The official total number of new cases in China may soon be more than 500, in a nation that emphasized and touted its zero-infection approach to controlling Covid-19. Photo: Xinhua

Covid-19 has now spread into around half of China’s provinces, causing authorities to impose new movement restrictions nationwide as the country returns to the mass testing and lockdowns imposed when the virus first erupted in early 2020.

Public transport has been restricted in 144 of the worst-hit areas, including in Beijing where at least three new cases were reported on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Beijing has suspended issuing travel documents for residents to travel abroad, fearing they may bring the virus back with them upon their return.

Beijing’s latest de facto international travel ban contrasts with the mandatory quarantine order being reinstated across Hong Kong and Macau on arrivals from mainland China, as both territories are shoring up defenses to fend off any inflow of new cases. Macau is already testing all its residents after a student contracted the virus on the mainland and infected her parents after she returned.

Questions have been raised if China’s earlier Covid-19 containment success is coming decisively undone. Wuhan, the initial ground zero for the virus that was shut down for 76 days between January and April last year, is poised to return to partial lockdowns after the discovery of at least 20 cases there since Monday.

The government’s mass mobilization despite such a small number of infections is resurrecting concerns that authorities may not be disclosing the true extent of the outbreak, in Wuhan and other cities. Beijing has adopted a “zero tolerance” approach to the virus but that may be difficult to maintain as the highly contagious Delta variant takes hold.

Posts on WeChat and Weibo discussing the possible number of China’s real infections, as opposed to the officially acknowledged figures, have swiftly been censored. However, Communist Party mouthpiece The People’s Daily has warned cadres against withholding information on their region’s outbreaks.   

On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) added 62 local cases to its official national tally, down slightly from the 71 infections reported on Tuesday, which marked the highest single-day number since January. The acknowledged caseload of the current resurgence in China is expected to break the 500 mark as mass testing commences across many cities nationwide.

Almost half the new cases were found in Jiangsu, where its provincial capital Nanjing’s slack prevention measures in receiving foreign flights has been blamed for setting off an outbreak that is now spreading nationwide.

A file photo of Nanjing’s main Lukou Airport. The major transit hub is the source of the current flare-up across China where passengers contracted Covid-19 from airport workers and spread it to their destinations. Photo: Handout

Other cases believed to have spawned from Nanjing are now scattered across Hunan, Hubei, Shandong, Yunnan, Henan and Fujian provinces. Seventeen provinces are now quarantining and isolating more than one million people, who either transited through Nanjing since July or are close or secondary contacts of infections linked to the city. 

China has not had so many cities and provinces from north to south scrambling to put themselves on a wartime footing and reinstating anti-pandemic measures since the country largely vanquished the virus, reopened its economy and resumed domestic travel in the second quarter of 2020.

Some sporadic infections had followed since then, but cases were mostly contained to one or two cities. Now, the NHC’s outbreak tracker has listed four communities, including those in Nanjing and Zhengzhou, as extremely high-risk areas for full, indefinite lockdown. At least 168 other areas nationwide, including two in Beijing and one in Shanghai, have been branded as “medium-risk.”

No one is permitted to leave these areas red-flagged by the NHC, which are cordoned off by police to snap infection chains.  

On Tuesday, Xinhua revealed that Beijing municipal authorities had requested railway operators to stop selling tickets to passengers from Nanjing and other hotspots like Zhengzhou, Shenyang, Dalian, Changsha, Chengdu and others. Beijing’s two main airports are also curtailing flights from these cities. 

China has not seen outbreaks of this magnitude since it brought Covid-19 under control in the second quarter of 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Underscoring the mounting threat, Beijing has dispatched its “crack squad” to the front lines. Chinese Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan, Beijing’s point man on Covid control who stayed in Wuhan for months and commanded the city’s battle against the virus in early 2020, flew to Nanjing earlier this month.

Sun’s itinerary is also said to include Zhengzhou and Hubei province. 

State media is also asking people to avoid long-distance travel or even venturing beyond their city limits. Fewer flights and departures are putting a damper on what is usually a bumper period for domestic tourism when hundreds of millions from cities vacation in far-flung regions. The last time Beijing advised people against travel was during the Lunar New Year break in February. 

Dr Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s top respiratory disease specialists and a member of a Beijing-convened advisory panel on Covid, candidly admitted on his blog that China’s locally made vaccines now administered to over one billion Chinese “may not help achieve” the previous goal of zero infections and defeating the virus. 

Zhang, also the chief of the National Infectious Disease Medical Center in Shanghai, suggested China may have to ditch its zero case goal and learn to “live with Covid,” as has been the case in the West with the United Kingdom and other countries choosing to open up again despite steady new case spikes.

He stressed that all the sweeping measures from closing down and testing an entire city to sealing borders could not be maintained indefinitely. 

“China will have to open its borders and infections are bound to soar as a result … The key is to shift the focus from eliminating all infections to rolling out better vaccines, building more medical capacity and lowering risks of severe cases or fatalities so that people’s livelihoods and normal travel and business can be put back on a stronger footing and won’t be easily paused or interrupted by any future resurgence,” said Zhang. 

Read more: Delta puts China on brink of a new Covid crisis