A cluster of coronavirus cases in China’s north-eastern city of Harbin has forced authorities to impose new lockdowns, shattering the country’s run of weeks of reporting near zero domestic transmissions.
China first reported zero new local infections in mid-March and only a few cases were disclosed in subsequent weeks. In the past week, however, dozens of transmissions within the country have been confirmed, the vast majority in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia.
As China attempts to reboot its economy, Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the outbreak in Harbin illustrates the present and unpredictable risk of a resurgence.
“A second wave attack could be coming in a way that authorities don’t expect,” he said. More lockdowns elsewhere, just as it closed temporary hospitals in Wuhan, would hamper the country’s recovery.
As of Sunday, including non-symptomatic cases, Heilongjiang said it had 61 active cases of Covid-19 from local transmission, 54 of which were in Harbin, the provincial capital.
China’s health commission on Saturday said it recorded double-digit domestic infections for four days in a row. By Sunday, the country had disclosed 1,041 active cases in total, most of which are imported, while it has revealed 82,725 cases since the outbreak began.
A 22-year-old university student, who returned to Harbin from the US, has been identified by authorities as the source of more than 40 new infections. She was quarantined at home rather than in a central quarantine facility.
Coronavirus spread through the student’s local community, infecting her 87-year-old neighbour, who had a stroke and received treatment in two of the city’s largest and busiest hospitals, where at least 26 other people were infected.
The infections in Harbin set off a flurry of activity in the city, with long lines outside major hospitals and some central areas being once again placed under lockdown, according to videos shared online and local media reports.
On Saturday, 18 Harbin officials were on Saturday given a political demerit, a black mark in Communist party personnel files that can impact career prospects, and accused of “wishful thinking” for failing to prevent the new outbreak.
Heilongjiang’s hospitals have been further stretched by hundreds of imported cases from Chinese citizens who entered the country from Siberia via the port town of Suifenhe, which now has more than 400 confirmed cases.
The influx has made Russia — which has reported a week of record rises in infections and now has more than 35,000 in total — China’s largest source of imported cases.
Three planeloads of medical equipment were flown from Wuhan to Suifenhe this week, where a makeshift quarantine hospital with 600 beds has been built.
Chinese authorities closed the land border with Russia on April 8, the same day travel restrictions were officially lifted in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus pandemic began. Wuhan has since closed some of its temporary hospitals.