For the last few months China has been enjoying a return to normality after largely eliminating the COVID-19 virus.
Just three weeks ago pictures emerged showing packed nightclubs, bars and restaurants in the city of Wuhan, where coronavirus was first identified in late 2019.
But now parts of the country have been plunged back into strict lockdown conditions after China experienced its biggest spike in infections since July 30, 2020.
On Tuesday, the country recorded 115 new COVID-19 infections, up from 55 a day earlier.
Of the new cases, 107 were from local transmission, with 90 originating from the Hebei province that surrounds Beijing and 16 discovered in the northeast Heilongjiang province.
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There are now over 780 confirmed coronavirus cases in mainland China, with an additional 556 asymptomatic cases, which are not included in China’s tally, being kept under observation.
The government has placed the cities of Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang into lockdown, with more than 22 million people now living under tough restrictions.
Authorities have ordered a testing blitz across the cities, as public transport, weddings, funerals and other events were shut down.
“All family gatherings should be cancelled … all marriages postponed and funerals simplified until the epidemic situation has subsided,” the Langfang city government said in a statement.
Bans on gatherings are now in force and schools have been suspended in some areas.
The Heilongjiang province, which has a population of more than 37.5 million, has been declared in an “emergency state” after 28 cases were discovered in the area.
Residents have been ordered not to leave the province unless completely necessary.
The worsening situation prompted Hebei province’s local government to indefinitely postpone an annual legislative meeting that was due to be held this month.
Coronavirus cases have been steadily rising in China’s northern provinces since October, putting authorities on high alert.
China is now rushing to deliver millions of doses of its homegrown vaccines ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Hundreds of millions of people are expected to move across the country for the celebration, which authorities fear could cause superspreader events.
However, senior official at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, Dr Feng Zijian, has pushed back against these concerns, claiming the country was unlikely to experience “large-scale spread” of the disease.
“After fighting against COVID-19 for more than a year, we have a better understanding of the virus,” Dr Feng said at a press conference.
The outbreak comes as World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists are set to arrive in China to research the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials will visit Wuhan, where the first infections were discovered, and meet with Chinese scientists to investigate the matter.
WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said information about the investigation would be made public as the scientists report their findings.
“Scientific evidence will drive hypotheses, which will then be the basis for further, longer-term studies,” he said on Monday.
“This is important not just for COVID-19 but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential.”
Last week, Dr Tedros revealed he was “disappointed” to learn the Chinese government had delayed approving the travel of WHO scientists into the country.
“Over the past 24 hours, members of the international scientific team on COVID-19 virus origins began travelling from their home countries to China,” he said during a media briefing.
“This was as per arrangements jointly developed between WHO, the Chinese government, and countries for which the team was meant to travel through on their way to Wuhan.
“Today we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China.
“I am very disappointed with this news given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute.”
Dr Tedros said he had been in contact with Chinese officials over the issue to reiterate the importance of the investigation.
“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment,” he said.
– with AFP