China’s manufacturing hub Guangzhou partially locked down as Covid outbreak widens

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Hong Kong

China’s southern metropolis Guangzhou has placed a third district under lockdown as authorities rush to stamp out a widening Covid outbreak and avoid activating the kind of citywide lockdown that devastated Shanghai earlier this year.

Guangzhou on Tuesday reported 2,637 local infections, accounting for nearly a third of new cases across China experience a six-month high in infections nationwide.

The city of 19 million has become the epicenter of China’s latest Covid outbreak, recording more than 1,000 new cases in four consecutive days — a relatively high number by the country’s zero-Covid standards.

As the world moves away from the pandemic, China still insists on using immediate lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to eradicate infections as they emerge. The zero-tolerance approach has been increasingly challenged by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and its high economic and social costs have prompted increasing public backlash.

The ongoing outbreak is the worst since the pandemic began to hit Guangzhou. The city is the capital of Guangdong Province, which is a major economic center for China and a global manufacturing hub.

Most of the cases in Guangzhou were concentrated in Haizhu District, a mostly residential district on the south bank of the Pearl River. Haizhu went into lockdown last Saturday, residents were told not to leave their homes unless necessary and all public transport – from buses to subways – was suspended. The lockdown was initially supposed to last three days, but has since been extended to Friday.

Two other districts went into lockdown on Wednesday as the outbreak spread.

Residents of Liwan, an old neighborhood west of the city, woke up with orders to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Colleges and universities in the district were ordered to lockdown their campuses, with all schools moving classes online and daycares closing. Eating in restaurants was banned and shops were ordered to close, except for those supplying essential supplies.

On Wednesday afternoon, a third district, remote Panyu, announced a lockdown that will last through Sunday. The district also banned private vehicles and bicycles from the streets.

Mass tests were conducted in nine boroughs of the city and more than 40 subway stations were closed. Residents are considered to be in close contact with infected people – who in China can range from neighbors to people living in the same building or even apartment complexes – have been moved en masse to central quarantine facilities.

“At present, there is still a risk of community spread in non-risk areas and the outbreak remains severe and complex,” Zhang Yi, deputy director of the Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

So far, the lockdown seems more targeted and less draconian than in many other cities. While residents in neighborhoods classified as high-risk cannot leave their homes, those in so-called low-risk areas within restricted areas can buy groceries and other essentials.

But many fear a blanket, citywide lockdown could be imminent if the outbreak continues to spread. On WeChat, China’s super app, residents are sharing charts comparing Guangzhou’s rising caseload to Shanghai’s in late March, in the days leading up to the eastern financial hub’s two-month lockdown.

Shanghai officials initially denied that a citywide lockdown was necessary but then imposed one after the city reported 3,500 daily infections.

Expecting worse to come, many Guangzhou residents have stocked up on food and other supplies. “I was buying (groceries and snacks) online like crazy. I’ll probably end up eating leftovers for a month,” said a resident whose area in Haizhu County has been classified as low-risk by authorities.

Others, angered by the restrictions and testing edicts, have taken to social media to vent their frustration. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, posts using slang and swear words in the local Cantonese dialect to criticize zero-Covid measures have proliferated and appear to largely avoid the eyes of online censors who don’t understand them.

“I learn Cantonese swear 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 clad in head-to-toe hazmat suits beating up residents went viral online. After an outcry, police in Linyi city, Shandong province, said in a statement Tuesday that seven Covid workers had been arrested after a clash with local residents.