China lifts Xi’an lockdown as Beijing virus fight ramps up


One of China’s longest coronavirus lockdowns since the start of the pandemic came to an end on Monday as authorities announced the lifting of most restrictions in the northern megacity of Xi’an.

The historic city’s 13 million residents had been confined to their homes since December 22 after the discovery of a Covid-19 cluster that grew to over 2,100 cases — China’s largest local outbreak in months.

With the Winter Olympics set to begin next week, Chinese authorities have been scrambling to eradicate flare-ups in several major cities, most recently Beijing, where more than 40 cases have been recorded since mid-January.

While China’s coronavirus caseload pales in comparison to global numbers, the country’s strict “zero-Covid” strategy means even the slightest hint of the virus is met with contact tracing, targeted lockdowns and lengthy quarantines.

Officials began removing restrictions in Xi’an last week after daily cases slowed to single digits.

Residents with a clean bill of health are now permitted to leave the city, while public transport and economic activity have fully resumed now that Xi’an has been deemed a “low-risk” area, virus control authorities said in Monday’s statement. 

Only one district now remains under lockdown, the notice said, with restrictions to be lifted at a later date. 

But travellers to Xi’an, home of the famed terracotta warriors, still need to provide a recent negative test result, while those from virus-affected areas of China are barred entry.

Xi’an authorities came under fire for their handling of the prolonged lockdown, including food supply issues and medical tragedies stemming from patients being denied hospital access.

In Beijing, authorities are ramping already-strict virus control measures after the recent spike in cases, which coincides with the traditional nationwide travel rush before the Lunar New Year.

Residents in the capital who buy over-the-counter fever medicine are now required to undergo virus testing, while all two million residents of one district were screened on Sunday after a local Delta outbreak involving frozen food workers was found there. 

That outbreak has now spread to neighbouring Shandong province, local authorities announced Monday, while customs has stepped up controls on frozen imported goods.  

Authorities last week suggested Beijing’s Omicron outbreak may have originated from contaminated international mail, though experts said there was little evidence to support the idea. 

Leaders are anxious to avoid a full-scale lockdown of the capital ahead of a Games it is determined to pull off smoothly, urging residents to stay put during the Lunar New Year public holiday. 

Thousands of athletes, media workers and foreign dignitaries arriving for the Olympics will operate in a “closed-loop” bubble strictly cut off from the outside world. On Sunday, it was announced that more than 70 Games participants had tested positive inside the bubble so far.

China on Monday reported 18 domestic transmissions, six of which were found in Beijing. Other recent virus hotspots including the city of Tianjin and southern Guangdong province reported single-digit cases.