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11 million locked in China’s Hebei province to prevent new coronavirus outbreak

BEIJING – It took only 39 new coronavirus cases from health authorities in China to imprison nearly 11 million people in the city of Shijiazhuang.

On Wednesday, health officials took no risk by sealing the capital of the industrial province of Hebei and ordering mass testing.

Travel restrictions have been imposed in the rest of the region, which surrounds the Chinese capital Beijing and is home to about 76 million people.

Until Saturday, Mayor Ma Yujun told a news conference that it took only three days to complete the first round of mass tests in Shijiazhuang, with 354 people tested positive for the virus. A second round of tests should begin soon, he added.

Yang Xixin, director of critical care at Hebei Medical University̵

7;s Second Hospital, told the same news conference, “the risk of more infections still exists.”

This firm and rapid approach is being repeated elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region to counter the exacerbation of the coronavirus – including in Japan, Thailand and Australia – and measures to curb the spread of the virus in Europe and the United States seem almost slow.

Authorities put Hebei – known for the textile, steel and pharmaceutical industries – in “military mode” on Tuesday. This means that government-coordinated actions can be initiated, contact investigation teams can be set up and medical supplies can be distributed.

For residents of the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, travel outside the city was banned and gatherings banned. Schools were closed, flights and trains were canceled, and the main bus station was closed.

Late Friday, citizens were urged to stay home for at least seven days.

Nearby, officials in the city of Nangong announced on the social platform WeChat that they will offer prizes of 500 yuan ($ 77) for messages to anyone who refuses the Covid-19 test.

“People need to fully understand the need for this approach,” Shi Mo, a student in Shijiazhuang, told NBC News.

Although some social and psychological adjustments will be needed, Shi likened the lock to preparing for “a protracted war.”

“With Wuhan’s valuable experience in his previous epidemic prevention, Shijiazhuang has a reference model,” he said. “We are all optimistic about the epidemic.”

Police officers and officers in protective suits inspected vehicles at the Gaocheng County Border Checkpoint on a provincial highway, China.China Daily / Reuters

The aggressive measures to control the outbreak are similar, though not yet as draconian, as those used by the Chinese authorities to eradicate the virus when it first appeared in Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, the total number of coronavirus cases in China has exceeded 87,000, and the death toll has remained unchanged since May at 4,634, according to the China National Health Commission, the only official source of information on infection levels in the country.

NBC News could not independently verify the figures, and the Chinese government has been criticized for not being open and minimizing the severity of the outbreak from the outset. The country is also accused of mishandling the initial phase of the outbreak and silencing informers.

However, a vaccination program is underway in Hebei, and the National Health Commission has said the vaccines will be provided free of charge once they become available to the general public.

Sun Xini, a teacher in Shijiazhuang, said the sudden blockade of the city initially “caused people to panic”, but the rapid release of state information reassured many.

Although slightly unhappy with the inability to order food deliveries that had been suspended, Sun said that “rigorous and rapid tests throughout the city are actually a good thing.”

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Similar difficult approaches are applied in other countries.

In the 2 million-strong Australian city of Brisbane, the city entered a three-day blockade on Friday night after a single case of the more contagious variant of the coronavirus, which appeared in the UK, was identified.

“We will continue hard and go early to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus,” Queensland Prime Minister Anastasia Palashchuk told a news conference on Friday.

A police patrol walks through an empty railway station in Shijiazhuang, China, while the city cuts off external transportation and forbids residents from leaving. AFP – Getty Images

Japan also declared a one-month limited state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo, and three neighboring prefectures on Thursday to stem the spread of the virus.

Residents have been asked to stay home after 8pm, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga acknowledged that measures may need to be extended to other parts of the country.

Heavy curbs are coming, although Japan is less affected by the pandemic than many other countries, with about 3,900 deaths, according to the health ministry.

Thailand also declared 28 provinces, including Bangkok, high-risk areas and asked people to work from home and avoid gathering as authorities confirmed the daily record of 745 new infections on Monday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the country has reported only 67 deaths, among the lowest in Asia.

Dawn Liu reports from Beijing and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Ed Flanagan, Eric Bakulinao and Will Sue contributed.

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