China eases lockdown of Hubei province as coronavirus infections subside

As of midnight, outbound travel will resume everywhere in the Chinese province except for Wuhan city

Residents cheering as members of a medical assistance team depart Hubei
Residents cheering as members of a medical assistance team depart Hubei Credit: Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese health authorities announced Tuesday the easing of lockdowns in Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus pandemic emerged late last year, even as other parts of the country ramped up curbs to defend against imported infections. 

As of midnight, outbound travel will resume for Hubei, except Wuhan city, where restrictions will lift on April 8, the local health commission said. Wuhan has been in total lockdown since Jan 23.

Migrant labourers leaving the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, will also be required to undergo nucleic acid tests before being allowed to leave on government-arranged transport, authorities said. 

The government has not clarified if the latest directive supersedes previous announcements allowing non-Hubei residents to apply for permission to leave after being tested for the coronavirus.

Reversing the lockdown is boosting optimism that the worst is over in China, though concerns persist that figures reported by authorities may not accurately reflect the outbreak. 

Chinese health officials are not counting asymptomatic patients who test positive, nor those discharged from hospital with follow-up results that continue to confirm a coronavirus infection. 

Employees eating during lunch break at an auto plant of Dongfeng Honda in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province Credit: Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

A picture circulated online of a Wuhan housing compound notice informing residents that two new cases had been found, dated March 20 – a day when the government reported zero cases in the city. 

Local authorities later said the two cases had been confirmed previously, though China’s poor track record with transparency and bungled initial response – including the silencing of whistleblowers – continues to seed doubt in the numbers both at home and abroad. 

Infection figures also only began to subside a few weeks ago after China changed how it would count cases. 

Risks of a second outbreak remain as imported infections continue to tick upward, many of which are Chinese nationals fleeing virus-hit countries. 

China’s national health commission reported 78 new infections on Monday, roughly double the cases a day prior. Most were imported illnesses, with only four local transmissions, including one in Wuhan.  Across the country, there are now 427 imported coronavirus cases, and at least three infected locally via a traveller coming from abroad.

President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan  Credit: Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP

Authorities are ramping up measures on international arrivals, with Beijing authorities saying Tuesday that those entering the city will be subject to centralised quarantine and health checks. Prior to this, some were allowed to self-isolate.  The southern city of Shenzhen is now testing all arrivals, and Macau, a Chinese territory and gambling hub, has banned visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; foreigners were already barred from entering.

China is also turning to mobile apps in a big data experiment to determine people’s health risk profiles, programmes that indicate whether people should be quarantined, or permitted to enter restaurants, office buildings, neighbourhoods, shops, and other public areas. 

One system is linked to the country’s top state-owned telecoms, which appears to track people’s movements via their sim card. Users are required to scan a QR code specific to their mobile carrier and enter their phone number, which then generates confirmation of travel in the last 14 days. 

Another "health code" program in use is linked to different platforms including Alipay, one of China’s top digital wallets, and requires registration of personal details before spitting out a green, yellow or red code.

Green indicates a clean bill of health and allows the holder the greatest freedom of movement; yellow, in theory, should turn green after a seven-day quarantine period; and red requires holders to report to the authorities and quarantine for two weeks, depending on local policies. 

Staff members line up at attention as they prepare to spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station Credit: Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Those in Hubei seeking to travel out as restrictions lift, for instance, must have a green health tracking code.

The coloured health code program began as a local government initiative – with the help of Ant Financial, a sister company of Chinese tech giant Alibaba – that debuted in Hangzhou, where the two firms are headquartered and also the capital of Zhejiang province, among the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Both programmes are being rolled out nationwide as China moves containment measures from analog methods to digital ones.

When the coronavirus first erupted in the country, the epidemic seemed to push the limits of China’s mass surveillance systems – facial recognition, for instance, floundered against face masks.

Officials casting around for ways to mass monitor the population turned to old-fashioned human enforcement, mobilising Mao-era grid policing in residential communities to make sure people were staying at home. Entering public areas meant writing down personal details on paper – name, identification numbers, purpose of visit, body temperature, details about recent travel. 

Chinese tech companies and the government have mobilised quickly, and local authorities are beginning to favour the new digital methods – though the paper-based system has yet to be fully phased out. 

But the programmes can be faulty. One person posted online about how he got green and yellow codes in different parts of China, and that it ought to be called “chameleon code.”

Another person wrote that the code started out “grey, and then turned green; within two days, it turned yellow. I have stayed home for almost two months after I came back from Wuhan – how can I have had contact with virus patients?"

There is little transparency, however, about the criteria for classifying people, along with how and what data is collected.

Foreigners living in China are running into trouble using the apps, as many of them only recognise Chinese national identification cards and not passport numbers, which means foreigners can be barred from entering buildings or residential compounds. 

Calls to Ant Financial outside of regular business hours in China requesting comment weren’t immediately returned.

The novel coronavirus epidemic, which originated in China, has infected about 382,000 people worldwide, killing more than 16,600 people.

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong