Nearly 18 provinces across China are battling a surge in Covid cases, causing officials to question the efficacy of the country's 'zero-covid' approach.
Millions of people across China have endured increased lockdowns as virus cases have doubled to nearly 3,400 and anxiety has mounted over the resilience of the country's 'zero-Covid' approach in the face of the worst outbreak in two years.
A nationwide surge in cases has seen authorities on Sunday close schools in Shanghai, lock down central neighbourhoods in the southern tech powerhouse of Shenzhen as well as whole northeastern cities, as almost 18 provinces battle clusters of the Omicron and Delta variants.
The city of Jilin - centre of the outbreak in the northeast - was partially locked down on Saturday, while residents of Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 bordering North Korea, were confined to their homes on Sunday.
Zhang Yan, an official with the Jilin provincial health commission, conceded that local authorities' virus response so far had been lacking.
"There is insufficient understanding of the characteristics of the Omicron variant…and judgment has been inaccurate," he said at a press briefing.
The mayor of Jilin and the head of the Changchun health commission were dismissed from their jobs on Saturday, state media reported, in a sign of the political imperative placed on local authorities to contain virus clusters.
The case numbers in China’s latest surge of infections are low compared with some other countries. But authorities are enforcing a “zero tolerance” strategy that temporarily shuts down cities to isolate every infected person despite a rising economic cost.
Strict 'zero-Covid' policy
China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, has maintained the strict 'zero-Covid' policy enforced by swift lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters have emerged.
But the latest flare-up, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases, is testing the efficacy of that approach.
Economists are also warning that tough clampdowns are hurting the economy, with officials increasingly urging softer and more targeted measures to contain the virus.
In Shenzhen, the southern city of around 13 million bordering Hong Kong, residents have been caught between nerves at a renewed outbreak and angst at the swift, draconian measures to squash clusters.
Hong Kong currently has one of the world's highest death rates from the virus, as the Omicron variant cuts through its elderly population among whom vaccine hesitancy proliferates.
In China's biggest city Shanghai, authorities have increasingly moved to temporarily lock down individual schools, businesses, restaurants and malls over close-contact fears rather than using mass quarantines.
As cases rise, the country's National Health Commission announced on Friday that they would introduce the use of rapid antigen tests.