China placed all 17 million residents in one of its biggest cities under lockdown on Sunday, as virus cases doubled nationwide to nearly 3,400 and anxiety mounted over the resilience of its 'zero-Covid' approach in the face of the worst outbreak in two years.
The southern tech hub of Shenzhen told all residents to stay at home as the city struggles to eradicate an Omicron flare-up linked to neighbouring virus-ravaged Hong Kong.
The lockdown and a suspension of public transport will last until March 20, a city government notice said, adding that it would launch three rounds of mass testing.
The move extends an earlier lockdown imposed on the city's central business district.
Shenzhen reported 66 new Covid infections on Sunday — a fraction of the 32,430 confirmed the same day in Hong Kong.
"If prevention and control is not strengthened in a timely and decisive manner, it could easily become large-scale community transmission," Shenzhen health official Lin Hancheng said at a briefing.
The surge in infections across China has also prompted authorities to close schools in Shanghai and lock down multiple northeastern cities, as 18 provinces battle clusters of the Omicron and Delta variants.
In Hong Kong the caseload over recent weeks has soared, alarming officials in Beijing as hospitals struggle to cope.
Hong Kong currently has one of the world's highest death rates from the virus, as the Omicron variant cuts through its elderly population among whom vaccine hesitancy proliferates.
To say Hong Kong's current Covid death rate is the highest in the world doesn't quite do justice to how extreme it is. It is markedly higher than any of the countries with the worst overall Covid death rates have ever recorded on a weekly basis. pic.twitter.com/XC0NYkByWg
— Mike Bird (@Birdyword) March 10, 2022
As world moves on, China sees 'no way back'
China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has maintained a strict 'zero-Covid' policy enforced with swift lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters have emerged.
But the latest flare-up, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases, is testing that approach.
The controversial former editor of one of China's most nationalistic media mouthpieces, Hu Xijin, said there was "no way back" for the country and its Covid-zero approach.
"China can’t possibly give up fighting the epidemic like the Western countries, where thousands of people die every day," he tweeted.
"The West is no longer paying a high cost for epidemic prevention now, forcing China to be more efficient. It’s an uphill battle, but China has no way back."
China can’t possibly give up fighting the epidemic like the Western countries, where thousands of people die every day. The West is no longer paying a high cost for epidemic prevention now, forcing China to be more efficient. It’s an uphill battle, but China has no way back.
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 13, 2022
Shanghai facing lockdown
Shanghai has so far been spared a citywide order to stay home, but individual housing compounds were being locked down as the megacity ramped up efforts to contain infections and test suspected close contacts.
Jilin — the city at the centre of the outbreak in the northeast — was partially locked down Saturday, while residents of Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 bordering North Korea, were also confined to their homes Sunday.
Zhang Yan, a Jilin health commission official, said the response from local authorities had been lacking.
"There is insufficient understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant... and judgment has been inaccurate," he said at a Sunday press briefing.
The neighbouring city of Changchun — an industrial base of nine million people — was locked down Friday, while at least three other small cities have been locked down since March 1.
The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun health commission were dismissed from their jobs Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the pressure placed on local authorities to contain virus clusters.
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