HONG KONG—A string of new Covid-19 clusters poses a test to China’s more targeted approach toward pandemic control as the country draws closer to the Lunar New Year holiday, typically a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel to see relatives.
Authorities in recent weeks have avoided the sweeping enforced lockdowns and business closures that were put into place at the beginning of the year after the coronavirus first emerged in central China, sticking to more selective and less invasive measures that kept the virus spread in check without hurting the economic recovery.
“There will be increased personnel flow and gathering, and the prevention and control of the epidemic will face a major test,” top Beijing municipal officials said last week, referring to the coming Lunar New Year holiday, which is set to begin Feb. 12.
Eight locally transmitted infections with symptoms were found in the northeastern province of Liaoning on Monday, China’s National Health Commission reported Tuesday.
Six of the patients were detected in the provincial capital of Shenyang, while the other two were found in Liaoning’s port city of Dalian, whose 5.6 million residents have undergone citywide testing since the outbreak was spotted in mid-December. Over the past two weeks, authorities in Dalian have tallied up 35 symptomatic carriers, including the two reported Tuesday. Hundreds of flights into and out of Shenyang and Dalian have been suspended in recent days to prevent the further spread of the disease.
The national capital of Beijing, in contrast, has been pursuing a more surgical approach. Over the past two weeks, China’s capital city has reported 16 locally transmitted Covid-19 cases, including two without symptoms, prompting authorities to test 1.7 million of its more than 20 million residents by Tuesday, according to official figures.
Although Beijing recently tightened some of its rules around Covid-19, the municipal government has cautioned they should only be implemented with “appropriate stringency,” with most of the measures kept voluntary and only minimally disruptive to the daily lives of the majority of citizens.
Schools and kindergartens have remained open, for example, though mandatory temperature checks and mask-wearing have been reintroduced. Residential compounds in Shunyi, the suburban district of Beijing most affected by the latest wave of infections, have been asked to set up checkpoints to control the flow of residents and visitors. Parks, museums and other public venues including restaurants and shopping malls are also being asked to limit the number of customers.
Rather than prohibit people from celebrating the coming holiday, Beijing’s government has appealed to residents to voluntarily reduce private gatherings and unnecessary travel. Government-backed companies and work units were advised to allow their employees to take staggered vacations around the festival, so as to prevent the simultaneous mass movement of hundreds of millions of people, who traditionally travel at the beginning of the holiday, either to see family at home or take a vacation.
The coronavirus began circulating in China just as the country was entering last year’s Lunar New Year travel season—one factor in its rapid spread, according to epidemiologists.
Zhu Aiqing, who works as a civil servant in Beijing, paid more than 1,000 yuan, equivalent to $150, in cancellation fees for airplane tickets to the tropical Chinese island of Hainan after her superiors asked employees who were Communist Party members, such as herself, to lead by example and stay home during the Lunar New Year.
“Luckily we were not charged any fees for our hotel booking after sending pictures of my work badge and explaining the city’s current policy,” Ms. Zhu said.
Top Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of balancing pandemic prevention and control measures with the need to minimize the impact on the economy and people’s daily lives.
China’s economy ground virtually to a halt in the first quarter of 2020, with the country’s gross domestic product contracting by 6.8% from a year earlier—the biggest such pullback in some four decades. But after the coronavirus was largely brought under control in the spring, China’s economy has largely bounced back, positioning the country to be the only major world economy to grow during this pandemic-hit year.
Since imposing a strict 76-day lockdown on the central Chinese city of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, where the pandemic was first detected, Chinese officials have been gradually fine-tuning its pandemic control measures.
When a new cluster re-emerged in Wuhan in late May, local officials tested more than nine million of the city’s residents in 10 days, but didn’t seal it off from the outside world.
After Beijing discovered new cases in a wholesale market in June, the capital was carved up into three emergency tiers and only a limited number of residential compounds were entirely closed off. More than half the city’s residents were tested and most businesses were allowed to stay open.
An outbreak at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport in November prompted the coastal metropolis to cancel hundreds of flights and test thousands of airport staff. Experts in charge of leading the response efforts debated whether it was necessary to conduct citywide tests or to take a less disruptive approach, Zhang Wenhong, a public-health expert and director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, said during an interview with Chinese state television broadcast Saturday.
They eventually settled on more limited restrictions to lessen the impact on local residents, according to Sun Xiaodong, deputy head of the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The surgical nature of Beijing’s current approach was on display Tuesday at a high-end residential building operated by Kempinski Hotel, where one of the residents of the building tested positive after flying to South Korea. After that case was reported, Beijing neighbors using the same elevator as the patient were placed under a two-week quarantine, according to a person living there.
However, residents living in other sections of the apartment building have been able to move about freely, and shops and offices in the office building linked to the apartment building have been operating as usual, according to people working there.
“While the measures are strict, they’ve been considerate to limit the inconvenience of the residents even during the quarantine period,” one resident who is quarantining there said in an interview. “I feel this thoroughness is the biggest factor that’s preventing the spread of the coronavirus in China.”
—Grace Zhu and Yoko Kubota in Beijing
Write to Sha Hua at [email protected]
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Appeared in the December 30, 2020, print edition as ‘New Cases Test China’s Targeted Strategy.’