China found itself caught in a Delta variant-borne surge at the end of July that marked its worst run with COVID-19 in months. Even though the caseload remained much lower than what some other countries have had to deal with, Chinese authorities proceeded to counter infections with the surgical and iron-fisted precision that most other governments may find hard to imagine. Now, in about a month since it detected the fresh outbreak, China has again reported zero new cases. While the strategies that Beijing can launch may not be open to most other countries, here’s all you need to know about the Chinese approach to quelling the novel coronavirus.
When did the latest surge start?
Chinese authorities traced the latest surge to a flight into the eastern city of Nanjing from Moscow in mid-July. A group of cleaning staff is said to have picked up infections, which were all found to be caused by the Delta variant, which was first identified in India last year.
Within weeks, China was grappling with its biggest outbreak of COVID-19 since the time the first cases were reported in Wuhan in end-2019. Fresh infections and clusters were reported across the country, including from places that had remained Covid-free for months.
Reports said that the Delta strain eventually infiltrated 50 cities across 17 provinces and brought infections back to Wuhan, which had not reported any COVID-19 cases for over a year.
Chinese authorities earlier this week said there were no new symptomatic cases after infections peaked in early August. While data on cases and clusters coming out from China are hard to independently verify, the lifting of curbs and restrictions suggest that the official assessment is that the tough measures have worked for the time being. That means it took just a little more than 30 days for China to control its latest surge since the first Delta cases reported in Nanjing on 20 July. The total number of cases in this latest surge now stands at about 2,300, an average of only 80 new cases a day.
How did China react to the fresh outbreak?
It was the first country to encounter the mysterious cases of a flu-like infection in December 2019 and, ever since, authorities have honed a Covid containment strategy that has seen China stamp out more than 30 outbreaks of COVID-19. But the fact that this time around it was the Delta variant ” seen widely as being more infectious than earlier variants ” made officials jittery and, maybe, clamp down harder than before.
Even as they rolled out widespread testing, travel curbs and quarantine orders, reports emerged of scores of officials being pulled up for failing to control the surge. Reports said that close to 50 officials, including local government chiefs, health commissions, and staff at hospitals and airports, had been punished for negligence over the latest outbreak.
The nationwide lockdown imposed by India in March last year was regarded as being one of the strictest in the world. UK had introduced monetary penalties for those violating curfews and restrictions, while the Australian city of Sydney recently had military being deployed to monitor its lockdown. However, these countries have hardly experienced the success that China seems to manage with its containment strategy.
What were the measures imposed?
Massive testing, strict quarantines and widespread travel restrictions define the steps taken by Chinese authorities upon the first whiff of a new surge. These measures have served them well in the past and have, till now, proved to work against the Delta variant as well.
Reports said that Chinese officials took “testing to an unprecedented level” as they sought to tackle the Delta variant, subjecting entire cities to multiple rounds of testing, sometimes following the appearance of just a single case. Reports say that more than 100 million tests have been conducted over the last month with Nanjing, where the outbreak started, having tested all its 9.2 million residents twice.
A report said that the discovery of one asymptomatic infection in Zhengzhou in the central Henan province prompted officials to order mass testing of all 10 million residents even as the head of the city’s health commission was sacked.
Then there were quarantines. Entry into Beijing was barred for travellers from any area where cases were reported while curbs in hotspot regions encompassed blanket quarantines in neighbourhoods deemed to be at risk along with strict rules for isolation for those who had come into contact with people who were confirmed to have caught the infection.
The tourist city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan is said to have put its entire population of 1.5 million people under lockdown and shut all tourist places.
What were the economic costs?
The all-out war against the Delta variant though took a toll on the Chinese economy, too, as reports said that consumption and manufacturing data registered a slowdown in July with August expected to fare no better. Investment banks have cut their growth projections for China.
But top Chinese officials insist that the curbs were necessary. Ma Xiaowei, the director of China’s National Health Commission, akin to a health minister, said that the aim had been to control the latest surge in infections before the reopening of school and college sessions in September following a summer break.
“As control measures become more stringent and the movement of people more strictly regulated, the risk of having a nationwide outbreak is relatively low,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
What is the vaccination rate?
Xinhua reported on August 23 that more than 1.94 billion doses of vaccines have been administered in China with over 770 million people having received both their doses. Chinese officials admitted that their homegrown vaccines are only about 60 percent effective against the Delta variant, but claimed they offer 100 percent protection against serious infection.