So much for China’s grand reopening. A cluster of new COVID-19 cases in the city of Shulan — more than 2,000 kilometers from Wuhan — has prompted Beijing to order a lockdown of the province of Jilin, Bloomberg reported last night. The lockdown began a few days ago but news of it has slowly emerged over the past day. The move impacts than 100 million people in China, who now face new restrictions on movement and access to economic activity:
Some 108 million people in China’s northeast region are being plunged back under lockdown conditions as a new and growing cluster of infections causes a backslide in the nation’s return to normal.
In an abrupt reversal of the re-opening taking place across the nation, cities in Jilin province have cut off trains and buses, shut schools and quarantined tens of thousands of people. The strict measures have dismayed many residents who had thought the worst of the nation’s epidemic was over.
People “are feeling more cautious again,” said Fan Pai, who works at a trading company in Shenyang, a city in nearby Liaoning province that’s also facing renewed restrictions. “Children playing outside are wearing masks again” and health care workers are walking around in protective gear, she said. “It’s frustrating because you don’t know when it will end.”
The province of Jilin sits to the north of North Korea, while Wuhan is located far to the southwest. Beijing sits nearly equally between the two points, roughly 1150 kilometers from both and on the same travel pathway. That is a very long distance for the virus to travel at this late stage if China had the outbreak contained as much as they thought, and the capital’s location nearly equidistant between the two outbreaks raises questions about whether China’s luck in Beijing might run out. That comes at an awkward time, too:
Elsewhere in China, the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Sunday that it was no longer necessary to wear masks outdoors. The capital, which has reported no new infections for 30 days, is preparing for the annual session of the National People’s Congress, a major gathering that had been postponed for more than two months.
The sheer scope of the lockdown makes it look like Beijing’s dealing with more than just three dozen cases in Shulan. So do threats to punish people who spread “rumours” from Jilin, as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reports today:
The authorities in a northeastern Chinese city hit by a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases have warned that people who violate quarantine rules will be prosecuted.
In a statement published on Tuesday, the police in Shulan, a city of 700,000 people in Jilin province, said those who failed to follow the stay-at-home orders or tried to hide respiratory illness-related symptoms would be subject to administrative or criminal sanctions.
Those who spread rumours or misinformation would be held responsible too, the statement said.
“Rumours or misinformation,” eh? What might that entail — information about case loads that contradict the 34 cases detected, as the official count stands at the moment? This seems quite reminiscent of China’s attempts to silence doctors who attempted to warn about the pandemic when it began in Wuhan, several of whom disappeared for a while and at least one of whom died from COVID-19.
Beijing’s actions against party leadership in the area also seems rather strong for such a limited outbreak:
On Monday, government officials from Shulan, a city in the province, said it would impose its strictest restrictions yet to try to contain the outbreak, including closing off residential compounds with confirmed and suspected cases. Officials would also allow only one person from each family to leave to buy essential supplies for two hours every two days, according to Bloomberg.
The highest-ranking Communist Party official in Shulan was removed along with five other government officials as a result of the new outbreak.
And the news from Wuhan isn’t exactly cheery either, although new cases there haven’t prompted the same kind of response:
Last week, Wuhan reported six new cases, breaking a 35-day streak of zero new daily cases. The government in the city has not reimposed a lockdown but is currently testing all 11 million residents.
That’s another reason to think that the problem in Shulan and Jilin might be a lot bigger than Beijing wants anyone to know. It’s worth watching, as is the National People’s Congress meeting. If that gets postponed again, look out.