Mainland China is struggling to contain its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic erupted in Wuhan two years ago, as the Omicron variant tests President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance strategy and puts Shanghai at risk of being locked down.
Changchun, the capital of north-eastern Jilin province with 9mn people and an important manufacturing base, was ordered into lockdown on Friday after 23 new cases were reported, the latest in a series of citywide crackdowns in recent months.
Health authorities reported that daily case numbers have tripled in the past week, adding up to more than 1,100 cases across 17 regions and forcing officials in several cities to erect emergency makeshift hospitals.
The latest rise in China’s cases has refocused attention on Xi’s decision not to stray from its zero-Covid strategy of tightly sealed borders and – whenever an infection is detected – citywide lockdowns, mass testing and meticulous contact tracing.
Speaking to reporters after the close of China’s parliamentary session on Friday, Premier Li Keqiang did not answer questions about how much longer the government intended to stick with its zero-Covid strategy.
“We will continue to make our response more scientific and targeted,” Li said, adding that Beijing remained determined to protect people’s lives. [maintain] normal work and life, and ensure the security of industrial and supply chains. ”
The policy, which has been credited with suppressing China’s pandemic death rate, has endured despite authorities delivering more than 3bn Covid-19 vaccine doses to a population of 1.4bn.
China’s case numbers remain low by almost all international comparisons. New Zealand, a country of 5mn people, reported more than 20,000 new infections on Friday, while South Korea said there were 280,000 cases among its 52mn.
While much of the rest of the world is rapidly reopening, Beijing’s approach reflects shortcomings in China’s healthcare system, said health experts, who pointed to the comparatively low efficacy of the country’s domestically produced vaccines.
A flurry of school closures and localized lockdowns over recent days in Shanghai, one of China’s biggest cities and an important international financial center, have sparked concerns among its residents that more draconian measures beckon.
Health officials in the city of 26.5mn urged people to get booster jabs and some companies told employees to work from home.
With Xi concentrating on securing a precedent-shattering third term in power, Nomura analysts said that the likelihood of China changing its approach this year has diminished. This is despite rising economic costs and “the occasional mentions by senior public health experts of an eventual shift to‘ living with Covid ’”.
“[The zero-Covid strategy] has demonstrated the institutional strength of the ruling Chinese Communist party and has allowed officials to laud the triumphant Chinese model. Abandoning [the strategy] now could be perceived as conceding that the strategy did not work in the first place, ”the bank’s analysts said.
The approach is also under intense scrutiny in Hong Kong, with the Chinese territory recording more than 550,000 infections since the latest wave of infections began in late December – five times the 112,000 infections recorded in mainland China during the entire pandemic.
Hong Kong hospitals have been overwhelmed, mortuaries are at capacity and grocery stores have been stripped bare by panic buying. About 3,000 deaths, mostly elderly and unvaccinated residents of care homes, have been recorded in the territory. The city has the world’s highest daily per capita death rate, analysts noted.
The Hong Kong government has been forced by Beijing to adopt a “dynamic zero-Covid” strategy after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, prioritized reopening the city’s border with China over the rest of the world.
Hong Kong’s daily case count has eased to 31,000 from 55,000 last week. But the city’s 7.4mn people, living under strict social distancing measures for months, remain on edge over the potential for a citywide lockdown and the threat that anyone who tests positive will be detained in a government quarantine facility.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing and Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai