SHANGHAI: China is using localised tactics to battle a wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, an approach that avoids the sort of widespread shutdowns that devastated the economy last year but is also sowing uncertainty ahead of the Chinese New Year travel season.
In the province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing and has seen hundreds of infections in the last two weeks, officials were told in a Monday (Jan 18) meeting to adhere to the principle of "one village, one policy" and draw up individual plans for each community.
After keeping confirmed new COVID-19 infections to just a handful a day for months, China has seen a spike in cases since the beginning of the year, with more than 100 a day recently, raising fears of a large-scale outbreak.
Addressing new clusters in Hebei and elsewhere, the National Health Commission (NHC) said last week that local officials needed to be on their guard and avoid "one size fits all" solutions.
Beijing, for example, has left it to provincial authorities and employers to urge or incentivise people not to travel during the upcoming holiday, which begins on Feb 12 and is usually the busiest travel time of the year.
More than 20 provincial-level regions have asked people to stay put during the holiday but stopped short of bans, to the frustration of would-be travellers.
"I originally wanted to book my ticket on Jan 25 but I was informed by my hometown community that they didn't know what will happen several days later and they couldn't 100 per cent guarantee that I could go back without the need of quarantine," said a user of the Weibo social media platform who goes by the name Yijin Jiajin.
Rules and guidelines vary and frequently shift, even within cities, creating uncertainty.
Though they have been urged not to act excessively, local governments in the worst-hit regions have introduced often draconian measures to shut COVID-19 transmission routes.
"The specifics of restrictions are left to the local officials to flesh out, which means that if anything goes wrong, they will bear the brunt of the people's and the central government's wrath," said Yifei Li, a professor at New York University Shanghai who studies China's environmental and public health policies.
DON'T CALL IT A LOCKDOWN
On Tuesday, Qiqihar in northeastern Heilongjiang province became the latest city to order some residents to stay indoors.
In Beijing, some residential compounds were also sealed off.
About 30 million people in the north and northeast are now under various types of curfew, though cities appear to be avoiding the word "lockdown", or "fengcheng" in Chinese, which was widely used to describe measures to respond to the outbreak last year in Wuhan and its surroundings, where the virus emerged in late 2019.
In the absence of central directives, cities and local government bureaus have published dozens of rules in recent days on controlling the outbreak over the holiday.
Though there have been no new recent local cases in Shanghai, many residential buildings have tightened entry restrictions for couriers and rebuilt the control stations that were in place outside every compound early last year.
READ: China locks down another 3 million after travelling salesman spreads coronavirus
Hebei has introduced the toughest measures, including bans on weddings and funerals, but it also ordered grassroots officials to refrain from the sorts of crude village blockades seen last year. Any attempt to seal off national roads, erect barricades or dig trenches would be punished, the provincial government said on Tuesday.
"I am not sure we can fault local officials for being overly cautious. The real problem seems to be that they're being unpredictable," said Li.