Border inspection officers check the temperature of travelers at a checkpoint along Yunnan’s border with Myanmar. Photo: Xinhua

Several Burmese who smuggled themselves across the Chinese border this month have pierced China’s defense against any backflow of Covid-19 from abroad. 

Almost 250,000 residents and many tourists in the resort city of Ruili, which straddles the border with Myanmar in the southwestern Yunnan province, have been banned from getting out and about after two Burmese women, aged 32 and 16, tested positive for the virus this week. 

Fears are growing about a new outbreak to hit Ruili, with the virus creeping into Yunnan’s capital of Kunming and even into inland cities and provinces. The women reputedly rubbed shoulders with locals and tourists on the street of Ruili for no less than ten days before they were identified, tested and isolated.

Yunnan cadres have scrambled to put Ruili under citywide lockdown for at least a week, during which all residents, visitors and arrivals from across the border have been banned from leaving and must be tested for the pathogen. 

Posts on WeChat believed to be by Ruili residents say the city has been placed under a de-facto curfew and everyone must stay at home or in hotels while all local government employees have been mobilized to deliver food and necessities to each household. 

The China News Service cited Yunnan officials as saying that the stowaways had come from a village across a border river in Myanmar. The women’s close contacts, including their children and nannies who crossed the border with them, had also been isolated in quarantine. 

The city has identified and tracked down 1,300 more close contacts for testing and isolation. 

A border checkpoint in Ruili, a city on China’s border with Myanmar. Photo: WeChat

Also, a dozen border checkpoints in 25 counties along Yunnan’s border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam have put themselves on a “wartime footing” to step up health screenings of travelers, and the People’s Liberation Army’s border protection force is also patrolling tropical forests and mountain roads along Yunnan’s border region to intercept illegal immigrants. 

The province, known for local men’s intermarriages with women from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, is also mounting a fresh clampdown on illegal immigrants to deport undocumented arrivals and prosecute those who shelter them. 

The Yunnan Daily reported in 2018 that the province could have around 30,000 illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Laos. 

China’s Public Security Ministry also said that illegal immigrants straying across the border into the country could be a loophole when all arrivals from overseas are checked and screened at airports and border checkpoints. China shares the world’s longest land border, 22,000 kilometers in total, with 14 countries, some of which are still grappling with worsening local outbreaks. 

Myanmar added 134 new cases to bring its tally to 3,636 as of Tuesday, according to data from the World Health Organization, though many have warned that these figures are on the conservative side since many infections could have gone undetected and unreported in the country’s vast rural areas, including towns and villages close to the Chinese border. The country’s caseload snowballed from fewer than 400 in August and quickly broke into four digits within a few weeks.

The looming resurgence and containment measures being enforced in Yunnan may upset the travel plans of holidaymakers looking for a getaway in popular tourist hangouts in the province. Already, close to two million tourists from across the country had flocked to the subtropical province before the cases in Ruili surfaced, according to the Yunnan Daily

The worry is that the virus could have already been spreading among asymptomatic carriers in Ruili and may creep into Kunming, a transport hub serving tourists in the province. Other places across the nation may face heightened risks as tourists return to their home cities. 

About 500 million inter-provincial trips will be made during the first week of October when Chinese tourists cannot travel overseas. Photo: Xinhua

Big data analysis by WeChat showed that most of the visitors to Yunnan since September have been from Shanghai and Beijing as well as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

The upcoming National Day golden week break is expected to see a record-setting spike in domestic travel, when the country’s middle class will be making a beeline for exotic border provinces such as Yunnan when they cannot fly abroad due to Covid travel restrictions and quarantine orders. 

The Ministry for Culture and Tourism has estimated that about 500 million inter-provincial trips will be made during the first week of October, yet the risk is lurking if new cases continue to emerge in Yunnan. 

Xinhua also reported that the National Health Commission had drafted contingency plans for the week-long travel rush to halt flights and long-haul bus services and alert close contacts if any more new cases are reported. 

Antivirus protocols issued by the Chinese State Council mandate an immediate lockdown when new cases may lead to more infections in a town, district or city. Residents from a locked-down place or traveler returning from there must undergo two weeks of compulsory quarantine when they visit another city or province.

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