Medical workers take swabs outside a residential compound after a Covid outbreak in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province. Photo: AFP/STR

The biggest coronavirus resurgence in China since infections were reined in last spring has prompted extraordinary measures taken from the country’s playbook for the once Covid-ravaged Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the global pandemic.

People in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of the northern Hebei province, are coming to terms with a sweeping lockdown imposed late on Thursday. If the virus spreads unchecked in the province bordering Beijing, analysts believe authorities could quickly expand the measures into a de facto nationwide lockdown. 

Several provinces from Zhejiang to Heilongjiang have warned that stricter measures adopted this week may not guarantee Covid-free holidays. The best people may expect for during the upcoming Chinese New Year break in February is thinned-out crowds and muted celebrations if the virus has not forced people completely indoors. 

Hebei added 33 new local infections on Friday morning, on top of 39 asymptomatic carriers tracked down in the 24 hours from Thursday.

Excluding carriers showing no outward signs of the disease, the province that surrounds Beijing and Tianjin has logged more than 130 cases since January 2. No fatalities, however, have been reported by the government there.

Hebei’s Shijiazhuang, about an hour by train from Beijing, is fast becoming the new epicenter of the largest resurgence facing China after Wuhan cleared all cases and ended its lockdown in April.  Now, Wuhan is said to be mulling putting anyone from Hebei that arrives in the city in compulsory quarantine.  

The word “lockdown” was avoided when state media announced on Thursday evening that the 11 million-plus residents in Shijiazhuang had been banned from straying beyond their city limits. Those in the hardest-hit Gaocheng district are not allowed to go to other parts of the city.

The effective lockdown in Shijiazhuang was imposed after the city’s main train stations and coach terminals were shut indefinitely.

Xinhua reported that all residential estates in the city would be sealed off for three days from Thursday for mass testing and that labs had been operating extended hours to identify more carriers.

A medical worker taking a swab sample from a woman outside a residential compound following a new outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Shijiazhuang, in northern China’s Hebei province. Photo: AFP via China Out/Stringer

For the first time since Wuhan’s lockdown, the National Health Commission is scrambling hundreds of medical workers from Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang and other places to Shijiazhuang, where local manpower has reportedly been stretched thin.

Just as Wuhan treated patients in the thick of its outbreak, a sizable hospital in suburban Shijiazhuang had been vacated for centralized diagnosis and isolation of Covid cases. But the new outbreak has exposed a weak link in China’s seemingly impregnable defense against the virus.

Initial epidemiological investigations traced cases in Shijiazhuang to three villages near the airport, where a dozen peasant farmers, having no inkling of the consequences, visited rural clinics and took cold pills after they developed symptoms.

They continued to attend dinners and rural gatherings and visited teeming downtown areas, going under the radar until they ignited more clusters in the city, according to state broadcaster China Central Television.

It cited experts with the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention as saying that the incubation period of some patients exceeded the typical 14 days and that it was unclear how these villagers initially caught the virus. 

An aerial view of the deserted Shijiazhuang Train Station which has been shut since Thursday. Photo: Xinhua
Expressways between Shijiazhuang and Beijing are closed to stem viral spread. Photo: Xinhua

So far Beijing has not reported local cases linked to Hebei, but ripple effects are feared since a third of migrant workers in the Chinese capital hail from Hebei and roughly 20% of Beijing’s food supplies come from the agrarian province. 

Beijing party chief Cai Qi has ordered that all of those with contacts with Hebei patients must be isolated for observation and repeatedly tested. 

Officials elsewhere are not taking chances either, as they heed the advice from the National CDC and urge residents not to travel long distances or hold parties during the festive season leading to the Chinese New Year, though it’s still more than a month before the Year of the Ox.  

Subsidies of two to three times local average monthly salaries are on offer across some cities in Zhejiang, Guangdong and other rich, industrialized regions that are popular destinations for migrant workers. These workers are now entitled to the cash handouts if they choose to cancel their trips home and stay during the new year break. 

This marks a sharp reversal of policies during the week-long National Day break in October, at which Beijing encouraged people to travel and spend to revive consumption. 

Now, almost all provinces and municipalities have held drills this week to simulate tracking and isolating patients. Xinhua revealed on Thursday that all cities and counties had drafted and updated their lockdown plans to prepare for any eventuality. 

Almost no cars or pedestrians are seen along a thoroughfare in the eastern port city of Ningbo in February 2020, when China locked down almost all cities. Photo: Asia Times

This has many Chinese wondering if the situation on the ground is worse than reported and if they will soon again be confined to their homes when the tradition is to gather in large crowds and set off firecrackers to ring in the New Year. China banned any Lunar New Year celebrations last February when the virus first gripped the nation. 

But provincial officials say avoiding travel would not mean any immediate lockdown, as people can still get out and about within their own cities and towns as long as they observe social-distancing.

They also say manufacturing and other economic activities would not be significantly affected, as almost all factories would suspend production and release their staff about a week before the Chinese New Year.

There is even talk among netizens that, with migrant workers staying put, industrial output in coastal provinces may even grow compared with previous holiday seasons. 

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