This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
As the ruling Chinese Communist Party increasingly claims victory over the coronavirus epidemic in mainland China, residents of the central province of Henan say there has been a local outbreak of COVID-19 in Jia county.
County authorities imposed travel restrictions on Wednesday after lockdowns in neighboring Hubei province eased, according to an official document seen by RFA.
Non-essential travel remains banned between villages and communities, with anyone coming in and out of villages and residential compounds required to wear a face mask, take a body temperature check and show a health certificate, the document said.
All businesses remained closed with the exception of supermarkets and farmers’ markets.
Curfew-like measures came into effect on Tuesday, with some 600,000 people told to stay home, the county government’s Weibo account said.
Officials have been telling people to stock up on daily necessities and get ready for another lockdown since Tuesday, one resident said.
“Everything’s locked down; it just started,” the resident said. “All households are locked down. Nobody can go into town, or if you do, you won’t be able to leave again.”
The lockdown came after a fresh cluster of coronavirus cases was reported among medical staff at Jia County People’s Hospital, one of whom had been in 14 day quarantine after returning from Wuhan.
Testing remains limited to those on an official list, however, according to a staff member at the hospital’s testing division.
“Not just anyone can come; you have to be on a special list,” the employee said. “You can only get it done with official approval from higher up, when we get notification from them.”
“Nobody’s getting tested if they’re not on the list.”
The hospital is carrying out “several hundred” tests a day, the staff member said, adding that this was an estimate.
“We are all working overtime here in the testing division, anyway.”
All three doctors were asymptomatic but a nucleic acid test showed a positive result in all three cases. They had had close contact with 53 people in recent days, all of whom are currently under observation.
Concerns over the continued spread of coronavirus by asymptomatic carriers are running high in China, as the authorities try to convince people that it’s safe to end the lockdowns and return to work.
A cleaner who had eaten and shared a vehicle with one of the doctors remains under isolation.
The renewed lockdown came as China reported a decline in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The National Health Commission claims that the majority of newly confirmed cases are now imported from overseas.
A Henan resident surnamed Hong said the county is just two hours away from Zhengzhou, a national railway hub with connections to just about everywhere else in China.
“[The route goes] Zhumadian, Xuchang, Luoyang, then Xuchang via Pingdingshan [near Jia county],” Hong said. “After Xuchang, the next stop is Zhengzhou. It takes about two hours.”
“Zhengzhou is the economic center of the whole province, and an important transportation hub with routes radiating out to all parts of China,” he said.
He said the authorities had clearly started to relax after President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking officials claimed the epidemic was “basically under control” in central China.
“Many people believe that the epidemic has been brought under control due to government propaganda, which is false,” he said.
“Basically life has gone back to the way it used to be, just with some people still choosing to wear face masks on the streets,” he said. “But some people stopped wearing masks too, so this news is a good thing, because it will keep people on the alert.”
Chen Bingzhong, former director of the China Institute of Health Education under the ministry of health, said the government’s claim that around 1,000 asymptomatic cases have been recorded is highly dubious.
Zhong Nanshan, top epidemiologist and coronavirus epidemic adviser to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, has claimed that the proportion of asymptomatic cases has been very low.
“Zhong Nanshan believes that the proportion of asymptomatic people is very low,” Chen said. “This is wrong, but how do we prove it?”
“The most reliable way to achieve early detection is a nucleic acid test, but are these tests 100 percent reliable? No, they’re not, but they’re the most reliable method we have right now,” he said.
He said the authorities fear that the more people they report as infected, the more people will hold them to account.
“It’ll get to the point where they lose legitimacy, because they just try to cover everything up and pass the buck,” he said. “They are doing this to cling onto power.”
According to official figures, 55 new cases of asymptomatic infections were reported on Thursday, while 1,075 people were under medical observation.
However, China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths from the disease, according to a report submitted by the the U.S. intelligence community to the White House, Bloomberg reported.
The report found that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete.
China has publicly reported only about 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That compares to more than 189,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths in the U.S., which has the largest publicly reported outbreak in the world.