After Months as a Covid Success Story, China Tries to Tame Delta
Although the government had to eradicate a delta eruption in June in Guangdong province, authorities are facing a much larger spread this time around. Since the current outbreak of Delta began on July 21, the number of cases has risen to 483, more than the total sum of infections for the first five months of the year. As of Tuesday afternoon, the virus had spread to 15 of China’s 31 provinces and autonomous regions.
“Once it reaches so many provinces, it’s very difficult to tone it down,” said Chen Xi, associate professor of public health at Yale University. “I think it would be surprising and shocking to the rest of the world. Such a powerful government has been violated by Delta. It will be a very important lesson – we cannot let our guard down. “
Last week, Sun Chunlan, Chinese vice premier, blamed “ideological laxity” for the Delta epidemics and urged authorities to step up their prevention efforts. “We can’t relax for a moment,” Ms. Sun said.
Some public health experts in the country say it’s time for China to rethink its Covid strategy. In a recent essay, Zhang Wenhong, who advises the Chinese government on handling Covid-19, pitched the idea of following a model similar to that of Israel and Britain, in which vaccination rates are high and people are prepared to live with infections.
For now, China is sticking to the same strict playbook. Across the country, the government has ordered people not to travel unless necessary. In the cities of Zhangjiajie and Zhuzhou, 5.4 million people have been prevented from leaving their homes. About 13 million residents of Zhengzhou City, the site of deadly flooding in July, had to queue for virus tests from last weekend.
In Nanjing, where the recent Delta cases first surfaced, millions of residents had to participate in four rounds of testing.
“It’s just torturing the masses,” said Jiang Ruoling, a resident of Nanjing, who has been tested four times in the past three weeks. Ms. Jiang, who works in real estate, said she understands the need for testing, but still criticizes officials for failing to control the latest outbreak. “Leaders are actually wasting everyone’s resources and time,” she said.
Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said China’s “containment-based” strategy would not work in the long term, especially as new variants continue to emerge. “It will become extremely expensive to maintain such an approach,” he said.
And yet, China does not seem willing to take any risks. In Wuhan, authorities began testing the 12 million residents on Tuesday after only three cases of the Delta variant were discovered. The cities of Sanmenxia and Zhuhai have also started mass testing. In Beijing, where there are five infections, all train services to and from the capital have been canceled.
Delta’s current cases are linked to a flight from Moscow that landed in Nanjing on July 10. Seven passengers on the flight were infected with the variant. On July 20, nine airport cleaners tested positive. Their infections quickly spread among people who entered the airport, a major transportation hub.
Jennifer Huang Bouey, senior Chinese policy expert and epidemiologist at the RAND Corporation, said that even with tight controls, it may not be realistic for Chinese authorities to reduce these latter cases to zero. “I think they may need to prepare people for greater tolerance of Covid,” Dr Huang said.
Part of the challenge for Beijing is that the Chinese-made vaccines used to immunize the country are not as effective against the Delta variant as other vaccines. The government says it has already administered around 1.69 billion doses. Health officials are now considering giving booster shots to people with weakened immune systems as well as to the elderly.
Zhong Nanshan, a leading epidemiologist, said Chinese vaccines protect 100% against serious illnesses caused by Delta and are 63.2% effective against asymptomatic cases. He said he was confident that the latest outbreak would be brought under control in about 10 to 14 days, during which authorities hope to conduct a thorough contact tracing in Nanjing and several other cities in Jiangsu Province.
Three days before Nanjing Airport cleaners tested positive, a mother, daughter, and 12-year-old daughter flew to Zhangjiajie after passing through Nanjing for two hours. In Zhangjiajie, one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, the three of them went to see “The Charm of Xiangxi”, a performance of song and dance by ethnic minorities. About 2,000 people were crammed into the theater for the show.
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Three other tourists from Zhangjiajie then traveled to the central city of Changde, taking a river cruise with dozens of other people. About 27 infections in at least six places have been linked to the boat ride.
Cases have also spread in Yangzhou among “chess and card” rooms – poorly ventilated spaces where many older patrons gather to play mahjong, chess and cards. Local authorities are offering rewards of several thousand renminbi to whistleblowers who find and report people who have been in these rooms.
“The situation has not yet reached its lowest point,” Wu Zhenglong, governor of Jiangsu province, said at a press conference on Sunday. “The situation of prevention and control is serious and complicated. “
Han Xiaoyi, a 23-year-old resident of Nanjing, said she was furious with the way the government initially handled the Delta outbreak in her city. Authorities have allowed people to continue going to work on crowded subways and buses, she said.
Ms. Han, who works in sales, had to be absent to stand in line for hours to get tested four times in recent days. “When it started I felt really depressed because at first I felt like the pandemic was far from me,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I felt like I was back with me.”
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