THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK in Hebei, being so close to Beijing, is causing authorities concern and the return of what are lockdowns in everything but name.
Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital, and nearby Nangong and Xinle cities, are being cordoned off. Residents are instructed to stay home, driving on city streets is banned and travel to the region is restricted.
In Nangong, six emergency hospitals with 6,500 beds are being built, according to state media. A 3,000-bed isolation centre is under construction in Shijiazhuang, where 10 million residents had been tested for the virus by late Friday. The cartoon version of the response is here.
There are also new clusters of cases in Beijing and the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning. The National Health Commission reported 130 new confirmed cases nationally in the 24 hours through midnight Friday, 90 of them in Hebei. (These are, it should be said, still relatively tiny numbers; the comparable number for confirmed cases per million people in the United States, for example, is 6,000 times higher than the number shown in the chart above for China.)
The commission blames the outbreak on people or frozen food arriving from abroad. It also says the virus is spreading unusually quickly. Since Jan. 2, Shijiazhuang has registered 745 locally-transmitted confirmed COVID-19 cases, including one death.
No resurgence is welcome, but this one is especially ill-timed. It comes one month ahead of New Year, with the massive cross-country travel that usually involves, and two months before the ‘Two Sessions’ meetings (the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference).
The preparatory round of provincial-level two sessions meetings has just got underway. Hebei and Liaoning have been forced to postpone theirs.
The national meetings were delayed and shortened last year because of the pandemic. A second postponement would deny the leadership of a stage from which China’s leading role in recovering from Covid-19 could be lauded. This outcome would be doubly embarrassing if the cause were a resurgence of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) research team has finally made it to Wuhan to investigate the initial outbreak there just over a year ago. Its members are halfway through the first week of their two-week quarantine.
Their requests to interview caregivers, former patients and lab workers (by video while in quarantine) appear to be being rebuffed, suggesting authorities will be reluctant to share information that is politically sensitive in as much as it could undermine the official narrative that China shares no blame for the outbreak’s origin.
Hua Chunying, one of the Foreign Ministry spokespersons, has again called for the US to open its military labs to the WHO as part of the search for the virus’s origin, so no quarter is being given.