China scrambles to contain 'stealth' omicron as outbreak spreads through country

Residents of Shenzhen say supermarket shelves are empty as people scramble to lay in stores ahead of a lockdown.
By Qiao Long, Raymond Chung and Chingman
2022.03.14
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China scrambles to contain 'stealth' omicron as outbreak spreads through country Residents queue to undergo nucleic acid tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Yantai, in China's eastern Shandong province, March 14, 2022.
AFP

Authorities in China locked down most of the northeastern province of Jilin on Monday in a scramble to contain a highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, deploying troops to the region to keep order and aid in a mass testing and quarantine operation.

The National Health Commission said it had confirmed 1,337 locally transmitted cases of the "stealth" omicron variant B.A.2 during the last 24 hours, 895 of which were in Jilin, where police permission is now being required to leave the province or travel within it.

Some 7,000 reservists were sent to Jilin, using drones to carry out aerial spraying and disinfection, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Several buildings in Beijing were sealed off at the weekend, while Shanghai reported 713 cases so far this month, of which 632 were asymptomatic. All schools in Shanghai moved to online teaching from Monday.

Hong Kong on Monday reported 26,908 new cases and 249 deaths during the past 24 hours, but its figures include results from home tests using rapid antigen tests, as well as PCR tests conducted by health authorities and labs.

But chief executive Carrie Lam stopped short of imposing further restrictions on a city where authorities are currently using sewage monitoring and other test data to lock down specific buildings and neighborhoods at a time, and where there is a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.

Across the internal border in Shenzhen, authorities reported 75 newly confirmed cases on Sunday, prompting the city government to order a week-long, citywide lockdown from Monday pending three rounds of compulsory mass PCR testing.

Public transportation has been suspended, and residential communities closed to people coming or going, with employees ordered to work from home.

Video footage uploaded to social media showed long lines for PCR testing, and empty shelves in local supermarkets after households stocked up on essentials ahead of the lockdown.

"The supermarket normally has vegetables, grains, rice, which are all normal daily supplies," a resident says in one video clip. "Shenzhen is a first-tier city, but we can't get a hold of vegetables or rice now, because the whole city has to fight this outbreak."

Residents queue to undergo nucleic acid tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Yantai, in China's eastern Shandong province, March 14, 2022. Credit: AFP
Residents queue to undergo nucleic acid tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Yantai, in China's eastern Shandong province, March 14, 2022. Credit: AFP
Door-to-door testing

Some districts, including Longhua, Nanshan, Futian and Luohu, are under particularly stringent measures, with residents banned from leaving their homes, and forced to wait for door-to-door testing teams.

Shenzhen officials played down fears on social media, seeking to reassure residents that there would be enough rice, noodles, oil, meat, eggs and poultry for everyone, with the authorities taking measures to prevent hoarding and price-gouging.

In neighboring Dongguan, mass PCR testing was also under way, with public transportation suspended, residential compounds under lockdown and factories, businesses and industrial sites closed, with schools moving to online teaching.

Shanghai resident Gu Guoping said the constant rounds of mass testing were "a waste of resources ... inconveniencing people and delivering benefits to particular vested interests."

Another Shanghai resident surnamed Zhang said there are partial lockdowns in the city's Xuhui district, as well as on university campuses.

"Many schools, residential compounds, hospitals, where they have had cases or contacts of cases have been closed, and nobody is allowed to leave Shanghai right now," she said.

"More than 50 percent of people are still allowed to go out, while the rest have to stay home eating takeout," Zhang said. "It's very hard to get takeout now, and everyone is hoarding, rushing to buy stuff, so groceries are hard to come by."

In the northern province of Hebei, traffic restrictions are in place in Lanfang, downtown Cangzhou and Qingxian county, with roadblocks on major and minor roads in and out of Guangyang district.

Chinese infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong warned that China is likely only at the very start of an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, as rail operators cut train services and offered free refunds to people who had already bought tickets.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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