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China tests millions for coronavirus after outbreaks in three cities

Police and security officers wearing face masks stand guard as masked airport workers wait for Covid-19 testing at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, on November 23 2020. Picture by AP
AP Reporters

Chinese authorities are testing millions of people, imposing lockdowns and shutting down schools after multiple locally transmitted coronavirus cases were discovered in three cities across the country last week.

As temperatures drop, large-scale measures are being enacted in the cities of Tianjin, Shanghai and Manzhouli, despite the low number of new cases compared to the United States and other countries experiencing new waves of infections.

Many experts and government officials have warned that the chances of the virus spreading will be greater during the cold weather.

Recent flare-ups have shown that there is still a risk of the virus returning, despite being largely controlled within China.

Today, the National Health Commission reported two new locally transmitted cases in Shanghai over the last 24 hours, bringing the total to seven since Friday November 20.

China has recorded 86,442 total cases and 4,634 deaths since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

The two latest cases confirmed in Shanghai were close contacts of another airport worker who was diagnosed with Covid-19 earlier in November.

Last night, the city's Pudong International airport decided to test its workers, collecting 17,719 samples through the early hours of this morning.

Videos on social media purportedly from workers showed what appeared to be chaotic scenes at the airport as they were given last-minute orders to get tested.

In the videos, people are seen standing in large groups pushing back and forth against officials in hazmat suits.

Shanghai has been more selective with mass testing, targeting people associated with a particular place, such as the airport or the hospital where a confirmed individual had worked, rather than an entire district.

In Tianjin, health workers have collected more than 2.2 million samples for testing from residents in the Binhai new district, after five locally transmitted cases were discovered there last week.

In Manzhouli, a city of more than 200,000 people, local health authorities are testing all residents after two cases were reported on Saturday November 21. They also shut down all schools and public venues and banned public gatherings.

China has resorted to its heavy, top-down approach each time new cases of local transmission are found - shutting down schools and hospitals, locking down residential communities and entire neighbourhoods, and testing millions of people.

China's approach to controlling the pandemic has been criticized for being draconian. It locked down the city of Wuhan, where cases were first reported, for more than two months to contain the virus, with the local government shutting down all traffic and confining residents to their homes. Domestically, however, China has called its strategy "clear to zero" and has boasted of its success.

Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a webinar hosted by Chinese media in September: "In the entire world, only China has the ability to get to zero. Other countries don't have this ability.

"It's not just getting to zero, even for them to control the first wave of the epidemic is hard.

"'Clearing to zero' is actually the most economically effective way to do epidemic prevention. If you don't do that, then this problem will get more troublesome," he added.

"Use a heavier hand, and get to zero, then people will feel reassured."

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