Covid-19 cluster forces China's manufacturing hub to tighten restrictions

Employees work at a factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, China on Dec 7, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - China's southern Guangdong province is tightening Covid-19 restrictions after a new cluster of infections emerged in the country's manufacturing hub, and amid signs that the Omicron variant might be spreading in the community.

The Dalang township in Dongguan city, one of the province's most important factory belts, has been locked down after the detection of eight infections, with people not allowed to enter or exit and bus services suspended.

A local hospital has closed all but its fever clinic and no patients are allowed to leave.

The provincial capital of Guangzhou also imposed movement restrictions on residents in a suburban district and started mass testing after a cargo flight crew worker tested positive.

Meanwhile, the city also said that its first Omicron case had tested positive only after being released from quarantine earlier this month, raising fears that the highly transmissible variant capable of evading vaccine protection could have already taken root in the community.

On Thursday night, local health authorities said a 70-year-old woman who lived in the same apartment building as the Omicron patient also tested positive.

It's unclear if her case is of the new variant or connected to another cluster.

The moves in Guangdong underscore the growing challenge China faces in sticking to its so-called Covid Zero strategy as Omicron breaches the border.

Officials have been fighting to extinguish Delta outbreaks over the past two months, only to see new clusters continue to pop up, and Omicron is likely to present a further test of their playbook of lockdowns, contact-tracing and mass testing.

Still, Beijing has doubled down on the approach of elimination that's been abandoned by all other countries: state media and public figures have in recent weeks declared that the emergence of Omicron only justifies China's refusal to live with the virus.

Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai-based infectious disease doctor who has become something of a pandemic influencer, said on Friday (Dec 17) on Weibo that China's Covid-Zero strategy has allowed it to maintain its composure in the face of the new variant, and its policies are exactly what the World Health Organization has urged other countries to enact.

Local media have also trumpeted the renewal of restrictions in other countries struggling to contain their infection waves as cautionary tales.

On Friday, stories on South Korea "giving up on co-existing with Covid" were the top-trending item on Weibo after the country tightened some social distancing rules to slow a new surge.

Still, Korea hasn't said that it wants to stamp out all local transmission - and with several thousand infections a day, isn't likely to be able to.

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