COVID-19 cases increasing rapidly in China

Since the end of 2020, as part of the worsening global epidemic, coronavirus crises have broken out in many parts of China. As the coldest winter conditions approach, a new wave of outbreaks is still developing.

In recent days, the authorities in regions threatened by the epidemic—large cities such as Shenyang, Dalian, and Shijiazhuang—have successively announced that they have entered a “wartime state.” Their measures include opening nucleic acid testing for millions of people, cancelling all gatherings, and restricting public transportation.

People wearing masks in China [Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung]

These pandemic prevention operations face serious challenges. The Spring Festival is approaching—the annual lunar new year, seven-day holiday, and its customary mass movement of people, is due to start on February 12. Usually, hundreds of millions of people, mainly migrant workers, return home during this time of the year. Concerned about the impact of the pandemic, the governments of many cities have issued notices asking people not to return home unless necessary.

According to the National Health Commission, as of midnight on January 10, there were 673 confirmed cases (symptomatic infections) and 506 asymptomatic infections recorded in China. Currently, the outbreaks are mainly concentrated in Beijing, as well as Shijiazhuang, Shenyang and Dalian. After a new wave of infections broke out in the three major cities of Beijing, Shenyang and Dalian in the second half of December, the number of cases in Shijiazhuang also increased rapidly—by 212 cases in nine days—making it the most severely-hit pandemic area in China.

Shijiazhuang City, the capital of Hebei Province, a city of 11 million people, was declared a “wartime state” last Tuesday. Since Thursday, its railways, highways, and flights have been blocked, to prohibit people from entering or leaving.

Gaocheng District, which is under the jurisdiction of Shijiazhuang City, is the epicentre of the outbreak. Three officials in the district have been accused by authorities of “terrible prevention and control.”

According to reports, the first case of this outbreak came from Xiaoguozhuang Village, where a 61-year-old female resident was diagnosed with the infection. Subsequently, confirmed cases appeared in the village, one after another, and gradually spread to surrounding villages.

At a press conference on January 8, Li Qi, director of the Hebei Provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the outbreak in Hebei, like the outbreaks in other regions, was caused by viruses from abroad. Xiaoguozhuang Village is only a dozen kilometres away from Zhengding International Airport, thus facilitating the import and spread of the virus. Most of the local villagers work in the service industry or cold chain logistics, and are therefore more likely to be exposed to the virus.

In addition, social gatherings may be a factor in this outbreak. According to official information, from December 28 to January 2, several weddings were held in Xiaoguozhuang Village and surrounding villages, and more than 19 confirmed cases participated. From a wedding on December 28, seven guests were diagnosed with infection. According to comments cited in the media from local villagers, almost no one wore masks or took other protective measures at the wedding.

Feng Zijian, deputy director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said on January 5 that the large increase in cases, in a short period of time, meant that the virus had spread “extremely secretly” for some time. Parallel patterns have appeared in other regions. Previously, there were people in Dalian who tested positive after multiple tests. The outbreaks in Beijing showed similar characteristics.

As of January 10, there were a total of 63 officially-designated “medium-risk” areas in China—28 in Hebei Province (mainly in Shijiazhuang City and Xingtai City), 8 in Beijing, 30 in Liaoning Province (mainly in Shenyang City and Dalian City), and 7 in Heilongjiang Province (all in Heihe City).

These outbreaks once again show that the working class has been placed on the front line of the pandemic in China, as internationally. Several cases have been found to have been infected due to exposure to viruses on the surface of frozen goods, imported from abroad, but even after the pandemic resurfaced in multiple cities, cold chain logistics companies were still responsible for inadequate disinfection and lack of sanitation protection. According to the statistics, most of the cases in these outbreaks are factory workers, bus drivers, waiters, courier employees and similarly exposed workers.

Generally speaking, rural areas are considered to have little population mobility, but the outbreak in Hebei was initially concentrated in rural areas. To a certain extent, that was because some migrant workers were affected by mounting unemployment, wage cuts and unpaid wages, and forced to return home, ahead of the festival season “returning tide.” Workers have received virtually no support or assistance to alleviate their deteriorating living conditions.

At the same time, this development exposed the weak health and medical system in rural and other “grassroots” areas. According to the China News website, the source of the Hebei outbreak has not been determined, but it is an indisputable fact that the rural epidemic prevention system is inadequate, and many cases have not been tested in time.

Due to the intensifying pandemic around the world, people are being encouraged to turn their hopes to vaccines, and the Chinese government has accelerated its vaccination plan. China formally started its vaccination for “key populations” in December, and various regions are gradually developing it. Those who were listed in the first batch of “key populations for vaccination” include people in nine industries, including logistics, customs, medical care and transportation. These industries are considered to be more likely to be exposed to the virus via workplaces.

According to the previously announced Beijing COVID-19 vaccination plan, vaccinations of “key populations” in the capital will be completed before the Spring Festival. Then, depending on the supply of vaccines, vaccinations for other groups will be organised. On January 9, Zeng Yixin, deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, said China’s vaccine program would vaccinate at least 60 percent of the population and would not charge fees.

The vaccine currently provided by the government to Chinese citizens is from the state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm. According to previous official data, the vaccine’s effective rate is 79.34 percent.

Despite this, before the vaccine is provided to the people on a large scale, the global epidemic, which is surging due to the profit-driven policies of governments everywhere, still poses a dire threat to China’s masses. This highlights the fact that the pandemic is a global issue that cannot be resolved on a parochial national basis, such as by locking down borders.

Compounding the risk is the state-owned media’s repeated downplaying of the pandemic, to justify the lifting of prevention and control methods in order to ensure a return to work. Even though China has kept the number of cases relatively low, mainly by carrying out large-scale testing and contact tracing, the highly contagious virus has still continued to spread.