China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou announced plans Thursday to build quarantine facilities for nearly 250,000 people to fight surging coronavirus outbreaks even as the national government tries to reduce the impact of anti-disease controls that have confined millions of people to their homes.
Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people and the biggest of a series of hot spots across China with outbreaks since early October, reported 9,680 new cases in the past 24 hours. That was about 40% of the 23,276 cases reported nationwide.
China’s infection numbers are low compared with the United States and other major countries, but the ruling Communist Party is trying to isolate every case. Repeated closures of neighbourhoods, schools and businesses are fuelling public frustration and clashes with health workers.
“The epidemic situation in Guangzhou still is very serious,” said a city official, Wang Baosen, according to the South Metropolis Daily newspaper.
Authorities in Guangzhou sent 95,300 people from the city’s Haizhu district to quarantine centres or for hospital treatment, the government announced.
Access to the district of 1.8 million people was suspended last week following outbreaks, but some controls were lifted Monday. Videos on social media that said they were shot in Guangzhou showed angry residents knocking over barriers set up by white-garbed health workers.
Guangzhou will add 246,407 beds, including 132,015 in hospital isolation wards and 114,392 for people who are infected but have no symptoms, the city government said. A series of rapid construction initiatives in China since the 2020 start of the pandemic have built hospitals with thousands of beds in as little as a week.
A spike in infections has led officials in areas across China to confine families to cramped apartments or order people into quarantine if a single case is found in their workplace or neighbourhood.
Guangzhou is one of a number of populous cities that have been trying to respond to outbreaks with more flexible tactics.
The Communist Party promised last week to cut the cost of anti-virus controls by reducing the length of quarantines and changing other rules. However, party leaders said they will stick to the “zero COVID” strategy at a time when other countries are easing restrictions and trying to live with the virus.
That flexibility might be preparation for China to reopen, but a timetable is unclear, said economists Helen Qiao, Benson Wu and Xiaoqing Pi of Bank of America in a report. They pointed to Guangzhou, Chongqing and Shijiazhuang, which all are coping with outbreaks.
“Their responses and reopening paths will be useful for other cities to prepare for their reopening,” they said. “No matter what measures they undertake, we do expect a short-term shock on the local economic activities.”
Economists and health experts have said “zero COVID” might stay in place for up to another year because the government needs to vaccinate millions of elderly people before it can lift curbs that keep most foreign visitors out of China.
Also Thursday, authorities faced more public anger after a second child’s death was blamed on overzealous anti-virus enforcement.
The 4-month-old girl died after suffering vomiting and diarrhea while in quarantine at a hotel in the central city of Zhengzhou, according to news reports and social media posts. They said it took her father 11 hours to get help after emergency services balked at dealing with them and she finally was sent to a hospital 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.
The death came after the ruling party promised this month that people in quarantine wouldn’t be blocked from getting emergency help following an outcry over a 3-year-old boy’s death from carbon monoxide poisoning in the northwest. His father blamed health workers in the city of Lanzhou, who he said tried to stop him from taking his son to a hospital.
Internet users expressed anger at “zero COVID” and demanded officials in Zhengzhou be punished for failing to help the public.
“Once again, someone died because of excessive epidemic prevention measures,” one user wrote on the popular Sina Weibo platform. “They put their official post above everything else.”
At a news conference, a health official said the government is trying to deal with “simple and crude” over-enforcement in response to public complaints.
The government has received 130,000 complaints including of local officials improperly isolating visitors arriving from low-risk areas, according to the official, Shen Hongbing, the deputy director of the National Bureau of Disease Control.
“We have sorted out the problems reported by the masses,” Shen said. He didn’t mention the girl’s death in Zhengzhou.
A total of 1,659 cases were reported in Henan province, another hot spot where Zhengzhou is located.
Access to a Zhengzhou industrial zone that is home to the world’s biggest iPhone factory was suspended this month following outbreaks. Apple Inc. said deliveries of its new iPhone 14 model would be delayed.
The 4-month-old girl in Zhengzhou and her father were sent into quarantine Saturday, according to news reports and social media.
An account on social media that said it was written by the father, identified as Li Baoliang, said he started calling the emergency hotline at noon on Monday after she suffered vomiting and diarrhea. It said the hotline responded that the girl wasn’t sick enough to need emergency care. The account said health workers at the quarantine site called an ambulance but the crew refused to deal with them because the father had tested positive for the virus.
The girl finally arrived at a hospital at 11 p.m. but died despite efforts to revive her, the account said.
The account attributed to the father complained that staff at the emergency hotline acted improperly, nearby hospitals weren’t ready to help and the hospital where they ended up failed to provide “timely treatment” and gave him “seriously false” information.
“Epidemic prevention and control people, do you not have a heart?” said another posting on Sina Weibo.
The Zhengzhou city government said the incident was under investigation, according to news reports.
In the capital, Beijing, access to elite Peking University was suspended Wednesday. People who visited a vegetable market in the city’s southeast where a case was found were ordered into quarantine in a hotel at their own expense. Some shopping malls and office buildings have been closed.