China struggles to rein in the biggest Covid outbreak since Wuhan

Mainland China is struggling to contain its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic erupted in Wuhan two years ago, as the Omicron variant tests Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance strategy and puts Shanghai at the risk of being locked down.

Health authorities reported on Friday that daily case numbers have tripled in the past week, adding up to more than 1,000 cases across 16 cities and forcing officials in north-east China to erect emergency makeshift hospitals.

China’s case numbers remain low by almost all international comparisons. New Zealand, a country of 5mn people, reported more than 20,000 new infections on Friday, while South Korea reported 280,000 cases among its 52mn.

The latest rise in China’s cases has refocused attention on Beijing’s decision not to stray from its zero-Covid strategy of tightly sealed borders and — whenever an infection is detected — citywide lockdowns, mass testing and meticulous contact tracing.

The policy, which has been credited with China’s pandemic death rate, has endured despite authorities delivering more than 3bn Covid-19 vaccine doses to a population of 1.4bn.

While much of the rest of the world is rapidly reopening, Beijing’s approach reflects shortcomings in China’s healthcare system, said health experts, who pointed to the comparatively low efficacy of the country’s domestically produced vaccines.

A flurry of school closures and localized lockdowns over recent days in Shanghai, one of China’s biggest cities, has sparked concerns among its residents that more draconian measures beckon. Health officials in the city have urged people to get booster jabs.

The approach is also under intense scrutiny in Hong Kong, with the Chinese territory recording more than 550,000 infections since the latest wave of infections began in late December — five times the 112,000 infections recorded in mainland China during the entire pandemic.

Hong Kong hospitals have been overwhelmed, mortuaries are at capacity and grocery stores have been stripped bare by panic buying. About 3,000 deaths, mostly elderly and unvaccinated residents of care homes, have been recorded in the territory.

The Hong Kong government has been forced by Beijing to adopt a “dynamic zero-Covid” strategy after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, prioritised reopening the city’s border with China over the rest of the world.

Hong Kong’s daily case count has eased to 31,000 from 55,000 last week. But the city’s 7.4m people, living under strict social distancing measures for months, remain on the edge over the potential for a citywide lockdown and the threat that anyone who tests positive will be detained in a government quarantine facility.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing and Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai

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