11 million locked down in China's Hebei province to prevent spread of new coronavirus outbreak

BEIJING – It only took 39 new coronavirus cases to lock up nearly 11 million people in Shijiazhuang city by health officials in China.

Health officials took no chances on Wednesday, sealed the capital of industrial Hebei Province and ordered a mass test drive.

Travel restrictions have been introduced in the rest of the region surrounding the Chinese capital Beijing, which is home to around 76 million people.

Mayor Ma Yujun told a press conference on Saturday that it only took three days to complete the first round of mass testing in Shijiazhuang. 354 people were found positive for the virus. A second round of testing is set to begin soon, he added.

Yan Xixin, director of intensive care at Hebei Medical University Second Hospital, said at the same press conference, “The risk of getting more infections is still there.”

This straightforward approach is being repeated elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region to fend off coronavirus flares – including in Japan, Thailand and Australia – making measures to contain the virus’ spread in Europe and the US seem almost sluggish.

The authorities put Hebei – known for its textile, steel and pharmaceutical industries – into “war mode” on Tuesday. This meant that coordinated government action could be taken, investigation teams established to trace contacts, and medical supplies distributed.

The residents of the provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, were forbidden from leaving the city and gathering was prohibited. Schools were closed, flights and trains canceled and the main bus station closed.

Late on Friday, citizens were asked to stay home for at least seven days.

Nearby, Nangong City officials announced on the social platform WeChat that they would offer rewards of 500 yuan ($ 77) for reports from people who decline a Covid-19 test.

“People should fully understand the need for this approach,” Shi Mo, a PhD student in Shijiazhuang, told NBC News.

Although it would require some social and psychological adjustment, Shi likened the lockdown to preparing for “a protracted war.”

“With Wuhan’s valuable experience in its previous epidemic prevention, Shijiazhuang has a reference model,” he said. “We are all optimistic about the epidemic.”

Police officers and employees in protective suits inspect vehicles at a checkpoint on the border of Gaocheng District on a provincial road in China.China Daily / Reuters

The aggressive measures to combat the outbreak are similar, if not yet as draconian, as used by Chinese authorities to eradicate the virus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, the total number of coronavirus cases in China has exceeded 87,000, and the death toll has remained unchanged at 4,634 since May, according to China’s National Health Commission – the only official source of information on infection rates in the country.

NBC News was unable to independently verify the reported numbers, and the Chinese government has been criticized from the outset for not being open and minimizing the severity of the outbreak. The country was also accused of ill-treating the early stages of the outbreak and silencing whistleblowers.

However, a vaccination program is underway in Hebei and the National Health Commission has announced that vaccines will be made available free of charge once they are available to the public.

Sun Xinyi, a teacher in Shijiazhuang, said the city’s sudden lockdown “panicked” people at first, but the rapid release of government information has reassured many.

Although Sun was slightly upset that he couldn’t order grocery deliveries that were on hold, he said that “rigorous and rapid testing across the city is indeed a good thing.”

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Similar tough approaches are being carried out in other countries.

In the 2 million strong Australian city of Brisbane, the city entered a three-day lockdown on Friday night after a single case of the contagious variant of coronavirus that appeared in the UK was identified.

“We will go hard and early to do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus,” said Queensland Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk at a news conference on Friday.

A police patrol walk past an empty train station in Shijiazhaung, China, while the city disrupts transport and prohibits residents from leaving. AFP – Getty Images

Japan declared a month-long, limited state of emergency in the capital Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures on Thursday to curb the spread of the virus.

Residents were asked to stay home after 8 p.m. As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has admitted, the measures may need to be extended to other parts of the country.

The hard curbs come despite Japan being less severely hit by the pandemic than many other countries and recording around 3,900 deaths, according to the health ministry.

Thailand also declared 28 provinces, including Bangkok, to be risk zones and urged people to work from home and avoid collecting, as authorities confirmed a daily record of 745 new infections on Monday.

The country has reported just 67 total deaths, according to the Department of Disease Control, which is among the lowest in Asia.

Dawn Liu reported from Beijing and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Ed Flanagan, Eric Baculinao, and Will Xu contributed.

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