To date, more than 1,600 symptomatic infections have been reported in the city. While the number pales in comparison to those in many other countries, the outbreak pushed China’s caseload in the final week of 2021 to the highest level since March 2020.
For 12 days and counting, Xi’an’s 13 million residents have been confined to their homes. The city, formerly a tourist hotspot, welcomed the new year with deserted streets, shuttered stores, sealed-off residential compounds and an empty airport.
But it is also among the most chaotic, leaving residents short of food and other essential supplies and affecting access to medical services.
A groundswell of anger and frustration at the local government has ensued, underscoring the growing challenge facing China’s zero-Covid policy, which relies on a playbook of mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the virus.
For almost two years, these stringent measures have shielded the majority of the country from the worst aspects of the pandemic, winning overwhelming public support. But as local outbreaks continue to flare up, the outcry in Xi’an raises the question of just how long zero-Covid can be sustained before public support begins to taper off, with millions of residents trapped in an seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns.
Over the past week, Chinese social media was inundated with cries for help and criticism over perceived incompetence of the local Xi’an government. Last week, residents flooded a livestream of a government Covid news conference with demands for groceries — prompting embarrassed officials to disable all comments.
Despite some censorship, the issue has continued to gain traction. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, the hashtag “Grocery shopping in Xi’an is difficult” has been viewed 380 million times as of Monday.
In the first few days of the lockdown, each household was allowed to send one designated person out to buy groceries every two days. But as cases continued to rise, Xi’an further tightened lockdown measures, requiring all residents to stay at home unless permitted to go outside for mass testing.
“Previously I thought those panic buying folks were stupid. Now I’ve realized I am the stupid one,” said a comment on Weibo.
Meanwhile, the heavy-handed approach adopted in some areas to enforce the lockdown has fueled further outrage.
For some, the cost of the lockdown was just too high. Last week, state media reported on two incidents of individuals going to extreme lengths to escape from Xi’an before restrictions kicked in.
A man trekked for 100 kilometers (62 miles) across the Qinling mountain range from the Xi’an airport, avoiding multiple village checkpoints on the way before he was finally spotted and taken into quarantine on December 24, eight days into his journey, according to a statement from the Ningshan county police.
In the other incident, a man cycled for 10 hours overnight in close to freezing temperatures in an attempt to return to his hometown, after he learned Xi’an would be locked down the next day. He was taken into quarantine and fined 200 yuan, according to a statement from the Chunhua county police.
Despite the difficulties, Xi’an officials have repeatedly pledged their resolve to contain the outbreak in public.
The harsh lockdown measures appear to be working. On Sunday, Xi’an’s daily case count dropped for the first time in more than a week to 122, followed by Monday’s 90 cases.
If the trend continues, it will likely be only a matter of weeks before Xi’an successfully contains its outbreak as other cities have in the past. But it won’t be the last time the coronavirus — and the stringent response to eradicate it — causes significant disruption to daily life and the local economy.
For now, it’s a zero-Covid goal that China seems determined to achieve — even if it pushes public patience to the limit.