The man arrived in Xiamen, a major coastal hub in Fujian, on August 4, where he underwent 14 days of compulsory hotel quarantine. He spent another 7 days in centralized quarantine at a designated location in Xianyou, before returning home for a further week of health monitoring, according to the Putian government.
He had tested negative for the virus nine times during 21 days of quarantine, before testing positive on Friday — 37 days after entering China, according to state media.
China’s border restrictions and mandatory quarantine requirements for overseas arrivals are among the strictest in the world. Since containing the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government has blamed every local flareup on transmission from abroad — either through travelers or imported goods.
Chinese authorities did not reveal when, where or how the man caught the virus, but an incubation period longer than 21 days is highly unusual.
Some have questioned on social media if the man picked up the virus after he returned to Xianyou.
As of Sunday afternoon, Putian had reported 32 confirmed cases and 32 asymptomatic infections, according to the Putian government. China keeps a separate count of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases and does not include asymptomatic carriers of the virus in the official tally of confirmed cases.
The cases came on the heels of another Delta-driven outbreak, which spread to more than half of China’s provinces and infected over 1,200 people after emerging in late July in the eastern province of Jiangsu. The surging cases were seen as the biggest challenge yet to China’s uncompromising zero tolerance policy on Covid-19.
Local authorities responded by placing tens of millions of residents under strict lockdown, rolling out massive testing and tracing campaigns and restricting domestic travel. By late August, health officials announced that the outbreak had been “effectively brought under control.”
While the zero-Covid strategy appeared to have worked, experts say it took longer for Chinese authorities to bring infection back to zero compared with previous flareups.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the strategy is facing a problem of diminishing returns when dealing with the highly transmissible Delta variant.
“It’ll become more and more difficult to sustain that approach, in terms of the time, the organizational energy, and the financial and economic pains it takes to reset cases to zero,” he said. “No matter how stringent the travel restrictions are, you’ll continue to have cases imported and triggering outbreaks in the country.”
China, however, has doubled down on its stringent containment efforts, which have been hailed by the ruling Communist Party as proof of the supposed superiority of its authoritarian political system.
In Putian, authorities ordered its 2.9 million residents not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. Those with legitimate reasons to leave must produce a negative coronavirus test taken within the past 48 hours. Cinemas, gyms, bars and libraries were shut, while kindergartens, primary schools and high schools were closed and ordered to conduct classes online.
In Xianyou, public transport and taxi services were suspended, as were buses and trains leaving the county.
In China, such restrictive measures remain broadly popular among the public, partly because they are only applied to a small section of the country’s 1.4 billion population each time, with the majority of people enjoying the benefits associated with covid-free living, rather than the inconvenience of protracted lockdowns.
“This is natural. When you’re not the victims of the lockdown, you are going to support any measure that makes you safe. Even if you’re subject to a lockdown, you might still find it tolerable because it only happens so rarely,” said Huang, the global health fellow.
But he warned that public support and tolerance might wear off if the pandemic drags on.
“(The Chinese authorities) will be constantly imposing new lockdown measures. I think eventually, the public support will be undermined,” he said.