China reports first two COVID-19 deaths in more than a year

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China reported its first two COVID-19 deaths in more than a year on Saturday, the National Health Commission said, both coming in the northeastern province of Jilin as the country faces its worst case upsurge since the pandemic’s outset.

The fatalities were the first reported in China since January 26, 2021, and bring the country’s total death toll in the pandemic to 4,638.

In all, China reported 4,051 new cases on Saturday, down from 4,365 the day before, the commission said.

The country where the virus emerged in late 2019 has largely kept it under control thanks to a combination of strict border controls, lengthy quarantines and targeted lockdowns.

But the highly transmissible Omicron variant is posing a stern challenge to that strategy, prompting authorities to close off cities including the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, home to 17.5 million people.

The world’s most populous country has gone from reporting under 100 daily infections just three weeks ago to well more than 1,000 per day for over a week.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Thursday the country will “stick with” its zero-COVID strategy, state TV reported.

Speaking at a meeting of China’s top leaders, Xi said the country should “continue to put people and life at the forefront, stick with scientific accuracy and dynamic-zero, and curb the spread of the epidemic as soon as possible,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Tens of millions of people are currently under stay at home orders across China to try and stamp out the latest outbreak.

Beijing’s communist leadership has made its handling of the pandemic a matter of political capital, saying the low death rate demonstrates the strength of its governance model.

Racing to tamp down outbreaks in multiple cities, Chinese officials have also moved to free up hospital beds over fears the virus could put the health system under strain.

Jilin province — which has reported thousands of cases over the past week — has built eight “makeshift hospitals” and two quarantine centres to stem the surge in infections.

State news outlets this week broadcast footage of dozens of giant cranes assembling temporary medical facilities in Jilin, which has only around 23,000 hospital beds for some 24 million residents.

Authorities also said people with mild cases could isolate at central quarantine facilities, having previously sent all patients with any symptoms to specialist hospitals.

The latest flare-ups have prompted long queues to form outside mass testing sites and seen tight controls at ports, raising fears of trade disruption.

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