China is battling its worst outbreak in months, including the highly transmissible Delta variant in cities including Wuhan – the first epicentre of the pandemic when infections emerged late 2019.
On Thursday, officials announced 85 new cases bringing the total in the country to nearly 1,400 since the first half of July around when the latest cluster outbreak began.
The mushrooming number of local transmissions is alarming, especially after many months of most new cases coming via Chinese citizens testing positive upon flying back home – dubbed “imported” infections.
China early on declared a “zero tolerance” for Covid and installed close surveillance measures to ensure rapid contact tracing. In practice, this has meant tracking every individual via mobile apps to pinpoint movements and marrying it with other data, such as flight and rail bookings.
Public health officials also executed mass testing anytime cases cropped up and enforced strict quarantines of as long as 21 days, at times chaining people into their homes or installing security cameras to ensure compliance – all this because China declared “zero tolerance” for coronavirus.
Now, a fresh rise in cases may indicate to Chinese authorities that those measures were not enough, giving them impetus to install further curbs in the name of public health – restrictions that may never again be lifted.
Indeed, the government has confirmed in recent days that it has not issued or renewed passports at all so far this year for Chinese citizens – a necessary “reform” to minimise travel given the pandemic.
Only those who need to partake in “essential” travel will have their application processed, all decided on a case-by-case basis.
This sets a worrying precedent in China for authorities to continue citing public health concerns to keep up close surveillance and to restrict people’s movements, which may at times be politically motivated.
Already the government refuses to grant passports to dissidents and ethnic minorities, such as Uyghurs and Tibetans – the worry is that they may speak freely, and reflect poorly on China while abroad.
The latest outbreak also gives China an opportunity to further seed nationalist propaganda at home and isolate itself, and its people.
Officials have already said they think the Delta variant was introduced into China on a flight from Russia.
That statement lays the foundation for the government to further push propaganda about how the coronavirus originated abroad, and not Wuhan – a conspiracy theory Beijing has been touting since the early pandemic days.
It’s easy to see how government spin doctors could crow about China’s homegrown success in combating the virus being ruined by infections creeping in from abroad – thus setting the scene for further border restrictions.
All this also risks enhancing a misperception, egged on by propaganda, among the Chinese public that foreigners somehow pose a greater risk of coronavirus. There’s often a blanket assumption that foreigners would have recently travelled into the country, although most in China at this point are long-term residents given tough pandemic entry-exit restrictions for non-Chinese.
In the long run, China could clamp down with even stronger surveillance measures, and close itself off to the world even further, all justified by the authorities in the name of public health.