Chinese Covid outbreak is familiar fear ahead of New Year celebrations

The recent outbreak strikes a depressingly familiar chord to this time last year when it was also on the eve of Chinese New Year that the spread of a mysterious flu-like virus in Wuhan caught authorities' attention. Credit: AP

Almost 30 million people are in lockdown in China, a lockdown that confines them to their homes.

It is in response to what appears to be the winter wave of Covid-19 infections the Chinese government thought they had managed to thwart.

The millions forced to isolate (for an indefinite period of time) is in response to less than 1,000 (885) new locally transmitted cases.

In recent months, China has been mostly recording only imported cases, people who have tested positive in quarantine after arriving off an international flight.

It is in Hebei Province where the numbers have been rising fast and it is there where the Chinese authorities reported the first Covid-19 death since July.

A woman with underlying health conditions who tested positive on January 9 died on Wednesday.

Hebei is therefore the province giving most cause for concern, not least because it surrounds Beijing.

All of this strikes a depressingly familiar chord to this time last year when it was also on the eve of Chinese New Year that the outbreak of a mysterious flu-like virus in Wuhan was suddenly recognised for the severity it had.

Masks worn in Beijing, where authorities are leaving little to chance. Credit: AP

Already major cities such as Shanghai, despite having no new cases, have enforced strict entry and exit rules, requiring those travelling from any provinces affected by this outbreak to centrally quarantine for two weeks and to take two Covid tests before they are allowed out into society.

With the lunar new year starting on February 12, Chinese families would usually be starting to think about heading to their home towns and villages to be with their relatives for the festive period.

A majority of people live and work in a different part of the country to where their parents, and often their children, reside.

The government has asked people once again not to travel for this important celebration, meaning many Chinese families will have now been apart for more than 12 months.

All of this comes as an investigation team from the World Health Organisation finally arrived in China to begin working with local scientists to establish how this pandemic began.

Members of a WHO team arrives in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday. Credit: AP

The team from 10 different countries, including the UK, flew into Wuhan from Singapore on Thursday morning and will have to undergo two weeks of quarantine before being allowed to conduct on-site investigations.

We are told during those two weeks they will be holding video conferences with Chinese teams and it is still unclear what access they will be given to the market - described as ground zero of the pandemic - to the lab some have accused of leaking the virus, and to vital medical records that could help establish exactly when the first patients presented.

The Chinese government has promised transparency, claiming it has been open and cooperative since the beginning. But the six months it took for this visit to happen and attempts in that time to suggest the virus did not originate in China have cast some doubt about what, who and where the WHO team will get to see.