China is scrambling to contain COVID outbreaks in tourism hubs of Tibet and Hainan

People stand at a nucleic acid testing site in Sanya, Hainan province, China, 6 August 2022 amid lockdown measures to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). China Daily via REUTERS

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  • Tibet is facing an accumulation after more than 900 days with almost zero patients
  • Millions of people are under lockdown in Hainan, including some tourists
  • Omicron sub-variants test China’s “dynamic COVID-zero” policy

SHANGHAI/BEJING, Aug 9 (Reuters) – China on Tuesday sped to stamp out COVID-19 outbreaks in tourist hubs Tibet and Hainan, with authorities launching further rounds of mass testing and closing venues to contain the highly transmissible Omicron variant .

Mainland China reported 828 new domestically transmitted cases in more than a dozen provinces and regions as of Aug. 8, including more than half in Hainan, a popular tourist destination, official data showed on Tuesday.

Tibet, which had reported only one symptomatic case since the pandemic began more than two years ago, has also reported cases.

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Parts of Tibet conducted mass testing for COVID-19 on Tuesday, including the two largest cities of Lhasa and Shigatse, where local authorities suspended major events, shut down entertainment and religious facilities and shut down some tourist attractions including the Potala Palace.

Tibetan authorities reported 1 local patient with confirmed symptoms and 21 local asymptomatic infections on August 8. Although the number of cases was very small compared to other parts of China and around the world, the rare infections struck a chord with some residents.

“Although my life and work are not affected much and Lhasa took action very quickly, I was still quite shocked since Tibet has been COVID-free for about 920 days,” said Yungchen, a 26-year-old Lhasa resident who became instructed by their employer to work from home.

“I was a bit worried because we don’t know when and where the infected contracted the virus,” she told Reuters, preferring not to give her full name.

Yungchen said she doesn’t expect a months-long Shanghai-style lockdown in Lhasa but still bought rice and cooking oil. She bought enough to last four to five days in case she can’t eat out when COVID restrictions tighten.

Shigatse, the gateway town to the Everest region in Tibet, has declared a three-day “silence period” during which people are forbidden to enter or exit and many businesses are closed. Continue reading

Both Lhasa and Shigatse conducted a new round of mass testing and the second round will start on Wednesday, state television said Tuesday.

In Tibet’s western Ngari Prefecture, a sparsely populated region that has drawn many pilgrims to Mount Kailash, three cities have launched three rounds of mass tests while the rest have begun their first, state television said.

TOURISM CENTERS

Omicron subvariants challenge China’s strategy of rapidly blocking the spread of any emerging cluster.

Tibet and Hainan, which have had relatively few cases for more than two years, now face the risk of continued tight restrictions as the economy weakens. Their tourism-dependent economies could be particularly vulnerable if the outbreaks last longer.

In 2019, Tibet welcomed a record 39.6 million domestic tourists, drawn by its pristine natural scenery and promise of adventure travel. That was comparable to the UK’s 40.9 million international tourist arrivals that year.

In tropical Hainan, millions of residents across multiple cities and towns are under lockdown, only being allowed out for necessary reasons such as COVID testing, grocery shopping and important job roles.

Dongfang, a city of over 400,000 people, entered a three-day lockdown from Tuesday. The provincial capital of Haikou lifted its hour-long lockdown on Monday.

According to state media reports, around 178,000 tourists are also stranded on the island. Hainan said Tuesday certain tourists would be allowed to leave if they had negative test results.

Provincial authorities must take all measures to achieve “COVID zero at the community level” by Friday if no new cases emerge in communities outside the quarantine zones, the Hainan government said in a statement late Monday.

Hainan’s success in containing smaller clusters in April and July has caused complacency among officials and residents, a provincial health official said.

“We still have many shortcomings and weaknesses in the epidemiological investigation, testing and treatment of COVID,” Zhou Changqiang, the head of the Hainan Health Commission, told state television late Monday.

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Reporting by Roxanne Liu, Ryan Woo and the Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jacqueline Wong

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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