BEIJING - China’s northern-most province of Heilongjiang has become the new target for the country’s battle against its coronavirus outbreak, as Chinese in Russia who are coming home in droves send infection numbers spiking.
An expert team has been deployed to the border city of Suifenhe which has been dealing with the inflow of Chinese, while cities in the area have imposed stricter checks, quarantine rules and partial lockdowns.
The National Health Commission on Monday (April 13) said it has sent a group of medical specialists in infection control, intensive care and respiratory diseases to Suifenhe, as Chinese t returning from Russia make up half the 98 imported cases recorded on Sunday.
There were 108 new cases nationwide, a new high since March 5.
Mr Hu Shengyun, 46, who works as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Ussuriysk, took a bus on April 8 to the border 60km away. He was screened for the coronavirus as soon as he arrived in China, and driven to a newly built hospital – in nearby Muling city– where he is on a 14-day quarantine.
He has another 14-day quarantine to complete at home in Dongning city, also in Heilongjiang province.
“The epidemic was getting worse in Russia, and hotels and restaurants were all shut. I just feel safer and more secure being home,” said Mr Hu, who has worked in Ussuriysk for eight years.
“People have a different attitude in Russia; even when the outbreak became serious, they were still not wearing face masks.”
China has, since two weeks ago, barred foreigners, including those with visas and residence permits, from entering the country.
It also drastically cut the number of international flights, allowing foreign operators to fly just one route once a week.
Chinese nationals wanting to leave Russia have had to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok in its far east before crossing the border to Suifenhe.
On Saturday, a Russian flight that landed in Shanghai had 51 passengers who tested positive for Covid-19.
Russia has more than 18,000 confirmed cases now.
On Monday, Premier Li Keqiang ordered officials to curb the cross-border spread of Covid-19 by tightening border control and sending more experts there to beef up anti-coronavirus efforts, as well as channel medical supplies to these outer regions.
An office building has been converted into a makeshift hospital near the border, while quarantine facilities have expanded into various cities in Heilongjiang.
Suifenhe, with a population of just 100,000, has gone into lockdown: gatherings are banned and residents are asked to stay at home, with one household member allowed out once every three days to buy groceries.
The city also extended the closure of its border with Russia from next week. It was shut on April 9.
Madam Zhang Xiuying, 60, who lives in the city of Dongning, less than an hour’s drive from Suifenhe, said local authorities there have also asked residents to stay home.
“Suifenhe can’t take that many of them in quarantine, so some of them have been moved here,” added Madam Zhang, who is retired.
“I’m worried, how can you not be? But you have to let them come back, they’re our people.”