China faces biggest Covid-19 surge yet, locks down cities, redirects flights

Residents queueing for Covid-19 testing in Changchun, Jilin province, on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: XINHUA
A locked down neighbourhood in Shanghai on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - Health officials in China doubled down on Tuesday (March 15) on the country's "dynamic zero" policy towards Covid-19 as cases continued to surge, with 30 million people under various levels of lockdown.

This is now the biggest Covid-19 surge in China since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.

"Expert analysis and judgment show that our current policy of 'dynamic zero' and a series of preventive and control measures have been effective in responding to the Omicron variant outbreak," said Mr Lei Zhenglong, deputy director of the National Health Commission's (NHC) Bureau of Disease Control.

The current surge has been blamed mostly on the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Earlier on Tuesday, the health authority reported 5,370 new infections from the day before, of which 1,768 were asymptomatic.

China keeps a separate tally for patients who test positive but present no symptoms. More than 19,800 new infections have been reported in the past two weeks.

Officials have resorted to the usual playbook like never before in dealing with the situation - aggressively "testing, tracing and isolating".

While the numbers in China are still fairly low when compared with global figures and the death rate has remained below 5,000 - most of which occurred early in the pandemic - it is still startling in a country adamant on completely eradicating the virus.

At least 13 cities are now in the grip of a full lockdown, while dozens of others are partially so.

The recent surge has triggered mass testing and at least one major city, Shanghai, has seen international flights redirected, while companies are ordering employees to work from home.

Public transport in several cities has also been suspended.

Most of the current cases have been reported in the northern province of Jilin, where residents in several cities, including the provincial capital, Changchun, have been ordered to stay home.

Builders are racing to construct temporary hospitals to cope with the spike in cases.

A stadium being converted into a makeshift hospital in Changchun, China, on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

The provincial party secretary Jing Junhai said that the situation was moving into a "serious and complex stage" but vowed to ensure zero new cases within a week.

The NHC said it had sent a team of experts to Jilin as well as reinforcement medical teams from four other provinces.

But residents told The Straits Times that while many people were ordered to stay home and automotive factories told to shut production lines, some employees had been asked to quarantine in their workplaces to minimise economic disruption.

Madam Liu Li, whose husband works in a state-owned enterprise, said he was in lockdown with his colleagues at their workplace.

"His bosses have said it's to make sure work can continue but we're not sure how long (the lockdown) might go on for," she said.

During the press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, health officials insisted that there was no need for a shift in China's response to the situation even though the Omicron variant was responsible for the current surge.

"Just like the characteristics of the Omicron variant are more infectious and more hidden, we require our response measures to be more timely, faster, stricter and more effective," Mr Lei said.

Cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, which are still allowing international flights, are also experiencing a sharp rise in cases, mainly from imported infections.

A locked down neighbourhood in Shanghai on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Residents queueing to undergo nucleic acid tests for Covid-19 in Shenzhen on March 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

In a bid to ease the strain on Shanghai's healthcare system, China's civil aviation regulator on Tuesday ordered 106 international flights arriving in the financial hub to divert to other cities for seven weeks, beginning on March 21.

The 106 affected flights include those operated by Air China, China Eastern, Shanghai Airlines, Juneyao Air and Spring Airlines, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said.

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