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China wrestles worst virus outbreak in two years

BEIJING (AFP) – Millions of people across China endured lockdowns yesterday as virus cases doubled to nearly 3,400 and anxiety mounted over the resilience of the country’s ‘zero-COVID’ approach in the face of the worst outbreak in two years.

A nationwide surge in cases has seen authorities close schools in Shanghai, lock down central neighbourhoods in the southern tech powerhouse of Shenzhen as well as whole northeastern cities, as almost 18 provinces battle clusters of the Omicron and Delta variants.

The city of Jilin – centre of the outbreak in the northeast – was partially locked down Saturday, while residents of Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 bordering North Korea, were confined to their homes yesterday.

China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has maintained a strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy enforced by swift lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters have emerged. But the latest flare-up, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases, is testing the efficacy of that approach.

Zhang Yan, an official with the Jilin provincial health commission, conceded that authorities’ virus response so far had been lacking.

A volunteer disinfects the area as it snows during the COVID-19 lockdown in Changchun in northeast China’s Jilin province. PHOTO: AP

“The emergency response mechanism in some areas is not robust enough,” he said yesterday. “There is insufficient understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant… and judgment has been inaccurate.”

Residents of Jilin have completed six rounds of mass testing, with the city reporting more than 2,200 cases of the Omicron variant since Saturday.

The neighbouring city of Changchun – an industrial base of nine million people – was locked down Friday, while at least three other small cities have been locked down since March 1.

The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun health commission were dismissed from their jobs Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the political imperative placed on local authorities to contain virus clusters.

But the strain is showing, with officials increasingly urging softer and more targeted measures to contain the virus, while economists warn that tough clampdowns are hurting the economy.

In Shenzhen, the southern city of around 13 million bordering Hong Kong, residents have been caught between nerves at a renewed outbreak and angst at the swift, draconian measures to squash clusters.

“It’s the worst since 2020,” a Shenzhen resident surnamed Zhang told AFP. “The closures are too sudden, my friend woke up in the morning to find her building was sealed overnight without warning. Her boss had to mail her laptop to her.”