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Coronavirus Comeback? China Braces For Possible Second Wave Of COVID-19

People wearing protective masks walk in a shopping district following an outbreak of the coronavirus in Beijing on March 25.
People wearing protective masks walk in a shopping district following an outbreak of the coronavirus in Beijing on March 25.

Signs are creeping out of a feared but widely predicted "second wave" of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in the country where it all started, with other Asian countries also seeing worrying trends in their battles against the global pandemic.

For more than a week, imported cases have dominated China's official figures, with none of the locally passed cases that could spark a new chain of transmission reported for several days.

Daily cases of new coronavirus infections of all kind -- most of them returning travelers -- have reportedly been under 100 since March 19, the first day authorities cited no local transmissions since the pathogen erupted in the world's most populous country in December.

But mainland China reported its first locally transmitted infection in three days on March 26 as it ordered the closing of its international borders to foreigners, even those with residency permits.

That case and other indications of local transmission of the coronavirus in the country -- where it first made the jump from animals to humans, probably in November -- have come as the global case count has swelled to more than 500,000 and the U.S. and Italian infection counts have surpassed official Chinese figures.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) and other infectious-disease experts have repeatedly warned that China and other countries must be extremely vigilant against new chains of local infection that could quickly spiral out of control.

No Testing, No Cases

Compounding fears, doubts have dogged China's statistics despite an assurance from a joint UN-Chinese epidemiological mission in late February that the country's "numbers are real."

Scattered reports have leaked out of the country this month hinting at the possible suppression of infection numbers by simply refusing to test people who fear they might be ill.

Hong Kong's public broadcaster quoted a local volunteer in Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of the virus, on March 23 accusing hospital staff there of turning away "coronavirus patients" and avoiding testing sick people in what he said was "a political treatment, not medical treatment."

The South China Morning Post reported on a Wuhan woman whose husband died in her arms in early March, five days after being reclassified as "cured" and getting sent to a temporary COVID-19 medical center before his release.

China's communist government has famously tight restrictions on the media and Internet and jailed or otherwise silenced doctors and others who sounded alarm bells early in the pandemic.

And despite having been forced to apologize for ignoring an infected doctor who died trying to blow the whistle on the coronavirus outbreak in January, Chinese officials are now accused of persecuting another critic of their handling of the crisis.

Radio Free Asia said on March 26 that an influential Chinese real-estate tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, was under investigation after penning an open letter that appeared to be highly critical of President Xi Jinping and the official response to COVID-19.

Closing Borders

Reflecting concern of renewed outbreaks after the initial impact, the WHO-Chinese report last month advised "a clear recognition and readiness of the need to immediately react to any new COVID-19 cases or clusters as key elements of the containment strategy are lifted."

Chinese officials are said to be taking steps to stem a possible second wave, even as they further relaxed restrictions this week on shop closures and going outside in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located.

China on March 26 barred virtually all foreigners, including residents, from entering the country in an apparent signal that they regard the outside world as the biggest coronavirus threat.

The same day, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to Xi hours after he again accused Beijing of falsifying or otherwise muddling its infection numbers during a White House press conference.

State media said Xi had insisted to Trump that Chinese authorities were being transparent with their testing.

Trump emerged from their conversation tweeting that "China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus," in a rare reference that didn't qualify the coronavirus with the word "China" or "Chinese," a habit that has outraged Beijing. "We are working closely together. Much respect!"

Meanwhile, infection figures are surging in some of mainland China's near neighbors that have most successfully repelled the coronavirus so far, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

China's specially governed region of Hong Kong on March 27 reported its biggest daily jump in cases to date, prompting it to slap tighter limits on gatherings to no more than four people and close many public venues.

Farther away, in South Korea, where officials have been hailed for their quick and comprehensive response to limit infections to under 10,000 from the initial wave, Seoul on March 27 was desperately urging citizens to avoid gatherings.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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