One year after Wuhan lockdown, China keeps strict border controls to suppress Covid-19

A year after China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, the Covid-19 epidemic has improved dramatically throughout the country.
A year after China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, the Covid-19 epidemic has improved dramatically throughout the country. © Hector Retamal, AFP
Text by: David RICH
5 min

A year after China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, the Covid-19 situation has improved dramatically throughout the country. Nevertheless, Beijing has persisted with strict public health measures, including one of the toughest border control systems in the world.

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On January 3, 2020, the Chinese Communist Party imposed a quarantine on Wuhan, along with several other cities in China’s central Hubei province, to combat the spread of the coronavirus that had emerged there about a month before.

One year on, it is clear that these measures have succeeded: Not a single case of Covid-19 has been reported in the city of 11 million since May, while on a national level, authorities have recorded just one death in the past eight months.

Most Chinese people have thus been able to return to normality. But this is not the case for foreign travellers to China, who must pass through tight sanitary measures.

Beijing closed the country’s borders on March 26 in response to several new cases reaching China from abroad. Authorities since have helped more than 70,000 Chinese people return home – but the country remains largely inaccessible to international visitors.

“Tourist trips are impossible right now,” a representative of the Paris-based China Tourism Agency told FRANCE 24. “We stopped all our operations in response to that announcement in March because the embassy isn’t giving out visas to travel agencies like ours anymore.”

Hugues de Revel, director of the France-China Foundation, which organises meetings between young entrepreneurs to strengthen links between the two countries, recounted similar problems: “The nature of the organisation makes it essential to organise in-person meetings in China, but our requests were unsuccessful,” he told FRANCE 24.

“China is doing everything to discourage travel. Even if we can prove that the trip is absolutely necessary for what we’re doing or that the person concerned is a Chinese resident anyway, there’s no guarantee that it’ll work out,” de Revel added.

A team sent by the World Health Organization (WHO) suffered similar constraints. After months of negotiations with the Chinese government, the WHO’s investigation into the origins of Covid-19 was almost cancelled at the last minute in January because of delays in authorising travel permits.

The effect of strict border controls

The few travellers who are authorised to enter China have to show great patience. In addition to taking a Covid-19 test and receiving a negative result less than 72 hours before a flight, they must follow strict quarantine measures for a period of 14 to 21 days depending on their arrival city in a place designated by local authorities.

“Travellers themselves will have to cover the costs of quarantining in China,” the French foreign ministry warns on its website. “The cost of a 14-day quarantine for several people can be quite high because hotels may require family members to quarantine in different rooms.”

The drastic reduction in international flights is another problem. Beijing only permits Chinese airlines one weekly international flight, which has prompted reciprocal measures from many countries and made travel to China even more difficult.

“The Chinese government has said a lot about wanting to maintain international connections despite the pandemic,” said Antoine Bondaz, an East Asia expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

“But all that is merely cosmetic rhetoric because flights have been reduced so much that it’s nigh on impossible to get there,” Bondaz told FRANCE 24.

But European countries seem to have taken some inspiration from China’s approach. France has required since January 18 that all incoming travellers from outside the EU test negative for the coronavirus and enact a seven-day quarantine. Faced with the threat of more contagious variants that originated in the UK and South Africa, several EU countries want to strengthen border controls in the passport-free Schengen area.

“It’s not just China that has managed the pandemic well through strict border measures; Taiwan and South Korea did extremely well by policing their borders strictly at the start of the pandemic,” Bondaz said. “Their goal has been different from that of European countries: They aimed to suppress the virus on their territory as much as possible, whereas European nations have merely tried to limit its spread to stop hospitals being overwhelmed,” he continued.

De Revel was emphatic in his admiration for the Chinese approach: “I hear from people in China who are saying they’re holding these big events with hundreds of people present – it’s an amazing achievement! And the way the Chinese economy is bouncing back is just incredible; there are plenty of French companies contacting us saying they want to set up there.”

Despite a sharp decline when Covid-19 initially hit in the first quarter of 2020, China’s economic growth remains strong, especially in comparison to Western countries – with GDP expanding by 2.3 percent overall last year according to Beijing’s official figures.

China is also maintaining strict health restrictions within its borders, with thousands of people going back under lockdown in January in response to a cluster of fresh cases north of Beijing.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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