A medical worker tests a resident for Covid-19 in Xian, China, in December 2021. Photo: Reddit via AFP / Stringer

HONG KONG – China ordered on Thursday the lockdown of an estimated 13 million people in the northwestern city of Xi’an after a spike of untraceable Covid-19 cases, raising new fears that the Omicron variant is starting to spread in the country.

Since December 9, Xi’an has recorded 234 cases while the virus has spread to other cities in Shaanxi and nearby provinces. News reports indicate the viral spread has triggered panic buying of foods and other essentials, just weeks before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Compared with the 100,000 plus cases per day recorded in the United Kingdom, the number discovered in Xi’an is low. But the clear new spread of the disease has unnerved Chinese policymakers who have adopted a “zero infection” strategy since April last year.

The new rash of infections has also cast a shadow over the long-awaited resumption of quarantine-free travel across the Hong Kong-mainland border, which many had anticipated would be announced on December 17.

While the United States and European nations have recorded tens of thousands of cases per day with the rise of the highly contagious Omicron variant, China has so far reported about 100 to 150 cases daily.

Although the country’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are said to have low efficacy compared with Western-made mRNA shots, China has until now successfully contained the virus through tough quarantine and social-distancing rules.

On Tuesday, Xi’an launched a citywide Covid testing scheme after 91 cases were reported since December 9. In the past two days, 143 more cases have been identified, forcing the government to lock down the city.

Under the lockdown, all residents are required to stay home unless they have a pressing reason to go out. One person from each household is permitted out every two days to buy necessities including food.

The Xi’an City Wall, once one of the most impressive military defense systems in the world. The city is battling now to keep Covid at bay. Photo: AFP / Imaginechina

All transport to and from the city has been suspended, apart for special needs. The government did not say when the lockdown would end.

Local government employees have been told to work from home, while non-essential businesses have all closed. Last weekend, the city government ordered the temporary closure of indoor facilities such as bars, gyms and cinemas. 

Xi’an was facing a second challenge as there had been several reported cases of hemorrhagic fever, a natural epidemic disease with a high fatality rate, state media reported earlier this week, adding that this was common in rural areas at this time of year.

According to Chinese news website The Paper, at least three untraceable coronavirus transmission chains have been identified, while more will likely to be found in the coming days.

Infected people found at the international airport in Xianyang, a city close to Xi’an, were carrying the Delta variant, which reports said could have been brought in by travelers from Pakistan on December 4. The virus has recently spread to Henan province, Beijing and Dongguan in Guangdong province, Chinese media said.

Between December 13 and 22, 24 cases of the Delta variant were reported in Dalang town, Dongguan. Among them, a seven-year-old boy tested positive on Wednesday after he tested negative for six consecutive days.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has identified 34 imported Omicron cases this month but no local infections were reported.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she told Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on a visit to Beijing that Hong Kong people hoped to have quarantine-free travel, or so-called “border reopening”, with the mainland as soon as possible.

A nurse in China prepares to administer the Sinovac vaccine. Photo: AFP / George Calvelo / NurPhoto

Lam said the border reopening scheme should have been announced last Friday, but it was still pending the central government’s decision. Health officials said last week that “good news” would be announced soon.

Last month, Hong Kong media reported that a scheme to allow 1,000 people to travel to the mainland without quarantine every day would start in early December. But the scheme was postponed to around Christmas, as Beijing did not want to disrupt the Legislative Council elections on December 19.

It’s unclear if the scheme will be further delayed due to the new outbreaks on the mainland and the global rise of Omicron.

Read: HK to put UK travelers in isolation camp as Omicron rips