must move on to creating barriers to infection in communities by stepping up vaccinations and treating infected people quickly while allowing business and travel to continue, health economist Xi Chen said. at the Yale School of Public Health. He said the country needed access to the full range of vaccines, including enabling the shot developed by Germany’s BioNTech.
âI don’t think ‘zero tolerance’ can be maintained,â Chen said. “Even if you can lock down all parts of China, people could still die, and others could die of hunger or loss of jobs.”
But Beijing has shown no sign of abandoning its tactics.
Disease controls must “be even faster, tighter, tighter, more extensive and ready,” He Qinghua, an official with the National Health Commission’s Office of Disease Control, told a conference on Saturday. Press.
The biggest outbreak of the year has been tentatively attributed to airport workers who cleaned up a Russian airliner on July 10 in Nanjing, northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu province, health officials say .
Some travelers have passed through Nanjing on their way to Zhangjiajie, a popular tourist spot southwest of Shanghai in Hunan province, making the city a center of the virus’ spread. The disease has spread to Beijing and other cities in more than 10 provinces.
On Tuesday, Zhangjiajie’s government announced that no one was allowed to leave the city, mimicking controls imposed in Wuhan, where the first cases of the virus were identified, and other cities last year.
Flights to Nanjing and Yangzhou, a neighboring city with 94 cases, have been suspended. Trains from these cities and 21 others to Beijing have been canceled. Jiangsu Province has set up road checkpoints to test drivers. The government has called on residents of Beijing and the southern province of Guangzhou not to leave these areas if possible.
In Yangzhou, children at two tutoring centers were quarantined after a classmate tested positive, according to Zhou Xiaoxiao, a university student there. She said parts of the city were sealed off.
Eggs and some other foods were scarce after buyers emptied supermarkets in anticipation of a lockdown, Zhou said. She said the government delivers rice to households.
âThe price of vegetables has gone up. It’s nothing to me. But for the kind of family whose life is not very good and who have no income, it is very inconvenient, âsaid Zhou, 20.
The 1,142 infections reported since mid-July, many of which are linked to Nanjing, are small compared to tens of thousands of new infections daily in India or the United States. But they rocked leaders in China, which has recorded no deaths since early February.
The epidemic poses “serious challenges to the country’s hard-won victory in the battle against the epidemic,” said The Global Times newspaper, which is published by the ruling party’s People’s Daily.
China has reported 4,636 deaths out of around 93,000 confirmed cases.
So far, most of those infected in Nanjing have been vaccinated and few cases are serious, said the head of the intensive care unit of the city’s Southeastern University Hospital, Yang. Yi, at the Shanghai newspaper The Paper.
She said that means “vaccines are protective” – ââalthough concerns remain that vaccines made in China offer less protection than some others..
Authorities blamed Nanjing airport managers and local authorities for failing to enforce safety regulations and detect infections for 10 days until July 20, after the virus spread.
A 64-year-old woman who allegedly transported the virus from Nanjing to Yangzhou was arrested on Tuesday for obstructing disease prevention, police said.
Cleaning staff at the Nanjing New International Terminal mingled with colleagues in the home wing, when they should have been separated, according to reports. The Russian flight was diverted due to bad weather from Shanghai, where airports are better equipped to accommodate foreign travelers.
Yet the city of 9.3 million people is the second largest in eastern China after Shanghai and has more resources than many smaller cities.
China must learn to “allow the virus to exist” in areas with high vaccination rates and stronger health care, said Chen, the economist. He noted that some areas have vaccinated at least 80% of adults.
âI don’t think they’re blind to it,â Chen said. “They should be thinking about it already.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press writer Fu Ting in Bangkok and researchers Chen Si in Shanghai and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.