Confusion as small Chinese city in coronavirus zone eases lockdown

Kristin Huang

A small city in coronavirus-hit Hubei province is easing some lockdown restrictions, with no new infections reported in the province outside the capital Wuhan for the first time since China started releasing national numbers in January.

Chibi, a centre of about 500,000 people in the province’s southeast, said in a notice that it would remove all checkpoints within the city on Friday morning.

But roadblocks to stop traffic between Chibi and neighbouring centres and measures to restrict movement within residential compounds would stay in place, authorities said.

The decision to remove internal checkpoints came after 19 consecutive days with no new infections in the city.

Chibi went into lockdown on January 23 and has reported 200 confirmed cases and five deaths.

Authorities said they were easing the restrictions to allow business to resume as well as spring planting and freight transport.

But residents said there was a lot of confusion about the new policy, with internal barriers taken down on Thursday night, only to be put again on Friday.

Resident Zou Hongying said there were still a lot of restrictions on people’s movement inside the city, making it difficult to get around.

“The relaxation only lasted for a few hours and now the checkpoints have been set up again in the street. We were not told the exact reason why the lockdown is continuing,” Zou said. “I am still stuck at home.”

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The National Health Commission said on Friday that there were no infections in Hubei outside its capital Wuhan, where 126 new cases were reported. There were 29 new deaths in Hubei, of which 23 were in the provincial capital, bringing the province’s total death toll to 2,931.

A day earlier senior Chinese researcher Zhang Boli – one of the 14 members on a research team working to control the outbreak – said he expected cases in Hubei to peak in mid-March.

With new infections on the wane, some parts of the province are going on lower levels of alert.

Chibi was categorised as “middle risk” in the latest epidemic risk assessment by the provincial government on Wednesday, its status unchanged since the first assessment on February 29.

In all, 37 regions, mainly covering Wuhan and neighbouring cities, in Hubei have been classified as “high risk” coronavirus areas, down from 58 a week earlier.

Hubei Communist Party chief Ying Yong said on Thursday that cities should adjust their emergency measures based on local conditions, and prepare for a return to work.

China adopted unprecedented emergency measures on January 23 to curb the spread of the epidemic, including shutting down whole cities – mostly in Hubei, a move that some economists said could cut one or two percentage points off national growth.

Other provinces have gradually lifted their restrictions, but officials said Hubei still faced a challenge.

Wuhan University economics professor Luo Zhi was quoted by financial news outlet China Business Network as saying that only 60 per cent of 573 companies surveyed in Hubei said they would be able to survive three months under shutdown.

Benjamin Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health, said the limited new infections outside Wuhan showed the lockdown was a successful strategy.

“It looks like China has successfully brought its first wave of infections to an end. It now needs to be alert to the start of its second wave, given that cases will continue to be imported from other affected countries,” Cowling said.

Additional reporting by Linda Lew

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