Xinjiang infections ‘highlight difficulty of China maintaining zero-Covid policies’
- The regional authorities have admitted they have failed to control the disease, but some experts believe such problems are inevitable
- Poorer parts of the country are struggling to implement the policy and many Xinjiang residents have complained of food shortages
The authorities suspended train rail services out of the region on Tuesday to stop the spread of Covid-19, and many parts of Xinjiang, including the capital city Urumqi, have been placed under lockdown.
On Tuesday, Liu Sushe, the vice-chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, admitted that the government has failed to contain the outbreak that started two months ago.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor and assistant dean at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said local governments were strained to the extreme.
“But [the Chinese government] takes this approach and every locality needs to strengthen its capacity … The first-tier cities are doing well but second and third-tier cities are problematic and lack medical resources,” he said. “It’s not just Xinjiang. Many places are about the same.”
Xinjiang, which has already undergone several rounds of lockdowns since 2020, appeared to have been overwhelmed by the latest wave of infections.
While the government insists there have only been dozens of asymptomatic cases, many internet users have said the scale of the outbreak in some parts of the region was far more serious that official figures suggested.
Residents in areas such as Ili and Korla complained that community-level cadres had either become sick or could not manage the lockdowns and ensure residents receive food supplies.
While Han and ethnic minorities were both locked down and complaining about food shortages, Ugyurs and Kazakhs are particularly vulnerable because many of them have low incomes and may not have the language skills to ask the authorities for help.
WeChat groups operated by neighbourhood committees have been used to provide food for residents but are also used for surveillance and to relay government orders.
Xinjiang is home to 22 million people and has been in partial lockdown since August. Official reports said that 91 asymptomatic infections had been recorded on Wednesday, with 355 asymptomatic cases in total during the latest outbreak.
Liu said the suspension of train services was necessary to prevent the spread of the disease to other parts of the country.
He also admitted that compulsory PCR tests had helped spread the disease because some test workers have not followed the correct procedures.
“PCR tests are the biggest shortcoming in [our] handling of the pandemic. Our testing capacity was inadequate and our treatment of confirmed cases was outpaced by the spread of Covid-19”, he added.
He also blamed a rebound of cases in September on the slackness of officials after the outbreak appeared to have been brought under control in August.
Jin Dongyan, a virologist with the University of Hong Kong, said that the zero-Covid strategy was not the solution to control the pandemic.
“Taking this approach you can successfully slow down the spread of the coronavirus, but in reality, it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.
Jin said China’s current strategy was not sustainable, and people should be prepared for a large outbreak in the country.
“If the Chinese leadership always thinks about zero-Covid and does not prepare [for a major outbreak], then they’ll be at a loss when it comes.”
China is the world’s only major economy that still maintains strict zero-Covid restrictions. It reported 273 newly confirmed cases and 861 asymptomatic infections on Wednesday.
Many cities have stepped up their efforts to prevent the disease spreading in the run-up to a major political set piece later this month.
At least 33 cities, including eight major provincial and municipal centres, were placed under partial lockdown in September, disrupting the lives of about 65 million people, according to the media outlet Caixin.
Dozens of local officials have been punished for failing to control outbreaks, prompting others to take excessive measures such as blanket lockdowns after a small number of cases.