A passenger pushes her luggage to the check-in area at Beijing's Daxing International Airport on July 12, 2021, as hundreds of flights were cancelled in the capital. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Imagine a special “Covid city” situated deep in the wilderness of western China with no permanent residents but built to receive all international flights as a sole point of entry to the country.

International passengers would land and stay in quarantine there for up to three weeks while undergoing repeated testing. They would only be allowed to travel on to their final destinations in China after they are found to be virus-free.  

The idea of sealing off the country even more tightly than presently has gone viral on Chinese social media since July, when China was hit with its biggest viral resurgence since the nation largely stamped out the pathogen more than a year ago. 

Millions of Chinese whose lives have recently been upended by reinstated lockdowns across 20 provinces are calling on Beijing to stop all international flights into the country – even if it means effectively walling off the country’s international airports by funneling all outside travel through a new “Covid city.”

Significantly, there is growing support for the “Covid city” plan on the forums and opinion pages of influential state media like Xinhua and the Global Times, both known for floating trial balloons of Beijing’s thinking. The semiofficial news portal NetEase has also stirred a debate on the notion of building a “Covid city.” 

A sign reminding passengers of social distancing rules is seen inside a terminal hall of Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Photo: Xinhua
A police officer inspects a CCTV surveillance system at an isolation camp in Guangzhou. Photo: Xinhua

China added 94 local infections on Sunday, with cases of the Delta strain reported in two-thirds of all provinces and major municipalities from Beijing to Wuhan, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).

The highly contagious variant is still spreading far and wide in the nation after it arrived on board an Air China flight from Moscow at the eastern gateway city of Nanjing on July 10. 

The nationwide tally of local cases spawned by the flight and subsequent Nanjing airport cluster has exceeded 500, with more cases reported in the past three weeks than the previous eight months combined.

As a result, 216 districts and communities across the nation are locked down indefinitely as high to medium-risk areas as of Monday, with the NHC flagging risks of further spillover.   

The fact that a flight from overseas could singlehandedly pierce a hole in China’s seemingly impregnable Covid firewall and infect more than half its provinces has set off a confidence crisis widely expressed on social media.

Dr Zhang Wenhong, head of the National Infectious Disease Medical Center in Shanghai who also sits on a top panel advising Beijing on Covid-19, has called for a rethink and recalibration of policies on how to contain and keep the virus out of the country.

Zhang said China’s “panacea prescription” of citywide lockdowns and mass testing, as seen in the current mobilization to contain Delta, is costing the economy and businesses dearly. 

“Wherever cases are cropping up, we rush to close down an entire city to bring everything to a standstill and test everyone, at whatever cost. We are repeating these extraordinary measures to deal with every flare-up but they cannot last forever and perhaps we need a smarter approach,” said Zhang.   

He is among the most vocal advocates for the establishment of a “Covid city” for centralized isolation, quarantine and if necessary treatment for all those entering the country from abroad. Some people debating the plan have identified an underused airport in western China that could be built out to serve the purpose.

Passengers arriving from overseas are currently ferried from their airports of entry to nearby designated quarantine facilities as Beijing currently puts the responsibility of isolating these travelers on individual cities. Photo: Xinhua
Staff in protective suits check CCTV footage at a quarantine hotel in Shanghai. Photo: Handout

News website NetEase speculated that such a city-sized facility and transit airport could sprawl over dozens of square kilometers on a sparsely populated plateau in Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Tibet or even Xinjiang.

It suggested that infrastructure could be built to accommodate as many as 50,000 passengers and that the area could be fenced off as a no-entry zone with a radius of 50-100 kilometers to guard against the virus leaking out.  

Advocates of the plan say such maximum protection is needed to prevent any repeat of Nanjing’s botched handling of an infected inbound flight. They say the NHC, other state organs and even the military could run the “Covid city” to take the onus off individual cities like Nanjing, a fragmented system fraught with risks due to different airports’ methods and protocols. 

There is no clear indication yet that the plan has gained any traction with China’s top leadership. But Xinhua reported on Sunday that the NHC had been compiling new policy priorities and comparing multiple proposals to stem any future “viral inflow.” 

The official news agency also said a blanket inbound international flight ban would not be workable as airlines must maintain “bare-bone” services for trade and Chinese expats to return home. The same report said there is room for improvement on how and where to receive these flights. 

Eric Mer, a Peking University associate professor of political science, said it had long been the practice to redirect all Beijing-bound international flights to neighboring alternative cities like Tianjin, Shijiazhuang and elsewhere as a buffer to ensure the safety of the Chinese capital. He said it thus would not be “a step too far” for the government to request all flights to make a detour to a designated airport for better isolation. 

Mer said Beijing must have contingency plans in place and that he believed lower-tier cities in western provinces with small populations but sound infrastructure including big airports such as Golmud in Qinghai province would be an ideal landing spot for a hermetic “Covid city.” 

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