Tuesday September 21, 2021

China restricts overseas travel to curb Covid outbreak; Macau orders virus testing after first cases in months

August 05, 2021

Hong Kong: Macau ordered compulsory coronavirus testing for all residents on Wednesday after a family of four was found to be carrying the Delta variant, breaking the city’s record of over 16 months virus-free.

Over the next three days authorities plan to test all 680,000 residents at 41 testing centres, the government said. The testing is one of a host of new measures announced after the gambling hub recorded 491 days without a single local infection.

Authorities are investigating whether the daughter of the family contracted the virus on a flight from Zhuhai to Xi’an in mainland China in July, Macau’s leader Ho Iat-seng said on Wednesday.

The same flight carried two other infected people from Nanjing, the centre of a Delta-variant outbreak in China that has led to more than 300 new cases across 15 provinces and cities in two weeks.

Long queues formed on Wednesday morning outside testing centres and the city’s health app crashed, local media reported. Macau has adopted mainland China’s health app, which rates infection risk, tracks movement and generates test and vaccination records.

"I have to say sorry to all residents," Ho told reporters. Macau has kept infections low by closing itself off from the rest of the world for much of the pandemic and placing restrictions on arrivals from mainland China. It has recorded only 60 cases and no deaths.

But the zero-Covid strategy has come with deep economic costs for the only place in China where gambling is allowed. Macau’s casinos account for about 80 percent of government revenue.

The city ordered a shutdown of all casinos for two weeks when the virus was first detected last year, causing a loss of $937 million, according to an estimate by the University of Macau. Revenues have climbed this year as some of the border restrictions with mainland China were relaxed but they remain well below pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, China on Wednesday tightened overseas travel restrictions for its citizens as part of efforts to contain rising coronavirus cases, after reporting its highest number of infections in months.

The movement of people is coming under more restriction inside China - with localised transport closures and stay-at-home orders in places in some cities - and beyond China’s borders.

China had previously boasted of its success in crushing Covid-19, with hard lockdowns in the early stages mixed with tight controls of its borders, but mass testing campaigns have uncovered Delta variant infections across the country.

The latest outbreak is threatening to undo the country’s economic rebound and return to normal life with nearly 500 domestic cases reported since mid-July.

Local governments have tested entire cities and locked down millions, with the official figures on Wednesday revealing 71 new infections -- the most since January, but still a low caseload despite the outbreak spreading to dozens of cities.

The outbreak, which began when an infection among passengers on a flight from Moscow spread to airport cleaners in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, has exposed weaknesses in the country’s already strict border containment measures.

China’s immigration authority on Wednesday announced it would stop issuing ordinary passports and other documents needed for exiting the country in "non-essential and non-emergency" cases.

That does not yet mean a blanket overseas travel ban for the Chinese public. Immigration official Liu Haitao told a press briefing that those who "have real needs for studying abroad, employment and business" will still have their documents issued upon verification.

Foreign crews on hundreds of ships have been stopped from disembarking and changing shifts at Chinese ports. The central government has also ordered localities to cut off public transport and taxis in and out of areas hit by the outbreak, the transport ministry said at the same press conference.

Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in 2019, reported its first local infections in over a year this week and said Tuesday it was "swiftly launching" testing of all 11 million residents.

Long lines of residents waited at outdoor testing stations in the summer heat Tuesday, fanning themselves with paper forms while workers in hazmat suits took throat samples. In Beijing, where the city government reported three new virus cases on Wednesday, authorities blocked entrances to a compound where one of the patients lived, while residents reached over fences to receive parcels from delivery drivers.

Nanjing has tested its 9.2 million residents three times after shutting down gyms and cinemas and closing off residential compounds. And the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie in central Hunan province, where infected travellers who had been in Nanjing attended a theatre performance, abruptly announced Tuesday that no one would be allowed to exit the city after it emerged as an infection hotspot.

Meanwhile, Shanghai is investigating a Delta case detected in an airport worker this week. Authorities said on Wednesday the infection was not linked to other domestic cases and that they suspected the worker had been exposed after removing protective equipment while in a "contaminated area".

In a related development, Indonesia’s coronavirus death toll topped 100,000 on Wednesday as the country struggles to control the spread of the Delta variant. Southeast Asia’s biggest economy has now detected Delta in dozens of regions since it was first found in the archipelago in June.

Scores of Indonesians are dying at home, unable to access hospital care or medical oxygen supplies as health care facilities are stretched to the limit. More than 3.5 million infections have been recorded to date though official figures are widely believed to be an underestimate. "The deaths happened... mainly because of lateness to recognise the severity of the symptoms and to refer patients," said Covid-19 taskforce spokeswoman Siti Nadia Tarmizi.

Indonesia reported 1,747 new deaths on Wednesday, bringing its total to 100,636. LaporCovid, an NGO that has developed a citizen reporting platform for Covid-19 data, said more than 2,600 patients died at home between the beginning of June and July 24. Indonesia announced stricter restrictions on July 3 and has extended the policy twice in areas where infection numbers and hospital bed occupancy rates are high. Offices, shopping malls and schools are closed while dining in at restaurants is limited to 20 minutes.

The curbs have started to take a toll on the country’s economy which entered a recession at the end of last year for the first time since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. "Financially, it really affects me. I have very few customers because people don’t go to the office," Dicky, a ride-hailing driver who like many Indonesians goes by just one name, told AFP.

The country aims to vaccinate 208 million of its 270 million citizens but the vaccination rate remains far below the government’s one-million-a-day target. Only about eight percent of the population have been fully inoculated.