This epidemic has spread much faster than previous waves of less infectious variants, with daily cases soaring from a few dozen in February to more than 5,100 on Tuesday – the highest figure since the outbreak in early 2020 in Wuhan.
The number may seem low compared to other countries, but it is alarming for a nation that has tried to eradicate epidemics and chains of transmission with a strict zero-Covid policy throughout the pandemic.
As of Tuesday, cases were reported in 21 provinces and municipalities nationwide, including the national capital Beijing and other major cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Cases may still number in the thousands, but as of Tuesday, 37 million people were in custody.
Here’s what we know about the outbreak in China.
How did this wave start?
Cases began to rise earlier this month in a few provinces across the country, including Shandong in the east, Guangdong in the south and Jilin in the northeast.
Jilin province, which shares a border with North Korea, has quickly become a major hotspot with a university cluster that has sparked public outrage online after quarantined students have complained of poor conditions while self-isolating on campus.
More than 4,000 of the infections reported on Tuesday were from Jilin. Nearly half of the total infections in this outbreak are from this province — and cases there have yet to peak, officials warned on Tuesday.
Authorities and state media say it is still unclear how the first outbreaks began.
Which variant is widespread?
Omicron was behind this wave. One of the reasons cases have spread so quickly and are harder to trace is Omicron’s milder symptoms and shorter incubation time, according to state media.
BA.2 is about 30% more transmissible than BA.1, according to early studies from the UK and Denmark. It now causes around 1 in 5 cases of Covid-19 worldwide, with cases detected in dozens of countries including the United States, according to the World Health Organization. BA.2 was detected during the outbreak in Jilin, according to state-run news outlet CCTV.
Whether it causes more severe illness is not yet known, but some studies suggest it is unlikely to lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, in part because it appeared so soon after. the original Omicron wave, so many people have protective antibodies, either from recent infection or booster shots.
What lockdowns and restrictions are in place?
Five cities – collectively home to more than 37 million people – are now subject to varying levels of lockdown.
Residents of Changchun, Jilin City, Shenzhen and Dongguan are prohibited from leaving their neighborhoods except for essential workers and emergency services. Each household is only allowed to send one person for grocery shopping every two to three days.
The fifth city, Langfang, went further by banning all residents from leaving their homes except for emergency reasons.
Several of these cities have suspended public transport and indoor restaurants, firm schools and conduct multiple rounds of mass testing for all residents. Jilin City launched its ninth round of tests on Tuesday, with photos showing residents queuing outside in the snow, bundled up.
Jilin Province has also implemented travel restrictions, prohibiting residents from leaving the province or traveling between cities within the province.
But these closures also pose a huge logistical challenge for the government, with CCTV reporting that the province only has a few days’ worth of medical supplies in stock.
Authorities are now rushing to boost health care capacity in hard-hit areas – for example, by building temporary treatment centers in Changchun and Jilin city, and deploying thousands of troops to help the work of Covid control, according to Global Times.
Will China stick to zero-Covid?
As increasingly infectious variants – Delta, then Omicron – spread in 2021, many countries abandoned the strict zero-Covid approach in favor of living with the virus.
Although some Chinese leaders and scientists have hinted that China could eventually back away from the strategy, that is unlikely to happen any time soon, if the current rhetoric about getting cases to zero is any indication.
“Better to be fully prepared then gradually (clear transmission of Covid),” the Weibo comment said. “If we rush, people will suffer.”