China Places Over 9,000 Tourists Into Quarantine After COVID Cases Discovered Nearby

China placed over 9,000 tourists visiting the Gobi Desert into quarantine after COVID-19 cases were discovered in a nearby city. The measure is just one of the latest efforts in the country's zero-tolerence policy for containing COVID outbreaks.

China's approach to containing cases involves strict lockdowns, multiple rounds of mass testing, and centralized quarantine, the Associated Press reports. The restrictions are not widespread but are unpredictable. Unlucky travelers can find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and unable to get home.

Beijing resident Wang Lijie is one of the thousands stuck in quarantine, the AP reported. He's been there more than three weeks after he planned to spend only three days in the Gobi Desert. Wang told AP he has taken 18 COVID tests so far.

"Regardless of the time you sacrificed, or how much money you spent in the face of life, in front of health, those things are not worth mentioning," Wang told the AP. "For everyone's health, for society to be more stable, some people have to make sacrifices."

China has reported about 4,600 COVID deaths, compared to more than 755,00 in the U.S.

The head of China's Center for Disease Control, Gao Fu, recently suggested that the country could open up once it's 85 percent vaccinated. Currently, China says 77 percent of its 1.7 billion people are fully vaccinated and has started giving booster shots.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Beijing China, COVID-19 testing, coronavirus
A worker in protective suits with a loud speaker stands watch as service sector workers wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus line up during a mass COVID-19 testing in Beijing on Oct. 29, 2021. As vaccination rates rise in many parts of of the world and even countries that previously had strict COVID-containment strategies gingerly ease restrictions, China is doubling down on its zero-tolerance policy. Andy Wong/AP Photo

Vaccination rates are on the rise in many parts of the world and even countries that previously had strict COVID-containment strategies gingerly ease restrictions, China is doubling down on its strict regulations.

"The cost is truly rather high, but compared with not managing it, relaxing (the zero-tolerance policy), then that cost is even higher," Zhong Nanshan, a top government doctor, said in a recent TV interview.

Some of the tourists in the Gobi Desert were bused 18 hours to finish their quarantine in another city. People from Beijing have complained online about leaving for a work trip and not being able to return home.

In a sign of the effect the regulations can have even on thriving businesses, the wildly popular hotpot restaurant chain, Haidilao, decided to shutter 300 outlets in part because of the pandemic and is scaling back a plan to add 1,200 new ones. The strain has been particularly felt in places like Ruili, a city in the southwest that has been locked down repeatedly this year.

But for authorities in Beijing, control over the virus has become a point of pride, a potent tool of propaganda — and proof, they say, of a superior form of governance. They often trumpet their success at keeping deaths relatively low, especially in contrast to the United States, whose COVID-19 response the Foreign Ministry spokesman has called a "total failure."

"It's becoming part of the official narrative that promotes that approach and links that to the superiority of the Chinese political system," said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It's impossible to tell how much popular support the policies have since opinion polls are rare and criticism often censored. When Zhang Wenhong, a doctor in Shanghai who has been compared to top American health official Anthony Fauci, briefly raised the prospect of living with the virus, he was shut down by official criticism and a plagiarism investigation.

Wang told the AP he isn't complaining about being stuck in quarantine. He's able to work remotely and has started a vlog of his daily life, interacting with residents of Inner Mongolia online.

China's strategy sets it apart, as many countries shift to trying to live with the virus, especially as it continues to mutate and vaccines cannot fully prevent infection. Most notably, New Zealand, which had long pursued a zero-tolerance approach, announced last month a cautious plan to ease restrictions, despite a simmering outbreak. Australia, Thailand and Singapore — all of which imposed severe travel restrictions for much of the pandemic — have also begun to open their borders.

China, by contrast, slashed the number of international passenger flights allowed into the country by 21 percent last month to 408 flights per week until late March, while increasing the number of cargo flights by 28 percent.

In Singapore, which started allowing quarantine-free entry to fully vaccinated travelers from certain countries, the number of new cases has jumped to thousands a day from less than 100 before. But most are not winding up in the hospital.

"It's just completely unrealistic to think that you can stay at zero," said Dale Fisher, a professor in the National University of Singapore's medical school.

But even if only a small percentage of infected people end up in hospitals, that could be a problem in China, with its huge population — and would be especially complicated for a government that has staked its reputation on keeping numbers very low.

"I think what the government leaders, and scholars and public health officials are worried about (is), even a small opening may lead to bigger outbreaks on a much larger scale," said Huang, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Some of the most dramatic examples of China's policy come from Ruili, which is bordered on three sides by Myanmar and has struggled to keep the virus at bay.

Videos of a 21-month-old boy with round cheeks who has been tested 78 times have circulated widely online. The boy's father declined an interview but confirmed he shot the videos, which have inspired empathy, but have also been used by state media as propaganda to show how tough Chinese citizens are.

One Ruili resident, who gave only his last name Xu, said he's lost count of how many tests he's taken. At the height of one lockdown, community volunteers threatened to fine him when he went to throw out the trash.

To leave the city, he must pay for seven days of hotel quarantine — just go to a town 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The restrictions have devastated his business, which sells jade from Myanmar.

The Ruili government announced in late October that it would give 1,000 yuan (about $150) to residents who had experienced hardship, and that it would allow small- and medium-sized businesses to defer loan payments.

In the Xinjiang region in China's west, Li Hui has been sealed up for about a month in the city of Yili, where a few cases were discovered in early October.

His mother, who lives in a nearby village, twisted her wrist, but initially could not come into the city for treatment because of the restrictions. After much pleading, he got an ambulance to take her to a hospital a week after her injury. He still can't visit her.

"I don't know how long Yili's residents can endure," he said. "I really can't endure it anymore."

China, COVID-19 Testing, Beijing
FILE - In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker collects a swab sample for nucleic acid test in Ruili City of southwest China's Yunnan Province, on July 5, 2021. The border city in Yunnan is perhaps the most extreme version of what happens under China's approach to COVID-19. China is doubling down on the strategy it developed during the first massive outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, which it has strengthened as the pandemic continues, one of strict lockdowns, multiple rounds of mass testing and centralized quarantine. Wang Guansen/Xinhua/AP Photo