Delta variant challenges China's costly lockdown strategy

BEIJING (AP) - The Delta variant challenges China's costly strategy of isolating cities, leading to warnings that Chinese leaders who were confident of keeping the coronavirus out of the country need a less disruptive approach.
As the highly contagious variant urges leaders in the US, Australia and elsewhere to renew restrictions, President Xi Jinping's administration battles the worst outbreak since the peak of last year in Wuhan. The ruling Communist Party is reviving the tactics that are paralyzing China: access to a city of 1.5 million people has been cut off, flights have been canceled and mass tests ordered in some areas.
This "zero tolerance" strategy of quarantining every case and trying to block new infections from abroad helped contain the outbreak last year and keep China largely virus-free. But its impact on the jobs and lives of millions of people is leading to warnings that China must learn to control the virus without repeatedly stalling the economy and society.
Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai doctor who became known during the Wuhan outbreak, said on a social media post that the recent outbreak suggests that China's strategy may change as the virus won't go away.
"The world must learn to coexist with this virus," wrote Zhang, who has 3 million followers on the widespread Weibo platform.
China's controls will be tested when thousands of athletes, reporters and others arrive for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. And the ruling party is facing a politically sensitive change in leadership at the end of 2022, for which the leaders want optimistic economic conditions.
Last year, China shut down much of the world's second-largest economy and cut off almost all access to cities totaling 60 million people - a tactic that has been emulated on a smaller scale by governments from Asia to America. This caused China's most painful economic decline in five decades, but Beijing was able to resume business and domestic travel in March 2020.
The new infections, many of which are already vaccinated, have rocked global financial markets, fearful that Beijing's response could disrupt production and supply chains. The major stock indices in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong fell on Tuesday, but rose again on Thursday.
China must move to creating barriers to infection within communities by stepping up vaccinations and treating infected people quickly, while also enabling business and travel, said Xi Chen, health economist at Yale School of Public Health. He said the country needs access to the full range of vaccines, including the inclusion of the shot developed by Germany's BioNTech.
"I don't think 'zero tolerance' can be sustained," said Chen. "Even if you can lock down all regions in China, people could still die, and even more could die of starvation or job loss."
But Beijing has shown no sign of abandoning its tactics.
Disease controls must be "faster, tighter, tighter, more extensive and ready," said He Qinghua, an official with the National Health Commission's Disease Control Bureau, at a press conference on Saturday.
According to health officials, the largest outbreak of the year was provisionally traced back to airport workers who cleaned a Russian plane on July 10 in Nanjing, northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province.
Some travelers flew via Nanjing to Zhangjiajie, a popular tourist spot southwest of Shanghai in Hunan Province, turning that city into a center for the spread of the virus. The disease has been transmitted to Beijing and other cities in more than 10 provinces.
On Tuesday, the Zhangjiajie government announced that no one would be allowed to leave the city, mimicking the controls put in place in Wuhan, where the first virus cases were identified, and other cities last year.
Flights to Nanjing and Yangzhou, a nearby city with 94 cases, have been suspended. Trains from these cities and 21 more to Beijing have been canceled. Jiangsu Province set up checkpoints on highways to test drivers. The government urged people in Beijing and southern Guangzhou Province not to leave these areas if possible.
In Yangzhou, children were quarantined in two tutoring centers after a classmate tested positive, according to Zhou Xiaoxiao, a university student there. She said some parts of the city had been sealed.
Eggs and some other groceries were in short supply after shoppers cleared supermarkets pending lockdown, Zhou said. She said the government was supplying rice to households.
“The price of vegetables has risen. I don't care. But for the kind of family whose life is not very good and who have no income, it is very troublesome, "said Zhou, 20.
The 1,142 infections reported since mid-July, many of which are related to Nanjing, are modest compared to tens of thousands of new infections daily in India or the United States. But they have rocked leaders in China, which has not had a death toll since early February.
The outbreak poses "serious challenges to the country's hard-won victory in the fight against the epidemic," said The Global Times, published by the ruling party's People's Daily.
China has reported 4,636 deaths out of approximately 93,000 confirmed cases.
So far, most people infected in Nanjing have been vaccinated and few cases are serious, the head of the intensive care unit at the city's southeast university hospital, Yang Yi, told Shanghai news agency The Paper.
She said this means "protecting vaccines" - although there are concerns that Chinese-made vaccines offer less protection than some others.
Authorities have blamed Nanjing airport managers and local officials for failing to enforce safety regulations and detect infections for 10 days until July 20 after the virus spread.
A 64-year-old woman believed to have brought the virus from Nanjing to Yangzhou was arrested Tuesday on charges of obstructing disease prevention, police said.
The cleaning staff at the new Nanjing International Terminal mingled with colleagues in the domestic tract when news reports said they should have been separated. The Russian flight was diverted from Shanghai due to bad weather, where the airports are better equipped for foreign travelers.
Nevertheless, the city with 9.3 million inhabitants is the second largest city in eastern China after Shanghai and has more resources than many smaller cities.
China must learn to “let the virus exist” in areas with high vaccination rates and better health care, said economist Chen. He found that at least 80% of adults in some areas were vaccinated.
"I don't think they're blind to it," said Chen. "You should think about it already."
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Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Associate press writer Fu Ting in Bangkok and researchers Chen Si in Shanghai and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.
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