The likely source of a new epidemic has been identified as a man who completed 21 days of strict quarantine after returning to China from abroad, raising concerns about the country's stringent zero-Covid strategy's long-term viability.
The new outbreak that occurred in Fujian province on China's southeastern coast has infected 60 people, including 15 elementary school students. This statement was released just two weeks after China contained its largest coronavirus outbreak in nearly a year, illustrating the growing threat posed by the highly contagious Delta form, even in a country that has taken some of the world's strictest and most thorough measures to contain the virus.
During a routine Covid test at a primary school in Xianyou county, Putian city, two young boys were diagnosed with the newest illnesses on Thursday. According to a news conference conducted by the Putian municipal council on Friday, another student and three parents tested positive the next day.
Experts advising the authorities have pointed to one of the parents — a father who recently returned from Singapore despite having passed a lengthy quarantine upon arrival in China.
On the 4th of August, the man arrived in Xiamen and was subjected to a 14-day required hotel quarantine. He spent another seven days in centralized quarantine at a designated facility in Xianyou, according to the Putian administration, before returning home for another week of health checks.
He tested negative for the virus nine times during his 21-day quarantine, according to state media, until testing positive on Friday, 37 days after entering China.
China's border controls and mandatory quarantine for foreign visitors are among the world's strictest. Since the first outbreak, the Chinese government has blamed every local incident on external transmission, either via travellers or imported goods.
Authorities in China have not revealed when, how, or when the man contracted the virus, but a 21-day incubation period is extremely unusual.
According to researchers at the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta version of the virus has a four-day incubation period, compared to six days for the original strain. Some speculated on social media that the man got the infection after returning to Xianyou.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Putian administration has documented 32 verified cases and 32 asymptomatic infections. In China, symptomatic and asymptomatic cases are counted separately, and asymptomatic virus carriers are excluded from the official tally of confirmed cases.
Infections have also spread to the cities of neighbouring provinces. On Monday, China's National Health Commission recorded six locally transmitted cases in Quanzhou and one in Xiamen, according to the National Health Commission.
After erupting in late July in Jiangsu, in eastern China, another Delta-related outbreak spread to more than half of the country's provinces, affecting more than 1,200 individuals.
China's resolute zero-tolerance policy on Covid-19 was considered as facing its most serious challenge yet as the number of cases grew.
Local governments retaliated by putting strict curfews on tens of millions of people, launching massive testing and tracing operations, and prohibiting internal mobility. According to health experts, the outbreak was "basically brought under control" by late August.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the strategy is running into a problem of diminishing returns when dealing with the highly transmissible Delta type.
He went on to say that maintaining the policy will become more difficult as time, organizational energy, and financial and economic problems are required to reset occurrences to zero. That instances will continue to be introduced, leading to new breakouts in the country, regardless of how stringent the travel restrictions are.
Countries like Australia and Singapore are already migrating to a new strategy of learning to live with the virus after relying on the zero-Covid policy to keep the infection at bay for much of the past year. Despite an increase in events over the past month, the Australian population has grown more disgruntled with the country's strict lockdown restrictions, with anti-lockdown protests emerging around the country.
China, on the other hand, has stepped up its stringent containment efforts, which the ruling party has hailed as proof of its supposed superior authoritarian political system.
Putian's 2.9 million residents have been told not to leave unless necessary. Those who have good reason to leave must show proof of a negative coronavirus test within the last 48 hours. Cinemas, gyms, bars, and libraries were shuttered, while kindergartens, primary schools, and high schools were forced to hold classes through the internet.
In Xianyou, public transit, taxi services, as well as buses and trains leaving the county, have all been suspended.
Such restrictions are popular in China, in part because they affect only a small percentage of the country's 1.4 billion people at a time, with the majority of people preferring the benefits of covid-free living to the inconvenience of protracted lockdowns.
He did warn, though, that if the pandemic persists, public support and tolerance may erode. "Further restrictions will be imposed by the Chinese authorities. I believe that public support will wane over time "he explained.
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