Food shortages, sacked officials: What happened when one Chinese city shut down after a Covid outbreak


Volunteers in protective suits disinfect in a residential area of Tonghua, China on January 24, 2021.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING — One small Chinese city’s rush to control the coronavirus has left some residents without food, and some officials without jobs.

The fallout shows the extreme lengths to which local Chinese authorities will go to try to contain the coronavirus. While new cases in China so far this year remain far below that of other countries, the stringent prevention measures can quickly cause greater disruptions to work and daily life.

After a spike in Covid-19 cases in mid-January, Tonghua city, about a 10 hour drive northeast of Beijing, announced on Wednesday that no one could leave the city. Authorities added that all apartment complexes were essentially locked down.

People stuck at home and with little time to stock up on food turned to smartphone-based delivery apps, but many complained online that they couldn’t get their orders, according to posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

On Saturday, the local Communist Party discipline and inspection commission dismissed three officials for their poor performance in the oversight of the pandemic situation, state media said. Eleven other officials received severe warnings, the report said.

Then on Sunday, Tonghua city apologized to its roughly 500,000 residents for “untimely” delivery of daily necessities and general inconveniences. The city added there was a severe shortage of workers but sufficient food.

More than 11,000 people left mostly angry comments on a national state media post about the apology on Weibo. Some users described how they or neighbors were going hungry and hadn’t received their orders for three or four days.

Many user comments noted an inability to place orders on Eleme, a food delivery app backed by Alibaba. The company did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Nasdaq-listed Dada, a grocery delivery company which saw a surge in growth during the lockdowns of the initial coronavirus outbreak last year, said neither of its two apps operate in Tonghua city.

Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Chinese authorities shut down more than half the country in February 2020, and the outbreak stalled domestically within several weeks. Meanwhile, the virus accelerated its spread overseas in a global pandemic.

In the last two months, new domestically transmitted cases have emerged in China amid cold winter weather and a continued trickle of visitors from overseas. The northeastern province of Jilin where Tonghua city is located has become the third-hardest hit region, reporting 273 new confirmed coronavirus cases for January alone.


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