BEIJING — Zhao Renmi awakened to the sound of village officials shouting that everyone had to pack and go, without explanation of where or for how long. Word was spreading of a new COVID-19 outbreak, so she gathered her children and obeyed.
“My heart is really troubled. It’s hard to bear,” said Zhao, a woman with close-cropped hair who lives in rural Hebei, in a video posted this week on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. She was one of about 20,000 residents being evacuated from 12 nearby villages, according to local reports and health officials, as part of China’s crackdown on its largest coronavirus outbreak in months.
More than 500 new cases have been found since Jan. 2 in Hebei, the industrial province surrounding Beijing, sparking a “wartime mode” response from Chinese authorities fearful of the virus spreading before the upcoming Spring Festival, when hundreds of millions of Chinese crisscross the country to go home each year.
The jump in infections comes as a World Health Organization mission investigating the origins of the pandemic is expected to arrive Thursday. An embarrassing glitch occurred last week when Beijing announced on the day several members of the team had already begun their journeys to China that their visas were not approved, prompting a delay — and frustration from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
China has been sensitive to criticism by the U.S. and other countries that it did not do enough to prevent the virus from spreading beyond its borders one year ago. It is unclear what access the WHO team will have in assessing the genesis of the pandemic. Most medical experts believe it was transmitted by an animal in a food market in Wuhan, but others suggest it may have originated in a laboratory.
Dr. Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases specialist based in Singapore and member of an earlier WHO mission to China, told Reuters on Tuesday that expectations were “very low” the medical team would come away with significant answers.
About 18 million residents of Hebei’s capital, Shijiazhuang, and the nearby city of Xingtai have been forbidden to leave, with public transportation halted, mass testing underway and stay-at-home orders enforced in the strictest lockdown since Wuhan was sequestered in early 2020.
In the rural areas around Shijiazhuang where many of the cases in the most recent outbreak were found, villagers have been evacuated. On Douyin, users posted videos of villagers bundled up in winter coats with suitcases, plastic sacks and children in tow, lining up to board red buses headed for quarantine.
Zhao swiveled her camera to show a packed backpack, two fertilizer sacks full of clothes and her children’s things, and steamed buns to eat on the way. “I don’t understand. I feel like a refugee,” she said. “But I guess we obey the nation’s arrangements. If they want us to move, we move.”
Such acceptance of government orders has helped China contain the pandemic and restart its economy far ahead of much of the world. Despite accusations that authorities undercounted cases and mismanaged last year’s initial outbreak, the state’s sweeping restrictions and granular control since then have kept total case counts below 98,000, with 4,793 deaths, as reported by Johns Hopkins University.