Coronavirus: China seeks ‘societal zero Covid’ with rounds of testing

In Mexico, the government says Covid-19 has passed from a pandemic to an endemic stage

Shanghai city authorities will start rounds of coronavirus testing over the next few days to determine which neighbourhoods can safely be allowed a limited amount of freedom of movement, as residents in Beijing wait to find out whether the capital city will go into lockdown.

On Wednesday, China reported 14,222 new cases, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic. The country is facing its largest outbreak since the pandemic was first reported in Wuhan in late December 2019.

The vice head of Shanghai’s health committee, Zhao Dandan, announced on Wednesday that the city would begin another round of testing for residents over the next few days to determine which districts were lower risk. Areas declared to have achieved “societal zero Covid” could see some measure of limited freedom.

The phrase, used by Chinese health authorities, refers to when new positive cases are only discovered in people who are already under surveillance, such as in centralised quarantine, or those considered to be close contacts. At this point, they are considered to have broken off chains of transmission at the community level.

Shanghai’s total lockdown has been in place for nearly a month, taking a toll on residents who have been confined to their homes. While a small number of people have been allowed to leave their homes in the past week, the vast majority remain confined.

Officials reported 48 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total to at least 238 in the city.

Meanwhile, the capital Beijing is testing millions of residents after cases were discovered at the weekend. The city reported 34 new cases on Wednesday, three of which were asymptomatic.

In the last couple of days nervous Beijing residents have started stockpiling food and supplies following troubles in Shanghai, where residents struggled to get a continuous and reliable supply of food while under lockdown.

Beijing city officials were quick to promise that they were ensuring grocery stores would be well stocked. They said they were monitoring the Xinfadi wholesale market, where the city gets the vast majority of its supplies, at a press conference on Tuesday night.

It is not known whether the entire city will be forced into lockdown. For now, officials have locked down only specific areas where positive cases have been found. On Wednesday, Beijing’s Tongzhou district suspended classes at all its schools, from kindergarten through to high school.

Given that China for now remains committed to its zero-tolerance approach, “I do think we will continue to see the use of these lockdowns across the country,” said Karen Grepin, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong. “If anything, the Omicron variant has made it more challenging to control the virus and thus more stringent measures are needed if the goal is to continue to strive for local elimination.”

The “zero-Covid” strategy has worked well against previous versions of the virus, ensuring that for most of the past two years, people in China have been able to live a mostly virus-free life.

Mexico says Covid-19 is now endemic

The Mexican government said that Covid-19 has passed from a pandemic to an endemic stage in Mexico, meaning authorities will treat it as a seasonally recurring disease.

Mexico never enforced face mask requirements, and the few partial shutdowns of businesses and activities were lifted weeks ago.

“It is now retreating almost completely,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

A nurse from the Mexican Social Security Institute prepares a dose of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine during a campaign to reach out to people in low-income neighbourhoods, in Guadalajara. AFP

New case numbers have declined. But that may be because Mexico, which never did much testing, is now offering even fewer tests.

The daily death rate has also dropped sharply.

Mexico has recorded almost 325,000 test-confirmed deaths, but government reviews of death certificates suggest the real toll is nearer 490,000.

About 90 per cent of adult Mexicans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

India’s Modi meets heads of state

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a meeting with state chief ministers on Wednesday to review preparedness against another wave of Covid-19 infections as daily cases touched a six-week high.

The South Asian nation, which has been among the worst-hit nations globally, recorded 2,927 new cases on Wednesday — the highest one-day jump since March 13 — pushing the total official tally past 43 million, according to government data. Deaths rose marginally, taking total fatalities to 523,654.

The step-up in government oversight underscores Mr Modi’s efforts to avoid another outbreak of the scale seen last summer, when daily cases topped 400,000, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums.

As the deadly Delta variant ripped through the crowded nation of almost 1.4 billion people last year, some citizens resorted to pleading for oxygen and other medical resources on social-media platforms.

Health workers prepare a Covid-19 ward at a government hospital in Chennai, India, amid a rise in cases. EPA

Mr Modi’s meeting with state chief ministers comes almost a week after the capital New Delhi reinstated mask mandates and stepped up surveillance for new Covid-19 variants.

Earlier this month, Mumbai detected the highly transmissible XE variant. While there are currently no stress signs in the country’s healthcare system, rising infections risk thwarting the recent return to normality as schools, offices and movie theatres have reopened.

“The filtered daily growth rate of new cases in India stood at 9.5 per cent on April 23, having risen steadily since turning positive on April 13,” a Covid-19 India tracker developed by the University of Cambridge said in an April 23 note. But the current surge looks “much more muted than the Omicron wave which took off towards the end of last year,” it said.

Bloomberg contributed to this report

Updated: April 27, 2022, 9:06 AM
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