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China’s southern metropolis, Guangzhou, has shut down a third district as authorities scramble to stamp out a spreading Covid outbreak and avoid triggering the kind of citywide lockdown that devastated Shanghai earlier this year.
Guangzhou reported 2,637 local infections on Tuesday, accounting for nearly a third of new cases across China experiencing a six-month high in infections across the country.
The city of 19 million has become the epicenter of the latest Covid outbreak in China, with more than 1,000 new cases — a relatively high figure by the country’s zero-covid standards — for four consecutive days.
As the world moves away from the pandemic, China is still pushing for rapid lockdowns, mass testing, comprehensive contact tracing and quarantines to eradicate infections as soon as they occur. The zero-tolerance approach has faced increasing challenges from the highly transferable Omicron variant, and its high economic and social costs have led to increasing public backlash.
The ongoing outbreak is the worst since the start of the pandemic to hit Guangzhou. The city is the capital of Guangdong Province, a major economic powerhouse for China and a global manufacturing center.
Most cases in Guangzhou are centered in the Haizhu District – a largely residential urban district on the southern bank of the Pearl River. Haizhu was locked down last Saturday, with residents told not to leave the house unless necessary and all public transport – from buses to subways – was halted. The lockdown was initially supposed to last three days, but has since been extended until Friday.
Two more districts were locked down on Wednesday as the outbreak spread.
Residents of Liwan, an old neighborhood in the west of the city, woke up with orders to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. Colleges and universities in the district were told to shut down their campuses, with all schools to move classes online and close nurseries. Dining in restaurants was banned and businesses had to close except those that supplied essential supplies.
On Wednesday afternoon, a third district, remote Panyu, announced a lockdown that will last until Sunday. The district also banned private vehicles and bicycles from the street.
Mass tests have been carried out in nine districts in the city and more than 40 metro stations have been closed. Residents considered close contacts with infected individuals – who in China can range from neighbors to people living in the same building or even residential complexes – have been massively transferred to centralized quarantine facilities.
“Currently, there is still the risk of community spreading in non-risk areas, and the outbreak remains severe and complex,” Zhang Yi, deputy director of the Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission, told a news conference on Tuesday.
So far, the lockdown seems more focused and less draconian than that in many other cities. While residents in neighborhoods classified as high-risk cannot leave their homes, residents in so-called high-risk areas in closed neighborhoods can go outside to buy groceries and other daily necessities.
But many fear a blanket, citywide lockdown could be imminent if the outbreak continues to spread. On WeChat, China’s super-app, residents share charts comparing Guangzhou’s rising caseload with Shanghai’s in late March, in the days leading up to the two-month shutdown of the eastern financial center.
Shanghai officials initially denied that a citywide lockdown was needed, but then imposed one after the city reported 3,500 daily infections.
Anticipating the worst to come, many Guangzhou residents have stocked up on food and other supplies. “I’ve been buying (groceries and snacks) online like crazy. I will probably eat leftovers for a month,” said one resident, whose area in Haizhu district was categorized as low-risk by authorities.
Others, angry at the restrictions and trial orders, have taken to social media to express their frustration. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, posts using jargon and expletives in the local Cantonese dialect criticizing the zero-covid measures have spread quickly, seemingly largely evading the eyes of online censors who don’t understand.
“I’m learning Cantonese curse words in real-time hot search every day,” said one Weibo user.
Meanwhile, local authorities across the country are under pressure to step up Covid control measures, despite mounting public frustration.
This week, videos of Covid workers dressed head to toe in hazmat suits and beating residents up went viral online. Following a protest, police in Linyi city, Shandong province, said in a statement on Tuesday that seven Covid workers had been detained after clashing with residents.