China extends lockdowns as COVID-19 cases hit single-day record

BEIJING — Pandemic lockdowns are spreading across China, including in a city where factory workers clashed with police this week as the number of COVID-19 cases hits a single-day record.

Residents in eight districts of Zhengzhou, home to 6.6 million people, were told to stay at home for five days from Thursday except to buy groceries or receive medical treatment. Daily mass testing has been ordered in what the city government has called a “war of annihilation” against the virus.

In clashes Tuesday and Wednesday, Zhengzhou police beat workers protesting a wage dispute at Apple’s largest iPhone factory, located in an industrial area near the city. Foxconn, the Taiwan-based owner of the factory, on Thursday apologized for what it called an “computer system input error” and said it would guarantee pay would be in line with the agreement and official hiring posters.

In the past 24 hours, the number of new COVID cases rose by 31,444, the National Health Commission said on Thursday. This is the highest number of days since the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The daily number of cases has steadily increased. This week, authorities reported China’s first COVID-19 deaths in six months, bringing the total to 5,232.

While the number of cases and deaths is relatively small compared to the US and other countries, China’s ruling Communist Party remains committed to a “zero COVID” strategy aimed at isolating every case and eliminating the virus completely. Most other governments have dropped anti-virus controls and now rely on vaccination and immunity from previous infections to prevent death and serious illness.

Businesses and communities from manufacturing hub Guangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north are in various forms of lockdowns, measures that particularly affect migrant workers. In many cases, residents say the restrictions go beyond what the national government allows.

Guangzhou on Monday suspended access to its Baiyun district of 3.7 million people, while residents in some areas of Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, were told to stay home while mass testing is carried out.

Beijing opened a hospital in an exhibition center. It blocked access to Beijing International Studies University after a virus case was found there. Some shopping malls and office buildings have been closed and access to some apartment complexes has been blocked.

Some of these measures could be at least semi-permanent, with workers erecting a 2-meter-tall fence around the aging, low-rise brick apartment buildings in Beijing’s Hongmiao Beili community.

Half a dozen people in hazmat suits manned the entrance to an alleyway that ran through the community, standing behind waist-high steel barriers normally used for crowd control.

Authorities had announced measures to try to reduce disruption from pandemic controls by shortening quarantines and making other changes. Some Chinese have taken to social media to express their frustration and confusion at the apparent political flip-flops.

While China’s borders remain largely closed, the government has “streamlined and eased the exit and entry process for executives and professionals of multinational companies and foreign companies and their family members in China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a daily news briefing Thursday.

Mao said China will continue to improve various COVID protocols “according to the science-based and purposeful principles” to facilitate travel, cooperation and exchanges with other countries.

A key issue is concern about how vulnerable people are to the virus. Few Chinese have contracted or even been exposed to COVID, so it is believed that only a small percentage have developed effective antibodies against the virus.

China has an overall coronavirus vaccination rate of more than 92%, with most people having received at least one dose. But far fewer elderly Chinese – particularly those over 80 – have received the shots.

The government is attempting to contain the recent wave of outbreaks without shutting down factories and the rest of its economy like it did in early 2020. One tactic is to use “closed-loop management” where workers live in their factories incommunicado.

Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of smartphones and other electronics, is struggling to fill iPhone 14 orders after thousands of workers walked out of the Zhengzhou factory last month after complaining about unsafe working conditions.

The protests on Tuesday and Wednesday were fueled by disagreements over the pay of workers who were recruited to replace those who left. The workers fought with the police and some were beaten. Some were arrested.

Foxconn denied that it was online comments that employees with the virus were living in dormitories at the Zhengzhou factory. The facilities were disinfected and inspected by the government before staff moved in.

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