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Despair as China’s closed cities are paying the price of a zero-covid strategy

Strict lockdowns in the Chinese cities of Xi’an and Yuzhou are taking a toll on the population and health care system, residents say, with complaints of food shortages and dangerous delays in accessing medical care.

Xi’an, a city of 13 million, has been under strict lockdown for nearly two weeks, while Yuzhou’s 1.2 million residents have been ordered to stay indoors since Monday night after three asymptomatic cases were discovered. Public transport, use of private motor vehicles and operation of all shops and locations not providing daily necessities have all been suspended.

On China’s tightly controlled and regulated social media platforms, a significant number of residents have posted about their concerns and fears, despite generally widespread support for the authorities’ rapid response to outbreaks.

Local media have reported delays at the cities’ major hospitals, requiring patients to test negative before they can be admitted. A screenshot of a post that went viral before it was taken down claimed that a man and his ailing father were expelled from a hospital in Xi’an because they came from an area identified as being at higher risk. The post said the man’s father had a heart attack but died by the time he was admitted for treatment.

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In another account posted to social media, a woman giving birth lost her baby after being prevented from entering a hospital in Xi’an. In a now-deleted post, a family member described calling emergency services for their aunt on the night of January 1 after she began to feel pain, but the phone rang.

Instead, they sent her to the hospital around 8 p.m., but “the front door security wouldn’t let us in because the result of the nucleic acid test was over four hours ago,” they said.

“While she was waiting outside, I saw the video her husband sent me. She was holding the chair, struggling to sit on it, and her blood was streaming down the chair and her pants.” They said hospital staff saw her and took her to the operating room, but the child died.

A spokeswoman for the state-affiliated women’s federation Shaanxi said they had spoken to authorities about the incident. “They should now be learning about the incident. Since the epidemic in Xi’an is now quite serious, there must be a solution.”

A community volunteer uses a megaphone to remind residents to keep their distance as they queue to collect their daily necessities outside a residential block in Xi’an. Photo: AP

Reports of food shortages in Xi’an are also flourishing on social media, despite promises by authorities to deliver supplies to homes, and claims by neighbors bartering cigarettes and personal belongings for food.

“So far I have only received free vegetables once and one package per household,” says one resident. “The price of food in the city is very high and there is no one to regulate it. There is no pick-up service for the daily necessities and the grocery price is about 100 yuan ($15) before someone takes the order.

The strict rules have also prevented people from coming and going. sixth tone reported Authorities had arrested several people trying to evade the blockades and return to villages without quarantine, including a man who cycled 100 km (60 miles) through mountains, and another who swam across an icy river.

Authorities have admitted there have been problems, including poorly prepared centralized quarantine facilities to which tens of thousands of people have been sent.

Local officials are often punished or fired for alleged errors in preventing outbreaks, including two senior Communist Party officials in Xi’an who were removed from office for “inadequate rigor in preventing and controlling the outbreak”.

On Monday, Xi’an officials said the city had spent about $1 million helping those in need, housing about 200 stranded people in temporary shelters. They also promised to set up hotlines and further emergency services.

Xi’an is the center of the current outbreak, the worst in China since the first months of the pandemic. More than 1,700 cases have been registered in the city since early December — a relatively low number compared to global figures, as China continues to implement its zero-covid strategy that has kept the number of infections at a low level for the past 18 months.

With the Olympics just around the corner and a commitment by the central government to eradicate the virus, local officials have issued increasingly harsh responses, leading to lockdowns reminiscent of Wuhan’s in early 2020. Other urban nodes where clusters have been detected are also now facing restrictions, including another partial closure in Zhengzhou city due to the discovery of four cases.

On Tuesday, China reported 41 new symptomatic cases in the community, including 35 in Xi’an. On Wednesday, officials said the city’s outbreak was largely “brought under control” after the lockdown.

Ma Guanghui, deputy director of Shaanxi’s health commission, told a news conference that the outbreak was “trending downward”.

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu and agencies