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2021-12-03 09:35:00

China’s COVID-19 cases have surged for the fifth consecutive day, as infections in border areas in the north accelerate, prompting the suspension of imports and increasing concerns of additional transmission.

Manzhouli, a city bordering Russia in the northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, has become the latest virus hotspot in the Chinese mainland, with 56 of the 80 locally confirmed cases reported Thursday. The city of around 150,000 people has confirmed over 200 local infections in just a week, leading to massive testing, school closures, community lockdowns, and strict restrictions on inbound and outbound travels.

The outbreak has been traced to viruses carried by imported cargo, local authorities said. The first local infections — all initially asymptomatic, though two later became confirmed cases after showing symptoms — were detected among people working in an international freight yard dealing with timber.

Authorities have since closed the port entry in Manzhouli and suspended flights and public transportation amid concerns of more transmission. Over 65% of overland freight between China and Russia passes through Manzhouli, raising fears of supply chain disruptions in the wood industry, considering the city’s significance in the trade.

Since the first COVID-19 cases were reported, the pandemic has now dragged on for two years, killing more than 5 million people globally. While China effectively controlled the spread of the coronavirus in April 2020, it has reported smaller but frequent outbreaks and has vowed to stick to its “zero COVID” strategy.

China is now on high alert amid the new Omicron coronavirus variant that has now been detected in some two dozen countries, though no such cases have yet been found in the mainland.

Zhao Weidong, a senior official of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, said Friday that the organizing committee is currently evaluating the variant’s impacts on the Winter Olympics to be held in February. Just months earlier, the International Olympic Committee had announced that the Games would be held under strict coronavirus-related rules and only allow domestic audiences.

As of Friday, cases linked with the outbreak in Manzhouli were also reported in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, which shares borders with Inner Mongolia and Russia. Authorities in its provincial capital, Harbin, which has endured repeated outbreaks and lockdowns over the past months, is scrambling to contain the new flare-up and offering a 10,000 yuan ($1,570) reward to anyone who voluntarily takes the nucleic acid test and is confirmed positive for the virus.

A Harbin resident, surnamed Xiu, told Sixth Tone that repeated outbreaks had dealt a blow to local livelihoods, and his income from the local clinic where he works has steeply declined amid the pandemic. He said his neighborhood is currently cordoned off with yellow metal fences — Xiu said he has increasingly grown accustomed to such lockdowns — after officials tracked a close contact of an individual who tested positive in the area.

“I can’t stop laughing when I see the notice,” said Xiu, referring to information on community lockdowns. “Speechless? Helpless? You just know what is about to come.”

China’s top health officials have said that the country will stick with strict COVID-19 protocols to prevent outbreaks. A recent study by mathematicians from Peking University — and published on the website of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention — estimated that China would have more than 637,000 daily new cases if it adopted laxer strategies like those found in the United States.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Two workers in protective clothing disinfect a quarantine area in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Nov. 30, 2021. Zhou Bo/People Visual)