Conditions hard for 13 million under China virus lockdown

The measures are an outgrowth of China's 'zero COVID-19' policy that includes widespread testing and mask mandates, credited by the government with preventing major outbreaks.
Residents shop for food at a temporary food store set up to serve residents outside a residential block after the suspension of delivery services in Xi'an.  (Photo | AP)
Residents shop for food at a temporary food store set up to serve residents outside a residential block after the suspension of delivery services in Xi'an. (Photo | AP)

Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Xi’an say they can provide food, health care and other necessities for the 13 million residents under a now almost two-week-old lockdown.

But in social media posts and over the telephone, some citizens describe difficulties obtaining supplies and frustration with the economic impact on the giant city that is home to the famed ancient Terracotta Army, along with major industries.

“Can’t leave the building and it’s getting more and more difficult to buy food online,” said one Xi’an resident, who posted on the social media platform Weibo under the name Mu Qingyuani Sayno.

Officials defend the measures as appropriate and necessary, and with the Beijing Winter Olympics just a month away, are under intense pressure to stem the outbreak.

The Xi’an restrictions imposed Dec. 23 are some of the harshest since China in 2020 imposed a strict lockdown on more than 11 million people in and around the central city of Wuhan, after the coronavirus was first detected there in late 2019. The measures are an outgrowth of China's “zero COVID-19" policy that includes widespread testing and mask mandates, credited by the government with preventing major outbreaks.

Xi’an has seen more than 1,600 cases in its latest surge of the delta variant that is less infectious than the newer omicron strain. China has reported a total of 102,841 cases and 4,636 deaths since the pandemic began.

While those numbers are relatively small compared to the U.S. and other countries, they do show the persistence of the virus despite the sometimes draconian measures taken by China.

The country's Commerce Ministry last week said it had contacted nearby provinces to help ensure adequate supplies of everyday necessities for Xi'an. State media reports say at least some residents are receiving free grocery packages, including eggs, rice, green vegetables and either chicken or pork. Residents can also order online.

That came after city authorities tightened restrictions that had allowed people to leave their homes every other day to buy necessities. Travel to and from the city has been suspended, although there are some exceptions and rules have been relaxed slightly in some districts that have few or no cases.

A third round of mass testing has also been ordered, with the city capable of swabbing 10 million people in just seven hours and processing up to 3 millions results in just 12 hours, according to state media.

While Wuhan's health care system was overwhelmed after the pandemic began there in late 2019, China has not reported any shortages of beds or medical equipment and staff in Xi'an.

Two dozen special teams have been formed to deal with COVID-19 cases and a pair of hospitals have been set aside to provide other types of care, the reports said.

“Xi'an ... is taking efficient and comprehensive measures to curb the spread of the latest COVID-19 resurgence and guarantee its normal function," the official Xinhua News Agency said on Sunday.

Yet the strain is beginning to show, with residents complaining on the popular Weibo social media of being confined to their apartments and unable to source items for daily use.

The city's morale wasn't helped by a widely disseminated video showing guards attacking a man who had tried to bring food into a residential compound. The guards later apologized to the man, according to reports.

Officials have been put on notice that they will lose their jobs if they don't bring the numbers of new cases down. Already, the top two Communist Party officials in Yanta district, where half the city's cases have been recorded, have been sacked and the deputy mayor placed in charge.

Zhang Canyou, an expert with the State Council’s epidemic prevention and control team, conceded that under the lockdown, “there may be supply pressure in communities."

“The government will go all out to coordinate resources to provide people with daily necessities and medical services,” Zhang was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Chinese have overwhelmingly complied with lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictions and most of the complaints from Xi'an residents involved difficulties obtaining supplies and other inconveniences.

The head of a tourism firm reached by phone said Tuesday that supplies were basically sufficient, but that his business had already been suffering since July.

“Now with the lockdown, the effect has been extremely big," said the man, who gave just his surname, Wen, as is common among Chinese.

Qin Huilin, who works at a traditional mutton soup restaurant, said the lockdown brought business to a screeching halt.

“We used to have about a hundred customers every day, but we’ve had none for more than a dozen days since the lockdown," Qin said by phone. “The impact on our business is significant, but I can go shopping once every few days in supermarkets and there are enough supplies there."

Outside Xi'an, China has adopted a range of anti-pandemic measures. The financial hub of Shanghai has taken more of a hands-off approach, receiving more than 5 million visitors during the three-day New Year holiday, according to local authorities.

In contrast, people are being told to travel in and out of Beijing only if they absolutely need to. Athletes, officials and journalists are entering an anti-pandemic bubble as soon as they arrive and will remain within it until the Feb. 4-20 Winter Games are over.

No fans from outside China are permitted and most of the spectators are expected to be drawn from schools, government offices and the military rather than the general public.

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