Nearly 30 million people were under lockdown across China on March 15, as surging virus cases prompted the return of mass tests and hazmat-suited health officials to city streets on a scale not seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
China reported 5,280 new Covid-19 cases on March 15, more than double the previous day’s tally, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads across a country that has tethered tightly to a “zero-Covid” strategy.
That approach, which pivots on hard localised lockdowns and has left China virtually cut off from the outside world for two years, appears to be on the line as Omicron finds its way into communities.
At least 13 cities nationwide were fully locked down on Tuesday, and several other cities had partial lockdowns.
The northeastern province of Jilin was the worst-hit – with over 3,000 new cases on March 15, according to the National Health Commission.
Residents of several cities there including the provincial capital of Changchun – home to nine million people – are under stay-at-home orders.
Shenzhen – the southern tech hub of 17.5 million people – is three days into a lockdown with many factories closed and supermarket shelves emptying, while China’s largest city Shanghai is under a lattice of restrictions that fall short of a citywide shutdown.
Scenes of closed neighbourhoods, panic buying and police cordons cast back to the early phase of the pandemic, which first emerged in China in late 2019 but has eased in much of the rest of the world.
As lockdowns edge closer to Beijing, public venues have tightened their scrutiny of the ubiquitous health QR codes.
Other city residents expressed exasperation as the pandemic grinds on in China, while much of the world tries to return to normal.
Economic clouds gather
March 15 was the sixth day in a row that more than 1,000 new cases were recorded in the world’s second-biggest economy.
Experts forecast a dent to growth as the virus billows out.
“Renewed restrictions, notably the lockdown in Shenzhen, will weigh on consumption and cause supply disruptions in the near term,” Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics said in a briefing note.
He added that it will be “challenging” for China to meet its official GDP growth target for the year of around 5.5 per cent.
Hong Kong stocks plunged by more than three per cent on March 15, extending the previous day’s tech-fuelled rout.
“The partial containment of wealthy provinces in southern and eastern China is worrying because they account for half of the country’s GDP and population,” Raymond Yeung, an analyst at ANZ bank, said in a research note.
Dozens of domestic flights at airports in Beijing and Shanghai were cancelled on the morning of March 15, flight tracking data showed.
An outbreak at Volkswagen Group factories in the Jilin city of Changchun also prompted three sites to shut on March 14 for at least three days, according to a spokesman.
Top Chinese medical expert Zhang Wenhong has raised the prospect of softening the zero-Covid strategy in the face of the Omicron variant. But he warned any relaxation of mass testing and lockdowns was impossible in the short term.
Health officials have also said tighter restrictions could be on the way.
Jilin’s governor vowed to go all-out to “achieve community zero-Covid in a week” during an emergency meeting Monday night, state media reported.