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The southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou has locked down more than 5 million residents as authorities try to stop the spread of Covid and avoid reactivating the city-wide lockdown that ravaged Shanghai earlier this year.
Guangzhou reported 3,007 local infections on Wednesday, more than a third of all new cases across China. The number of infections across the country has reached its highest level in six months.
The city of 19 million people has been the epicenter of China’s latest Covid outbreak, registering more than 1,000 new cases – a relatively high figure by the country’s zero-Covid standards – over five days.
As the world moves away from the pandemic, China is still pushing for rapid lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to stamp out infections as they emerge. The zero-tolerance approach has been increasingly challenged by the highly contagious Omicron variant, and its heavy economic and social costs have sparked public outrage.
The current outbreak is the worst since the pandemic began in Guangzhou. The city is the capital of Guangdong province, China’s main economic powerhouse and global manufacturing center.
Most of Guangzhou’s cases are concentrated in Haiju District, a mostly residential city of 1.8 million people on the south bank of the Pearl River. Last Saturday, Haiju was locked down, residents were told not to leave their homes unless necessary, and all public transport – from buses to the subway – was suspended. The blockade was originally supposed to last for three days, but was later extended until Friday.
Two more districts – with a combined population of 3.8 million – were closed on Wednesday as the outbreak intensified.
Residents of Lebanon, an older neighborhood in the west of the city, woke up to orders to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Colleges and universities in the area were told to close their campuses. Restaurants were banned and businesses were ordered to close, except for those providing essential items.
On Wednesday afternoon, a third district, remote Panyu, announced a blockade that will last until Sunday. In the district, private cars and bicycles were also banned from entering the streets.
Starting Thursday, all elementary and secondary schools in the city’s eight districts have gone online, and kindergartens have been closed. Tutoring classes, preschools and daycare centers will also suspend services, city education officials said at a news conference Wednesday.
Mass testing was carried out in nine districts of the city, and more than 40 metro stations were closed. Residents are believed to be in close contact with infected people – in China, from neighbors to those living in the same building or even the residential complex was transferred to centralized quarantine facilities en masse.
The outbreak has led to mass cancellations at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, one of the busiest routes in the country. About 85% of the nearly 1,000 flights departing and arriving from Guangzhou were canceled as of Thursday morning, according to airline Variflight.
“Currently, there is still a risk of community spread in non-dangerous areas, and the epidemic remains severe and complex,” Zhang Yi, deputy director of the Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission, said at a press conference on Tuesday.
So far, the crackdown appears to be more targeted and less severe than seen in many other cities. Although residents living in high-risk areas cannot leave their homes, those living in so-called high-risk areas in closed areas can go out to buy food and other daily necessities.
But many fear a city-wide lockdown if the outbreak continues. On WeChat, China’s super app, residents share charts comparing Guangzhou’s traffic to Shanghai in late March, just days before the eastern financial center was hit by a two-month blockade.
Shanghai officials initially denied the need for a city-wide lockdown. but then it was introduced after 3,500 infections were reported in the city every day.
Expecting the worst to happen, many residents of Guangzhou stocked up on food and other supplies. “I bought (groceries and snacks) online like crazy. “I will probably eat leftovers for a month,” said a resident of Haiju district.
Others, angered by the restrictions and probation orders, took to social media to voice their frustrations. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, posts using slang and insults in the local Cantonese dialect to criticize zero-Covid measures have gone unnoticed by clueless online censors.
One Weibo user said, “I learn Cantonese curse words every day by searching in real time.”
Meanwhile, local authorities are under pressure to step up measures to control Covid despite public outcry.
This week, videos of Covid workers wearing shoes on their heads and beating residents went viral. Police in the city of Linyi in Shandong province announced on Tuesday that seven Covid-19 workers had been arrested after clashes with residents.