Chinese city Xi'an begins strict lockdown as cases edge up nationally

Workers in protective suits at an entrance to a university's residential area under lockdown in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, on Dec 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The 13 million residents of the Chinese city of Xi'an began life under tough restrictions on Thursday (Dec 23) after mass testing this week identified 127 Covid-19 infections scattered across 14 districts there.

Residents have been told to remain in their homes and designate one person to go out every other day for necessities, according to a notice issued by the local government, triggering fights over access to food.

Those living in Xi'an have also been told to avoid non-essential travel out of the city.

Those who want to travel out of the city need to test negative for Covid-19 before departure and get clearance from employers or community-level authorities. 

The city has suspended long-distance bus services and banned taxis and cars hired on ride-hailing platforms for trips out of town, and dispatched police at highway exits to dissuade those who intended to leave.  

Livestreaming video provided by local traffic police on social media showed some highway sections in Xian were almost empty.

All domestic flights to and from Xi'an previously scheduled for Thursday have been cancelled, according to data provided by Variflight.

Outbound flights from Xi'an for Friday are still available, online travel booking apps show. 

The outbreak, triggered by imported infections, has spread across the city's 14 districts, making containment of the virus "grave and complicated", the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday.

While the number of infections remains small, the fact they are scattered across the city’s 14 districts shows how difficult it will be to contain the outbreak.

Officials still haven’t identified some chains of transmission and the city is initiating a third round of mass testing in hopes of spotting them.

Subsequent cases have been found in two other cities in the Shaanxi Province, where Xi’an is the capital.

A staff member spraying disinfectant on street in Xi'an on Dec 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Infections also occurred in Beijing and the southern Chinese manufacturing hub of Dongguan, where two dozen cases linked to the Xi’an outbreak were detected.

On China’s social media, some people described the outbreak as the worst the city has encountered. Videos posted online show people fighting over food and other essential goods in supermarkets as they stock up for the lockdown. 

The outbreak comes as the city is set to hold a graduate school entrance examination for some 135,000 people next weekend. Some have been told to sit for the exam in other cities or provinces, while those who are infected or have been identified as a close contact will take the test in quarantine.

The rising number of cases underscores the challenge China faces at a time of increased holiday travel and preparation for the winter Olympic Games, which will feature an influx of athletes and their entourages in February.

The vast majority of the infections stem from the Delta variant, which spread through most of the world in the summer and fall. The country is girding for the more infectious Omicron strain, which has been shown to evade immunity from vaccination or previous infection.

Chinese Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan urged "swift" measures to curb the spread of infections, the report said. Ms Sun, whose membership in the 25-person Politburo makes her one of China's most senior officials, also stressed the importance of tightening restrictions on the movement of people to prevent large gatherings in key areas, according to Xinhua.

Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province, and also known for being the home of the Terracotta warriors, is the latest Chinese city to experience a major virus resurgence, following an outbreak in the industrial powerhouse province of Zhejiang.

The lockdown of Xi’an is the latest escalation in China’s efforts to extinguish local transmission of the Delta variant as it becomes the only country in the world still bent on eliminating the virus and bringing cases to zero.

Security guards walking in an area that is under restrictions in Xi'an on Dec 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Throughout the pandemic, officials have been able to stamp out outbreaks usually within a month through mass testing, aggressive contact-tracing and targeted lockdowns. Yet as the virus’ new strains become more infectious, containment measures have become increasingly disruptive, putting pressure on the world’s second largest economy.

While local authorities have in the past used targeted lockdowns to slow outbreaks in smaller places in China, no major city has been put under mass restrictions since Wuhan in early 2020, which has a similar population size to Xi’an. 

Officials in Beijing on Thursday acknowledged that there will inevitably be Covid-19 infections at the winter Olympic Games, which are set to begin in early February.

They urged all participants to get booster shots to better protect against the virus, especially those caused by the immunity-evading Omicron variant.

The outbreak in Xi'an traced its roots to a flight from Pakistan.

A cleaner at a quarantine hotel got infected two weeks ago after disinfecting the rooms of travellers who tested positive upon arrival in China. The virus quickly spread to coworkers, while another chain of transmission may have brought it from the airport to local communities.

Meanwhile, China has found four Omicron infections from people returning from overseas but has not yet seen the strain spread in the local community.

Authorities have vowed to tighten restrictions at borders and ports as they see a mounting risk of infection seeping in from overseas. 

China reported 100 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Dec 22, up from 77 a day earlier, its health authority said on Thursday.

Of the new infections, 71 were locally transmitted, according to a statement by the National Health Commission, compared with 57 from a day earlier. Most of the new local cases were in the north-western province of Shaanxi.

China reported 19 new asymptomatic cases, which it classifies separately from confirmed cases, unchanged from a day earlier.

There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636.

China had 100,644 confirmed cases as at Dec 22.

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