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For residents in China’s northwestern city of Xi’an, the start of 2022 is looking a lot like 2020 – only worse.
Since December, the ancient city known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors has been grappling with China’s largest community coronavirus outbreak since Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic.
To date, more than 1,600 cases have been reported in the city. While the number pales in comparison to those in many other countries, the outbreak pushed China’s caseload in the final week of 2021 to the highest level since March 2020.
For 12 days and counting, Xi’an’s 13 million residents have been confined to their homes. The city, formerly a tourist hotspot, welcomed the new year with deserted streets, shuttered stores, sealed-off residential compounds and an empty airport.
The lockdown is the strictest and largest since Wuhan, which sealed off 11 million people in early 2020.
But it is also among the most chaotic, leaving residents short of food and other essential supplies and affecting access to medical services.
A groundswell of anger and frustration at the local government has ensued, underscoring the growing challenge facing China’s zero-Covid policy, which relies on a playbook of mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the virus.
For almost two years, these stringent measures have shielded the majority of the country from the worst aspects of the pandemic, winning overwhelming public support. But as local outbreaks continue to flare up, the outcry in Xi’an raises the question of just how long zero-Covid can be sustained before public support begins to taper off, with millions of residents trapped in an seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns.
Over the past week, Chinese social media was inundated with cries for help and criticism over perceived incompetence of the local Xi’an government. Residents flooded a livestream of a government Covid news conference with demands for groceries – prompting embarrassed officials to disable all comments.
Despite some censorship, the issue has continued to gain traction. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, the hashtag “Grocery shopping in Xi’an is difficult” has been viewed 380 million times as of Monday.
Many expressed frustration they hadn’t hoarded food in advance because local authorities had repeatedly reassured them food supplies were abundant and there was no need for panic buying.
In the first few days of the lockdown, each household was allowed to send one designated person out to buy groceries every two days. But as cases continued to rise, Xi’an further tightened lockdown measures, requiring all residents to stay at home unless permitted to go outside for mass testing.
“Previously I thought those panic buying folks were stupid. Now I’ve realized I am the stupid one,” said a comment on Weibo.
Faced with the public outcry, local officials pledged steady deliveries of groceries to residents, with state media carrying footage of food arriving at residential compounds. While the supply shortage was eased in some neighborhoods, other residents complained on social media – including in comments below state media posts – that they had not received such deliveries in their communities.
Meanwhile, the heavy-handed approach adopted in some areas to enforce the lockdown has fueled further outrage.
On Friday, footage emerged on Weibo of a man being beaten by Covid prevention workers at the gates of a residential compound when he tried to enter with a bag of steamed buns. The video, which immediately went viral, showed the buns scattered on the ground as the man tumbled. The ensuing outcry prompted a statement from police, which said the two attackers were punished with a seven-day detention and a fine of 200 yuan (about $30).
For some, the cost of the lockdown was just too high. Last week, state media reported on two incidents of individuals going to extreme lengths to escape from Xi’an before restrictions kicked in.
A man trekked for 100 kilometers (62 miles) across the Qinling mountain range from the Xi’an airport, avoiding multiple village checkpoints on the way before he was finally spotted and taken into quarantine on December 24, eight days into his journey, according to a statement from the Ningshan county police.
In the other incident, a man cycled for 10 hours overnight in close to freezing temperatures in an attempt to return to his hometown, after he learned Xi’an would be locked down the next day. He was taken into quarantine and fined 200 yuan, according to a statement from the Chunhua county police.
Despite the difficulties, Xi’an officials have repeatedly pledged their resolve to contain the outbreak in public.
At a news conference Sunday, Liu Guozhong, the Communist Party boss of Shaanxi province, of which Xi’an is the capital, vowed to “further lift our spirits, entrench the awareness of achieving 100% prevention, control and isolation, prioritize epidemic prevention and control in urban villages, and achieve the goal of bringing cases back to zero in society as soon as possible.”
In a show of resolve, the party secretary of Yanta district, one of the worst-hit areas in the outbreak, was dismissed, joining a long list of local officials who were fired for failing to contain Covid flare-ups.
The harsh lockdown measures appear to be working. On Sunday, Xi’an’s daily case count dropped for the first time in more than a week to 122, followed by Monday’s 90 cases.
If the trend continues, it will likely be only a matter of weeks before Xi’an successfully contains its outbreak as other cities have in the past. But it won’t be the last time the coronavirus – and the stringent response to eradicate it – causes significant disruption to daily life and the local economy.
For now, it’s a zero-Covid goal that China seems determined to achieve – even if it pushes public patience to the limit.