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Fresh Covid outbreaks put millions under lockdown in China

Tens of millions of people were under lockdown across China on Wednesday and businesses in a major tourist city were forced to close as fresh Covid clusters sparked fears of even wider restrictions.

A health worker takes a swab sample from a man to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a swab collection site in Beijing on July 5, 2022. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

Tens of millions of people were under lockdown across China on Wednesday and businesses in a major tourist city were forced to close as fresh Covid clusters sparked fears of even wider restrictions.

Chinese health authorities reported more than 300 infections in the historic northern city of Xi’an — home to the Terracotta Army — and the country’s biggest city Shanghai.

The outbreaks and the official response have dashed hopes that China would move away from the kinds of strict virus curbs seen earlier this year, when its hardline zero-Covid policy saw tens of millions locked down for weeks on end.

In Shanghai, some people on social media reported receiving government food rations — a throwback to the months-long confinement forced on the city’s residents in the spring.

“I’m so nervous, the epidemic has destroyed my youth. I’m about to go crazy,” posted a Shanghai-based user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.

Officials launched a new round of mass testing in more than half of the city’s districts after a rebound in cases since the weekend. They closed all karaoke bars Wednesday after some infections were linked to six such venues.

“I think this is unnecessary, and I don’t really want to do it,” Shanghai resident Alice Chan told AFP.

She said she took part in the mass testing over fears that her health code stored on smartphones, which is used to access public spaces, might otherwise flag her as a Covid risk.

“I think the situation won’t improve in the short term,” said another resident who only gave his name as Yao.

“People now aren’t really scared of Covid anymore, they’re scared of being locked down in their homes.”

– ‘Temporary control’ –
In Xi’an — a historic city of 13 million that endured a month-long lockdown at the end of last year — the population were placed under “temporary control measures” after 29 infections were found since Saturday, mostly among waste recycling workers.

Entertainment venues including pubs, internet cafes and karaoke bars would shut their doors from midnight on Wednesday, the city government said in a notice.

State media showed Xi’an residents queuing up for tests past midnight Tuesday but said the city was not in lockdown.

Officials have blamed the outbreak on the BA.5.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant, which is more transmissible and immune evasive.

“The positive infections are all the BA.5.2 branch of the Omicron variant, and epidemiological tracing work is still in full swing,” Xi’an health official Ma Chaofeng said at a briefing.

The outbreaks pose a fresh challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who last week reaffirmed his commitment to the zero-Covid strategy despite the mounting economic cost.

Japanese bank Nomura has estimated that at least 114 million people were under full or partial lockdowns nationwide as of Monday, a sharp jump from last week’s 66.7 million.

More than 1,000 infections have been reported since last week in the central province of Anhui, with dozens spilling over to Jiangsu province neighbouring Shanghai, threatening the Yangtze Delta manufacturing region.

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