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A child receives a vaccine at a school in Handan, in China's northern Hebi province on October 27, 2021, after the city began vaccinating children between the ages of 3 to 11. Image Credit: AFP

Beijing: More provinces in China are fighting COVID-19 than at any time since the deadly pathogen first emerged in Wuhan in 2019.

The highly-infectious Delta variant is hurtling across the country despite the increasingly aggressive measures that local officials have enacted in a bid to thwart it. Local infections have been found in 19 of 31 provinces in the world’s second-largest economy.

China reported 93 new local cases on Wednesday, and 11 asymptomatic infections. Three more provinces detected cases: central Chongqing and Henan, and Jiangsu on the eastern coast.

Officials in China say they are committed to maintaining a so-called COVID Zero approach despite the flare-ups that are coming faster, spreading further and evading many of the measures that previously controlled it. The severe responses needed to eradicate the Delta variant have led several other countries with zero-tolerance practices, including Singapore and Australia, to shift focus and instead rely on high vaccination rates to live with the virus as endemic.

Beijing reported nine infections on Wednesday, including one that was earlier reported as asymptomatic. The capital city’s total case count in the current wave now stands at 38, the highest since a pre-delta outbreak last January and February.

Government officials quarantined kids in two schools after a teacher was found to be infected. Another 16 were shut since their staff members might have been present at the vaccination venue where the infected teacher recently received a booster shot.

The Ministry of Commerce urged residents on Tuesday to stock up on necessities for the fall and winter to be prepared for future outbreaks that could trigger hardcore lockdowns.

Testing at Disney

Chongqing, a municipality new to the latest outbreak, initiated mass testing overnight as officials aim to act decisively during the “golden 24 hours” after the virus is first detected. Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, has halted schools effectively on Wednesday for at least three days as students turn to online classes.

China could go much further in its bid to eradicate COVID-19. Shanghai Disneyland on Sunday tested more than 30,000 people, keeping visitors at the park until nearly midnight, after one infected person was found to have been there. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of residents in the remote southeastern city of Ruili on the border with high-risk Myanmar have been banned from leaving for months.

China’s top health expert, Zhong Nanshan, is confident the country can contain the outbreak in a month’s time, according to an interview with state media CGTN.

Long lines at supermarkets

Despite the global trend of countries learning to coexist with the virus, Zhong, who helped the government quell many outbreaks since the pandemic began, defended China’s Covid Zero approach. While the restrictions necessary to control the virus are costly, opening up the country and allowing the pathogen to spread would exact an even steeper price, he said.

Meanwhile, Beijing shoppers stocked up on cabbage, rice and flour for the winter on Wednesday, after the government urged people to keep stores of basic goods in case of emergencies, though it assured them there were sufficient supplies after some panic buying.

China’s Ministry of Commerce published a seasonal notice on Monday encouraging authorities to do a good job in ensuring food supplies and stable prices ahead of winter, following a recent spike in the prices of vegetables and a growing outbreak of COVID-19.

But the ministry’s advice to households to also stock up on daily necessities in case of emergencies prompted significant confusion, sending some rushing to supermarkets to purchase extra supplies of cooking oil and rice.

“It’s going to be a cold winter, we want to make sure we have enough to eat,” said one woman loading rice onto a bicycle outside a supermarket in central Beijing.

A long line formed at the supermarket’s cabbage stall, as people bought supplies of the vegetable that is traditionally stored at home and consumed over the winter months.

State media has sought to reassure the public that there are plentiful supplies of basic goods.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Tuesday that there had been some “over-interpretation” of the ministry’s advice.

“Currently, the supply of daily necessities in various places is sufficient, and the supply should be fully guaranteed,” it quoted Zhu Xiaoliang, director of the ministry’s Department of Consumption Promotion, as saying.

Some cities including Tianjin in the north and Wuhan further south have released winter vegetables from stockpiles for sale at lower prices in supermarkets.

But some panic buying appeared to continue on Wednesday, with several people complaining online of empty supermarket shelves, attributed largely to a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

China reported its highest number of new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in almost three months on Wednesday, including nine new infections in Beijing, the biggest one-day increase in the capital this year.

“Even bulk rice has been stripped off,” said a resident in the southern city of Nanjing, writing on China’s microblog Weibo.