Social distancing is practiced at a bank in Nanjing in eastern China, as the city battles the latest outbreak. Photo: Xinhua

China’s seemingly impregnable Covid-19 firewall is springing leaks, with the country logging more local cases in 20 days than in the previous five months combined. 

At least 15 of the nation’s 31 provinces have confirmed Delta strain infections over the past two weeks, marking China’s biggest outbreak this year. The disease’s spread is believed to have started from a foreign flight at Nanjing’s airport in early July.

The National Health Commission (NHC) said 328 cases have been reported since last month, including in the central city of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the global pandemic. Authorities reported 99 new cases on Monday, according to reports.

Millions are now in lockdown as authorities close down cities and restrict travel to arrest the contagion’s further spread. The outbreak has been sparked in part by a recent easing of mask-wearing and social distancing, a laxity caused by the fact the country was Covid-free for many months.

China’s strict Covid containment measures, including mass testing as soon as a case appears, pervasive contact tracing, widespread use of quarantines and targeted lockdowns, have subdued more than 30 previous flareups over the past year.

While the infection figure is still modest by international standards, the NHC does not count asymptomatic carriers in its case tally and official figures are known to be conservative given the widespread tendency for underreporting. 

For instance, the NHC added 55 local cases on Sunday but there were also 44 patients with no outward symptoms and thus were not categorized as confirmed infections. The highly contagious Delta variant is known for spreading among mostly asymptomatic people. 

A man goes through a temperature screening gate at a subway station in Nanjing. Photo: Xinhua
Temporary testing labs are built inside an exhibition center in Nanjing, as the city scrambles to test all of its 9.6 million residents. Photo: China Central Television screengrab

State media have trumpeted China’s zero-case approach to Covid control but shutting out the Delta strain is proving a taller order. The disease’s spread is also raising questions about the efficacy of locally made vaccines against Delta in particular.

Nanjing, the capital of the eastern Jiangsu province, is believed to be ground zero of the current nationwide flare-up. The city’s airport workers, most of whom had been fully vaccinated, reportedly first contracted the Delta strain from arrivals from Moscow on July 10, before passing it to transit passengers who then spread it to their destinations across China. 

At least 52 communities and residential quarters in Nanjing and its neighboring cities like Yangzhou have been red-flagged by the NHC as high or medium-risk areas to be locked down. Anyone leaving these areas will face 14-21 days of compulsory quarantine and criminal charges. Three rounds of city-wide testing in Nanjing yielded 204 cases as of August 1. 

Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province, now faces a double whammy of flooding and Covid-19. Large tracts of the city were swamped by disastrous rainstorms two weeks ago with fatalities still being reported.

Some Zhengzhou cadres are now shifting the blame to Nanjing’s “viral spillover” but most known infections center on a hospital in the city treating imported cases.    

Key foreign factories in Zhengzhou including Nissan and Apple’s OEM partner Foxconn are faced with additional challenges to test their staff and apply more health inspection red tape as they continue to count losses from last month’s deluge. 

The popular resort city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province has rushed to close its UNESCO World Heritage Site park and all other scenic spots and hotels following the revelation that at least three confirmed patients linked to Nanjing had rubbed shoulders with unmasked tourists and watched an hours-long performance in a packed auditorium of 2,000-plus spectators in the city. 

Authorities there have had to hit the brakes on tourism in the summer peak travel period and dole out financial help to impacted retailers and hoteliers. Zhangjiajie has reported 31 subsequent infections with an unspecified number of asymptomatic cases, and some infected tourists reportedly brought the virus to their home cities when they returned. 

A worker in protective gear disinfects the deserted Nanjing Railway Station. Photo: Xinhua
Medical staff in Nanjing take their oath while holding Communist Party flags before their deployment across the city to battle the resurgence. Photo: Handout

The municipal government of Beijing has also stepped up checks at airports, stations and expressways to turn away anyone from Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Zhangjiajie and other places with reported infections. Both Beijing and Shanghai have reported cases as well.

Other key cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian and Changsha have also reported cases linked to Nanjing and are cordoning off places visited by patients. More provinces including Hubei, Hunan, Hainan, Sichuan, Fujian and Yunnan have areas labeled by the NHC as “medium-risk.”

Wuhan, capital of Hubei and Covid’s initial epicenter, is now reinstating some anti-epidemic measures and is on the lookout for close contacts after news broke on Monday afternoon that seven migrant workers there tested positive.

While China had administered close to 1.67 billion doses of locally made vaccines as of Sunday, according to the NHC, concerns are spreading as fast as the disease about their efficacy against Delta. 

Yang Xiaoming, the president of CNBG, a subsidiary of the state-owned Sinopharm that supplies inactivated Covid vaccines, told state media over the weekend that his company’s shots would still work and would have a certain “effect” to neutralize new variants. Yet he also revealed that new jabs would be developed quickly to better tackle the Delta strain.  

Yang did not respond to reports that Constantino Chiwenga, the vice president of Zimbabwe who was in charge of public health and had been fully vaccinated with Sinopharm shots donated by Beijing, tested positive after landing in the Chinese capital at the end of July.  

Beijing is still pressing ahead with its plan to expand vaccination to all healthy teenagers before the start of the academic year in September. Most provinces have banned students from traveling outside their home provinces. 

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