25 Nov 2022

Record Covid-19 cases for China despite tough action

7:17 am on 25 November 2022
Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) carrying Covid-19 coronavirus testing swabs and tubes are seen on bicycles on a Beijing street, 24 November, 2022.

Health workers wearing PPE carry Covid-19 coronavirus testing swabs in Beijing, 24 November, 2022. Photo: AFP

China has recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, despite stringent measures designed to eliminate the virus.

Several major cities including the capital Beijing and southern trade hub Guangzhou are experiencing outbreaks.

Wednesday saw 31,527 cases recorded compared with an April peak of 28,000.

The numbers are still tiny for a country of 1.4 billion people and officially just over 5,200 have died since the pandemic began.

That equates to three Covid-19 deaths in every million in China, compared with 3,000 per million in the US and 2400 per million in the UK, although direct comparisons between countries are difficult.

While China's zero-Covid policy has clearly saved lives, it has also dealt a punishing blow to the economy and ordinary people's lives.

The country slightly relaxed some of those restrictions a few weeks ago.

It cut quarantine for close contacts from seven days in a state facility to five days and three days at home, and stopped recording secondary contacts which allowed many more people to avoid having to quarantine.

Officials have also sought to avoid enforcing blanket lockdowns of the kind endured by the largest city, Shanghai, earlier this year.

But faced with a renewed surge in cases in Beijing, as well as the first deaths from the virus in months, officials have already implemented some restrictions in several districts, with shops, schools and restaurants closed.

This image grab taken from Afp video footage and posted on November 23, 2022 shows workers at Foxconn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou in central China clash with riot police as well as people wearing hazmat suits. The confrontations broke out after employees complained about pay and conditions at the plant.

Violent confrontations broke out Foxconn's iPhone factory in Zhengzhou over over Covid restrictions and claims of overdue pay. Photo: AFPTV teams / AFP

The central city of Zhengzhou is also to enforce an effective lockdown for six million residents from Friday, officials announced.

It follows violent protests at a vast industrial complex belonging to iPhone manufacturer Foxconn. The firm has apologised for a "technical error" in its payment systems.

Other stories of suffering and desperation have been shared online where they have fuelled public resentment.

Among some of the most severe responses to Covid this year:

  • In January, in the tourist hub city of Xi'an, population 13 million, some residents were forced out of their homes in a midnight eviction and bussed to quarantine facilities, while disturbing claims surfaced of people unable to get crucial medical attention
  • In March, the lockdown announced in Shanghai was meant to last less than a week but its 25 million residents stayed home for two months
  • In September, residents in locked down Chengdu found themselves trapped in their apartments during an earthquake. Elsewhere, rescue workers were required to do a Covid test before they could save anyone.

China is the last major economy still pursuing a Covid eradication process with mass testing and lockdown rules, and virus cases are being recorded in 31 provinces.

Part of the reason is that vaccination levels are lower than in other developed nations, and only half of people aged over 80 have their primary vaccinations.

China has refused to import vaccines despite evidence that its homemade jabs have not proved as effective.

President Xi Jinping argues that strict curbs are needed to protect the country's large elderly population.

Zero-Covid has come to define his rule and the authoritarian bureaucracy at his disposal like almost no other policy.

It projects a veneer of control and stability in the run-up to March when China's equivalent of a parliament will convene to choose Mr Xi as president for a third time.

"Lockdowns prevent Covid outbreaks from spreading," William Hurst, professor of Chinese development at Cambridge University, told BBC News recently. "But they also exert incredibly strict social control."