Omicron Outbreak in Jilin, Hong Kong, is China’s Largest Since Spring 2020
20:12 GMT 14.03.2022 (Updated: 20:13 GMT 14.03.2022)
Instead of learning to “live with the virus,” Beijing has for three years maintained a “Zero Covid” policy of social lockdowns and mass testing to curb COVID-19 outbreaks, sparing the country the massive outbreaks and deaths seen elsewhere.
In an effort to limit its largest outbreak of COVID-19 since the spring of 2020, China has locked down some 51 million people, including all of Jilin Province, the epicenter of the outbreak. The cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan, in the Pearl River delta, have also been locked down. However, in nearby Hong Kong, the outbreak is reported to be out of control.
According to the China National Health Commission (NHC), on Monday the mainland counted 2,125 new cases across 19 provinces, although nearly all were concentrated in Jilin in the northeast and Guangdong in the southeast. Most cases have been identified in the city of Jilin and the regional capital of Changchun, but all 24 million people in Jilin Province have been locked down. Another 17 million in Shenzhen and 10 million in Dongguan were also locked down, although only a few dozen cases had been found there.
Transit around the country has been paralyzed by the outbreak, as officials struggle to limit the spread of the deadly virus. According to the South China Morning Post, residents in Shenzhen will be tested three times before March 20.
China’s response to Covid outbreaks has become the stuff of legend: in January, as the United States saw daily new cases spike to over 1 million per day, Chinese health officials claimed that they had tested entire cities in less than a day. In Xi’an, residents were locked down for weeks to control a raging outbreak. As in Xi’an, officials in Jilin were fired for their negligence after the outbreak was discovered.
“The general strategy to prevent imported cases and internal rebounds and the general policy of dynamic zero-Covid are fully effective in dealing with the Omicron outbreak,” Lei Zhenglong, deputy director of the National Health Commission’s disease prevention and control bureau, told state-owned China Central Television (CCTV).
The latest outbreak is being driven by a sublineage of the Omicron variant named BA 2, which the World Health Organization (WHO) identified last month as a variant of concern because of its increased transmissibility.
According to Chinese officials, the variant is more difficult to detect, especially in less developed areas that lack sophisticated testing facilities, because such a large number of infections are asymptomatic. The outbreak in Jilin was only detected in the last week, after several hundred cases had proliferated at a university.
The outbreak is the worst since China’s initial wave of COVID-19 that began in December 2019, which was the world’s first outbreak of the virus and set in motion the ongoing pandemic. The lockdowns being implemented now were pioneered in the government’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan, which declined from 3,000 cases per day to 16 cases in the space of about six weeks. China has only reported about 141,996 cases on the mainland, and 4,636 deaths, according to the New York Times. By comparison, the United States, which has about one-fourth of the population of China, has recorded 79.3 million cases and 965,300 deaths from COVID-19.
However, as severe as the outbreak on the mainland is, it pales in comparison to that seen in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), which is adjacent to Shenzhen at the mouth of the Pearl River.
On Monday, Hong Kong officials reported 26,908 new cases and 249 deaths, the majority of whom had not been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In the wave that began several weeks ago, Hong Kong officials have recorded 721,154 cases, accounting for 98% of all Covid cases yet seen in the city.
The city lacks the testing facilities to conduct comprehensive mass testing like on the mainland, and officials have been hesitant to order a mass social lockdown. The mainland began offering SAR aid last month.
“It is going to take a long time for the number of cases to come down. People will continue to live in a state of confusion and worry for a while,” Professor Lau Yu-lung, who chairs the government’s Scientific Committee on Vaccine Preventable Diseases, said on local radio.