Chinese authorities are struggling to keep the country’s coronavirus-free status mostly intact, but a new outbreak has left more than 22 million people under lockdown. The outbreak is concentrated in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing. Shijiazhuang is a critical transport and manufacturing hub for the region. As a result of its close proximity to the outbreak, parts of the capital are now under lockdown too.

The Chinese authorities are carrying out mass-scale nucleic acid tests and appealing to citizens not to travel ahead of the Chinese New Year (CNY) holidays in February. The Lunar New Year- the most important annual festival for Chinese families, is approaching on February 12, when the country sees the world’s largest annual human migration in the days before the up-coming Lunar New Year.

Last year, the coronavirus erupted just before the holidays. In order to ensure that people don’t have to spend another festival week in lockdown, crushing the outbreak now is critical, both for China’s own public relations and for the benefit of their economy, as the Lunar New Year is a big spending week.

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Several provinces and cities across China have put in place travel restrictions as health authorities work overtime to contact-trace and isolate suspected cases who have travelled out from the locked down regions.

The Chinese government has also urged employers to be flexible about this year’s holiday break. “In a bid to prevent transmission and control the pandemic, we encourage companies and enterprises to make flexible arrangements for the holiday and guide employees to spend the vacation in the area where they work,” the State Council said in a notice last week.

In the latest outbreak in the Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, more than 230 cases have been reported since the beginning of January, the biggest spike in infections in recent months. This has led to Shijiazhuang being locked down and authorities have ordered a mass testing of its residents.

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