China’s lonely struggle to eliminate the coronavirus

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Over 2,000 km away and 18 weeks after China’s first mass quarantine, residents of Shulan City in the far northeast of the country suddenly discovered what the people of Wuhan endured. .

After detecting a small group of cases last week, authorities have put in place a complete foreclosure on the town of 700,000 in the Chinese province of Jilin.

Transportation to and from the area was interrupted and residents were asked to stay inside. After the rapid spread of the virus from Wuhan, the authorities take no risks.

“I really experienced the hardships the people of Wuhan felt at the start of the year,” posted a social media user called Dengaide Meigui on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. “I really want to cry. I don’t know how long we will have to live our days like this. “

Many people in China are asking similar questions: How long will the blockages last in a country that boasts of its ability to control the virus that is still ravaging the United States and Europe?

As Asian countries attempt to resume normal lives, governments are developing plans to manage the inevitable small outbreaks while keeping economies on track. Experts have warned that the coronavirus is likely to become endemic, and authorities should adopt life-saving strategies alongside a small number of new cases.

But China is setting its own course: it seems to be embarking on a long and lonely struggle to exercise total control over the coronavirus, despite warnings that the disease will continue to recur.

“China’s policy of closing large populations – it’s zero tolerance,” said William Schaffner, medical director of the Maryland National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “On the other hand, other countries have a higher tolerance for low-level transmission and a certain frequency of serious illness, hospitalization and death. “

Shulan is one of the many new epidemics that have locked millions of people. Nearby, the city of Jilin, which is more than 4 meters in length, has also been placed in partial quarantine after detection of local transmission.

A medical worker collects a sample in Shulan, where a group of new cases has been discovered © Zhang Nan / Xinhua / AP

Clusters in northern China have given the clearest picture to date of how China plans to deal with the epidemics.

The National Health Commission of China has issued a number of guidelines for what it calls “standard prevention”, a rough strategy that includes closing areas where new cases are discovered.

But the extent of the isolation – ranging from the closure of a housing estate to that of an entire city – is largely left to local authorities, who have declared that locking their neighborhood is one of the few remedies they arranged to stop the contagion.

“Local authorities do not have the expertise to fight the epidemic,” an official from Guangdong Province told the Financial Times. “Now we come together to learn from [Chinese president] Speech by Xi Jinping. . . The central government has not given us what we really need for our work. We need professionals, not bureaucrats. “

China’s lockdown model for managing new outbreaks contrasts sharply with other countries in the region.

In Korea, for example, a recent cluster of new cases in Itaewon, a bar and nightclub district of Seoul, has resulted in business closings and an aggressive search for contacts.

Over 65,000 people were ultimately tested. But the neighborhood itself was not locked. Experts pointed out that by the time an area could be effectively locked, the virus had already spread to other places.

“To isolate Itaewon would have been to close the barn door after the horse ran away,” said Jerome Kim, director general of the Korean International Vaccine Institute. He noted that the bottlenecks were a preliminary measure to save more time for a country’s health system, not a long-term strategy. Korea has prepared to handle a small number of cases in the coming months.

“The government has recognized the need to relax the economy and start putting the country back to work,” said Dr. Kim. “He knows there will be epidemics and must be ready to deal with them quickly.”

Ryan Manuel, public health expert and Asia chief strategist for Silverhorn Investment Advisors, said local Chinese officials were faced with the difficult choice between keeping their economy running and preventing further epidemics.

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Given the high stakes and potential sanctions for new outbreaks, the authorities will almost always take the most stringent measures.

“This is a classic regulatory problem for China,” said Manuel. “Is it better to close an entire city or respond to your economic indicators?” “

Even with the relatively quick closings in Shulan and Jilin City, six local officials from the region were removed from their posts this week – a clear signal that central leaders will not even tolerate the slightest epidemic.

“I don’t think the elimination will succeed anywhere because the virus will keep coming back,” said Benjamin Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong. “Other parts of Asia are considering abolition.”

Xueqiao Wang’s additional report in Shanghai

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