China orders movement controls, lockdowns amid summer Covid-19 flare-up

Residents being tested for the coronavirus in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Aug 2, 2021.
Residents being tested for the coronavirus in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Aug 2, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - A new Covid-19 outbreak sweeping across China that began in Nanjing airport has now spread to at least 14 provinces and regions, prompting local governments to institute various levels of lockdowns and issue travel advisories while also ordering the mass testing of residents.

China on Tuesday (Aug 3) reported 90 new infections, 61 of which were local. It brought the total number of active Covid-19 cases in the country to 1,157, of which 24 are serious.

The highly transmissible Delta variant, which health officials say is responsible for the latest rash of infections, has severely tested the country's control measures, among the strictest in the world.

Coming right in the middle of the summer holidays, which many had taken as an opportunity to travel domestically after nearly 18 months of restraint, the spike in infections has forced travellers to cancel or rearrange plans, while tourist attractions in several provinces, including the Emperor Qinshihuang Mausoleum in Xi'an, where the terracotta warriors are located, have pre-emptively shut to avoid turning into super-spreader events.

An Air China flight from Russia is believed to have sparked this cluster of infections when cleaners at Nanjing's Lukou Airport, a regional aviation hub, became infected cleaning the plane without adhering to personal protection protocols.

Cleaning staff handling international and domestic fights were also not segregated, allowing for cross infections at the airport which later spread into the community and surrounding cities.

Passengers infected at the airport went on to travel to Zhangjiajie, a popular tourist spot in central Hunan province, where the movie Avatar was filmed. When the infected tourists attended an outdoor cultural performance, it created a massive cluster that spread around the country, including to capital city Beijing.

On Tuesday, the local authorities ordered that no one - residents or tourists - would be allowed in or out of Zhangjiajie, in a bid to cut off the infection chain.

Beijing, which has 20 infections, has also banned anyone in medium- or high-risk areas - namely, the 137 cities with active Covid-19 cases - from entering the city, and has rerouted trains and buses to ensure this. Videos circulating on WeChat showed residents who had left the capital for the day stuck at checkpoints, or being escorted away by police vehicles.

Rail operators are now offering full refunds to anyone who has to change their travel plans while government offices and state-linked companies have urged staff not to attend mass gatherings.

In other harder hit areas, local governments have taken far more drastic measures. Nanjing, Zhangjiajie and Wuhan, the epicentre of the first outbreak last year, have ordered their entire populations to undergo nucleic acid testing in a bid to flush out asymptomatic cases, and ordered targeted lockdowns in districts with case clusters.

Senior health officials have also been dispatched to Nanjing, Zhangjiajie and the flood-hit city of Zhengzhou, which is dealing with the double whammy of a spike in infections.

In a country where 1.6 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered, among the highest in the world, questions are now being raised of the vaccine's efficacy against the new, more infectious Delta variant.

But experts have been quick to dispel any doubts, insisting at a press conference last Saturday that domestically made vaccines, especially Sinovac, have shown results in preventing serious disease.

"Although the vaccination rate in many countries has been very high, especially in developed countries, after the relaxation of epidemic control measures, there has been a substantial rebound in the epidemic," said Mr Shao Yiming, a member of the national expert group on vaccine research and development

"This once again shows that vaccination must be used in conjunction with strict prevention and control measures."