The place where the coronavirus crisis began — China — is back in the spotlight, with a cluster of locally transmitted cases in the northeast and the Lunar New Year prompting the communist government to crack down on travel.
While some new measures resemble those in the U.S., including canceled concerts and pleas to stay put over the holidays, officials ordered civil servants in Beijing to remain in the city from Jan. 1 through the Lunar New Year that begins Feb. 12.
Travel restrictions are notable because the Lunar New Year usually marks one of the world’s largest migrations of people, as Chinese families gather for reunion dinners in the country of more than 1 billion people.
Authorities also want to vaccinate 50 million people before the traditional holiday — it was upended by the nascent pandemic last year — as part of its bid to avoid a large outbreak after using draconian lockdowns and wide-scale testing to stiff-arm the virus and largely return to normal life this year.
The coronavirus devastated the Hubei province housing Wuhan one year ago, prompting global headlines in January about a mysterious new virus that was flooding hospitals and putting people on ventilators.
It spread out to South Korea, Italy and eventually the entire globe. China was faulted for its early secrecy about the pathogen — President Trump still refers to it as the “China virus” — and crackdown on whistle-blowers.
The country is still trying to control the narrative. A Shanghai court sentenced a 37-year-old independent journalist, Zhang Zhan, to four years in prison on Monday for reporting on the true extent of the early outbreak in Wuhan. Her lawyer told American news outlets she was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Other parts of the world are concerned about transmission that far exceeds what has been reported in China.
In Europe, German officials said a lockdown that spanned the winter holidays likely will continue beyond Jan. 10 instead of expiring. The nation’s daily death toll remains high and nearly hit 1,000 on Dec. 22.
Schools in the Netherlands, meanwhile, are closed until Jan. 15 in a bid to control a surge in transmission.
Indonesia is banning foreign visitors for 14 days, starting Jan. 1, to fend off the new variant, while Saudi Arabia extended its ban on international visitors for another week.
Japan banned foreign nationals from entry, starting Monday, after it discovered the more transmissible U.K. variant within its borders. Also Monday, the government said it detected one case of another variant, from South Africa, in a woman in her 30s.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is requiring travelers from the U.K. to test negative test no more than 72 hours before departure.
“I think the Chinese model of violating individual rights is not the model for COVID-19 control,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Widespread testing linked to contact tracing and isolation is the paradigm the world should follow.”
He said “targeted public health interventions” — not blanket or blunt ones — that are sustainable and recognize that certain aspects of human productivity must continue should be the default.
The U.S. is relying on basic mitigation measures such as mask-wearing and physical distancing while governors impose a patchwork of economic restrictions to try to thwart the virus.
Daily reported cases have decreased to about 188,000 compared to 216,000 one week ago, according to a seven-day average from The New York Times.
More than 118,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, however, and experts are worried about a post-Christmas spike caused by travel and the mixing of households. The U.S. has the world-leading death toll, which now exceeds 330,000 people.
The Johns Hopkins University tracker says China has reported nearly 96,000 cases and about 4,800 deaths, though Mr. Trump and others say that must be an undercount.
Beyond locally transmitted clusters, Beijing detected one imported case in a 39-year-old man who returned from Sweden on Monday, according to state media in the Global Times.
A top Chinese official, Cai Qi, asked Beijing districts to enter “emergency mode” by sealing off sections of the city with infections, according to Reuters. It also said officials began a mass-testing effort of the 800,000 people in Shunyi district, where the latest cases were found.
“Customs movement has been temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 alarm in Beijing and the COVID-19 incident at Beijing customs,” he tweeted over the weekend. “For this reason, the arrival of our vaccines, which are expected to depart after customs procedures, has been delayed for a day or two.”