Don’t buy from abroad, Chinese told as Covid threatens Olympics and holidays

Chinese authorities are urging citizens not to order goods from overseas, in the latest extreme measure aimed at curbing Covid outbreaks only weeks away from the biggest holiday of the year and the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The advisory on overseas packages was issued after authorities claimed that a recent Omicron infection detected in Beijing came from an international package sent from Canada.

China is committed to its policy of zero Covid, but there is also pressure to allow some celebrations during the upcoming lunar new year festivities, typically the biggest travel period of the year.

At the same time there is an urgency to keep the virus out of Beijing, which hosts the Winter Olympics in a few weeks. The Communist party government has pledged the Games will go ahead safely, albeit without overseas general spectators. On Monday the Games’ organising committee said tickets would be distributed to “targeted” groups of people and not be sold to the general public.

In his new year address, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, said “we will spare no effort to present a great Games to the world”, but the growing outbreaks have threatened the pledge.

Officials are under pressure to stamp out infections, and many having been punished for apparent failures. Different measures have been imposed across different provinces and cities, of varying degrees of severity.

Health authorities on Monday reported 223 cases from the previous 24 hours to midnight, including 163 local transmissions. The majority were in Tianjin, where 79 of its 80 cases were found in Jinnan district, and 68 in Henan province, of which 60 were in the locked down city of Anyang. One case reported in the southern city of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, was confirmed as Omicron.

Most of the infections so far have been detected in Tianjin – where China’s first case of Omicron was found in 9 December. However, the discovery of a lone Omicron case in Beijing over the weekend has sparked renewed alarm. At a press conference on Monday, officials said tracing had determined the infection came not from another province, but from a package sent from Toronto, via the US and Hong Kong.

Liao Linzhu, the deputy director of the city’s post administration, urged people “to not buy products from oversea areas”.

Authorities said the patient diagnosed with the Omicron variant on Saturday had “self-reported” that they had received a package on 11 January. The package had been sent four days earlier. Authorities have since quarantined the patient’s family, the courier, and more than 60 others as close contacts, and tested more than 16,000 people in the patient’s home district of Haidian.

“Omicron virus transmits fast, please pay attention, avoid buying stuff from overseas, make sure you wear gloves, don’t bring the package indoors. If you have to, clean the package outside with alcohol, and wash your hands,” said Pang Xinghuo, the deputy director of Beijing’s health authority.

China has claimed that numerous Covid infections throughout the pandemic have resulted from imported products – often cold chain items – but experts say the scientific basis for the claims is weak.

Dr Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, said it was “a long bow to draw”, and urging people to clean packages and avoid receiving mail was “a wasted effort”.

He said the overwhelmingly likely source of the infection was another person, and blaming packaging seemed more political than scientific.

“We all know this virus can hang around in people who aren’t showing symptoms, especially early on in the disease,” he said. “If you’re looking for a reason for … a virus being introduced into a jurisdiction, the first thing you’d think of is humans coming in from overseas – where the virus is everywhere.

“It’s an airborne virus. It’s not about surfaces. Technically, it can happen, sure. There’s a non-zero risk, sure. But is it happening again and again? No,” he said. “If you see and hear horses, don’t think zebras.”

Response measures to the scattered outbreaks are varied and ad-hoc across the affected provinces. Local officials face conflicting pressures: they are largely responsible for implementation and face punishment over perceived or actual failures to control outbreaks.

Beijing has introduced a requirement for all new arrivals to the city to obtain a negative Covid test within 48 hours before arriving in the city, and another within 72 hours after. It has also closed some temples and recreation sites, according to state media. Olympics personnel will enter a closed-loop system of accommodation and travel, but with people coming in from all over the world, the chance of imported infections is likely, said Mackay.

In Zhuhai city, authorities have ordered residents to undergo three rounds of testing, with their electronic health codes – which dictate freedom of movement – restricted until all are completed. All tourist attractions have been closed, all restaurants in Xiangzhou district have cancelled dine-in, and all flights to Beijing cancelled. In Anyang, further residential areas have been locked down, with authorities planning to deliver food.

The central city of Luoyang and southern city of Jieyang have both decreed travellers must report to employers, communities or accommodation three days prior to arrival.

Cities including Beijing and Shanghai have ordered or strongly urged people not to travel for the lunar new year festivities. It is the only time many migrant workers in China are able to return to their home villages. In a video widely shared on social media, an older man told onlookers that he and co-workers from a Zhengzhou construction site in Henan province had been forced to stop work, but their home towns had entry restrictions and he had been left homeless.

“Last night I slept under the South Third Ring Bridge. Not just me, a dozen people [also slept there]. We are all labourers. We are used to work now, and we don’t feel so cold. The key thing is that we can’t go home and we are anxious about it.”

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu

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