Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen shut down as China’s Covid cases double

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China’s new Covid-19 cases have more than doubled in a day as it faces by far its biggest outbreak since the early days of the pandemic, with the virus effectively shutting down the technology hub of Shenzhen, causing serious ramifications for global supply chains.

China's National Health Commission said 3,507 new locally spread cases had been identified in the latest 24-hour period, up from 1,337 a day earlier.

A fast-spreading variant known as 'Stealth Omicron' – the B.A.2 lineage of the Omicron variant – is testing China’s zero-tolerance strategy, which has previously kept the virus at bay after a deadly initial outbreak in early 2020.

Most of the new cases were in north-east China’s Jilin province, where 2,601 were reported. Smaller outbreaks have occurred around the country, including in the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

At the weekend, China’s government responded to a spike in coronavirus infections by shutting down the southern business centre and manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, a city of 17.5 million people, and restricted access to Shanghai by suspending bus services.

Everyone in Shenzhen, the finance and technology centre next to Hong Kong, will now undergo three rounds of testing after 60 new cases were reported there on Sunday. All businesses except those that supply food, fuel and other necessities have been ordered to close or work from home.

The spectral arrival of 'Stealth Omicron' in the country has triggered China to ban most people from leaving the coronavirus-hit north-eastern province and to mobilise military reservists as the fast-spreading variant fuels the country’s biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic two years ago.

A government notice said that police permission would be required for people to leave the area or travel from one city to another.

The hard-hit Jilin province sent 7,000 reservists to help with the response, performing duties such as keeping order, registering people at testing centres, and using drones to carry out aerial spraying and disinfection, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Hundreds more cases were reported in other provinces and cities along China’s east coast, as well as at locations inland.

Beijing and Shanghai have both recorded a rise in cases, leading to locked-down residential and office buildings where infected people had been found.

“Every day when I go to work, I worry that if our office building will suddenly be locked down then I won’t be able to get home, so I have bought a sleeping bag and stored some fast food in the office in advance, just in case,” said Yimeng Li, a Shanghai resident.

While mainland China’s numbers are small compared with many other countries, including the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, they are the country's highest since Covid-19 killed thousands of people in the central city of Wuhan in early 2020. No deaths have been reported in the latest outbreaks thus far.

On Monday, Hong Kong reported 26,908 new cases and 249 deaths in a 24-hour period. The city counts its cases differently to the mainland, combining both rapid antigen tests and PCR test results.

Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam said authorities would not tighten pandemic restrictions for now. “I have to consider whether the public, whether the people would accept further measures,” she said at a press briefing.

Mainland China has seen relatively few infections since the initial Wuhan outbreak as the government has held fast to its zero-tolerance strategy, which is focused on stopping transmission of coronavirus by relying on strict lockdowns and mandatory quarantines for anyone who has come into contact with a positive case.

The government has indicated it will continue to stick to its strategy of stopping transmission for the time being. On Monday, Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease expert at a hospital affiliated with Shanghai’s Fudan University, noted in an essay for China’s business outlet Caixin that the numbers for the mainland were still in the beginning stages of an “exponential rise”.

With much of the current outbreak across Chinese cities being driven by 'Stealth Omicron', early research into this new variant suggests that it spreads faster than the original Omicron, which itself spread faster than the original virus and other variants.

Zhang wrote: “If our country opens up quickly now, it will cause a large number of infections in people in a short period of time. No matter how low the death rate is, it will still cause a run on medical resources and a short-term shock to social life, causing irreparable harm to families and society.”

The shutdown of Shenzhen is in keeping with China's preferred strategy of enforcing “zero tolerance”, locking down entire cities to find and isolate every infected person.

Shenzhen is home to some of China’s most prominent companies, including telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies, electric car brand BYD Auto, Ping An Insurance company and Tencent Holding, operator of the popular WeChat message service.

The Shenzhen lockdown is having an impact on port traffic. Vessels are spilling over to Yantian, where the number of ships waiting to enter the port has risen by 28.5 per cent since the lockdowns were imposed on Sunday. The effect on global supply chains is already being felt.

Josh Brazil, senior vice president of global supply chain insights at tracking company project44, said: “A fresh wave of Covid infections in China has struck shippers at just the wrong time. Post-Chinese Lunar New Year, manufacturing output was steadily on the rise in China, giving cause for fresh optimism. However, this latest development has burst the bubble of retailers who were using this period to replenish stocks and build safety inventories.

“China’s no-tolerance policy to Covid is a major threat to stabilising global supply chains. The stop-start nature of mass lockdowns in the face of relatively minor outbreaks means that global manufacturing could be shuttered at a moment’s notice.

“With fuel prices hitting record highs and inflation through the roof, further disruption in the supply chain is the last thing that companies and consumers need right now. Sharing data and information between stakeholders will be critical for all as supply chains manoeuvre through disruptions and growing uncertainty.”

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