Chinese southern city Baise turns traffic lights red to enforce stay-at-home Covid-19 order

Nearly 100 infections were detected, prompting the city of Baise to go into a snap lockdown on Feb 7, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - An Omicron outbreak in southern China led officials to switch traffic lights to red in several counties, as local governments strive to limit people's movements to meet Beijing's strategy of eliminating Covid-19 despite the virus's growing infectiousness.

A sudden Covid-19 resurgence in the south-western province of Guangxi during the recent Chinese New Year Holiday prompted a snap lockdown on Monday of Baise, a city of 3.6 million bordering Vietnam, after nearly 100 infections were detected.

Soon after, local authorities in five sub-districts in the city turned the lights red to reinforce the stay-at-home order, though it granted exceptions for essential travel related to medical care, deliveries and the Covid-19 response.

The de-facto travel ban underscores the sweeping administrative power Chinese authorities have, and their willingness to use it to restrict individual mobility as part of the country's so-called Covid-zero approach. Such hardcore tactics are being deployed more often as the pathogen's more infectious Delta and Omicron variants spark more frequent and persistent flare ups in China.

Leaders are now struggling to balance efforts to contain outbreaks at any cost, while mitigating the risk that extreme curbs will stoke public discontent and hit business.

It's happened previously: A small county in eastern China enacted a similar traffic light change after one case was detected in November, only to repeal it amid outcry on social media.

The rigid implementation of lockdown rules in the western Chinese city of Xi'an earlier in the year initially made it difficult to get medical care, before changes were enacted. Two pregnant women suffered miscarriages, while two other people died from heart attacks.

Beijing has also taken note of brewing discontent arising from everything from pandemic travel bans to insufficient preparation in caring for people's basic needs during quarantine stints. Top health officials have spoken about increasing vigilance in combating Covid-19's covert spread, both to quash infections before they take root and to minimise disruptions to normal life.

The outbreak in Baise appears to have slipped under the health authorities' radars. Cases have grown to nearly 200 in less than a week, with China's National Health Commission warning about the risk of further increases.

Meanwhile, Omicron has also emerged in north-eastern China, where an extensive border with Russia makes the region susceptible to random incursions of the virus.

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