Police check monitoring equipment at a residential quarter in Dalian as the city restricts travel by residents. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing is responding to coronavirus cases flaring up in Xinjiang and Liaoning with tactics proven to have helped the Chinese capital squash a viral resurgence in June and swiftly return to normal. 

Xinjiang officials say they found 41 new infections on Monday, bringing the overall tally to 254 since the first Covid-19 patient in more than five months in the far western region was identified and segregated on July 15.

The re-emergence of cases in the vast and still restive border region has mainly hit Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, but the city of more than four million residents has never been placed under a sweeping lockdown.

Rather, within a fortnight, two million locals were said to have been tested as cadres scrambled to roll out mandatory yet free testing schemes covering each neighborhood.

The ongoing testing drive was launched quickly when the first case surfaced. This was made possible by well-orchestrated logistics support. Within ten days, cargo jets and trains transported some five million testing kits to Xinjiang from elsewhere across the nation.

The region’s mouthpiece Xinjiang Daily cited local health officials as saying that the rise in infection count was largely due to extensive screening, as officials and frontline community workers continued to patrol streets and residential quarters across Urumqi to ferret out anyone who was yet to be tested.

The paper said the more people found to have been infected, the safer the city’s residents should feel as all patients together with their close contacts would be isolated.  

The goal is to have every resident of the ethnically mixed city, including more than 1.5 million ethnic Uighurs, tested to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus as well as hidden chains of infections before more people catch the virus.  

Urumqi has tested about two million residents since the first case in more than five months was reported on July 15. Photo: Xinjiang Daily

The drive to ensure that no one is left behind in the city-wide screening and epidemiological investigation of known cases could be a tacit admission from the city’s government that the official caseload figures could be on the conservative side.

For this reason, cadres there are taking no chances. Posts have circulated on social media with claims of forced DNA and blood sample collection from uncooperative residents as they are manhandled by police in hazmat gear on to testing vehicles. 

Residents from districts and communities with confirmed cases are usually tested twice, and they can be spared the two weeks of centralized quarantine and allowed to go early only if they return two negatives. 

An Urumqi district official told Asia Times that with ample supplies of testing kits and with Beijing linking the number of new cases to its appraisal of the performance of local cadres, testing people more than once would ensure peace of mind for everyone. 

“And most residents who are scared of getting infected would like to be tested twice, especially when massive testing can help avoid a blanket lockdown,” he said.

“Also we are not sure if the homemade kits are reliable because they are supplied by the National Health Commission at a knockdown price, so we feel it’s prudent to have people vulnerable to the virus to be tested often,” he said. 

Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan, who spent more than two months in Wuhan from January to March commanding the all-out battle against Covid-19 in the pandemic’s ground zero, flew into Urumqi last week. A panel of disease experts and several tonnes of screening kits also arrived with the leader to reinforce the city’s capabilities to flatten the infection curve.  

Sun told Xinjiang officials that mass testing had stemmed fresh outbreaks hitting a food wholesale market in Beijing in June. 

Medical supplies, mostly testing kits, are unloaded from a China Southern jet at Urumqi’s airport. Photo: China News Service

Meanwhile, China’s National Health Commission has reportedly set a four-day deadline for Dalian, a port city in the northeastern Liaoning province, to test its entire population of more than six million.

Dalian had a total of 56 cases as of Monday (July 27), and the city has banned its residents living close to known infection hotspots from traveling in a bid to contain the outbreak within its city limits. 

China’s top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who heads an elite expert penal advising Sun, also told Xinhua that Urumqi was in the far west and outbreaks there would unlikely spill over to other regions.

He also said that although Dalian was closer to the populous conurbation surrounding Beijing, cases there would start to taper off with early intervention, adding that sporadic cases cropping up anywhere across the massive county should not surprise anyone. 

Ma Xiaowei, head of the national health authority, said more testing and timely isolation of virus carriers could help head off threats from Dalian and stop local infections. 

Beijing has also assured Hong Kong it would deliver ample medical supplies as well as mainland doctors and nurses for fast deployment across the border as the territory grapples with a deteriorating outbreak. 

Through its liaison office, Beijing pledged to help if Hong Kong’s government asked while skewering the city’s opposition for politicizing health issues and objecting to the mainland’s help to improve the city’s inadequate testing capacity.

For the fifth straight day, Hong Kong set another new high in infections, with the total at 2,633 as of Monday. 

But even with the city’s hospitals and clinics already overflowing with samples pending testing, a mainland company that helped Wuhan build field testing labs throughout the city faces a boycott due to its mainland identity.