China-Myanmar border city faces pressure of new COVID-19 surge
Published: Mar 31, 2021 08:03 PM
Ruili port in Southwest China's Yunnan Province links the country with Myanmar. Photo: IC

Ruili port in Southwest China's Yunnan Province links the country with Myanmar. Photo: IC

Concerns have risen on epidemic control in China's border area, after Ruili, a major China-Myanmar border city in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, reported nine new COVID-19 cases since September, when a domestic resurgence was ignited by illegal border crossings by infected Myanmar nationals.

Yunnan's provincial health authority on Wednesday reported that six new confirmed cases and three asymptomatic carriers were recorded in the city, four of whom are Myanmar nationals.  

Ruili has been conducting city-wide nucleic acid testing in urban areas since 8 am on Wednesday, and Ruili's anti-epidemic guiding group said that 317 close contacts had been screened and put under medical observation. The nucleic acid sampling was scheduled to be finished by the end of Wednesday.  

In an article by the Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday, the leading state media asked "did the lessons learned turn into more effective preventive measures? Does it mean that there are still loopholes in Ruili's prevention of imported infection?" 

In September 2020, a number of cases were recorded in Ruili after infected Myanmar nationals were smuggled into the region.

Ruili and Myanmar share a 170-kilometer-long border with a unique "one street links two countries" and "one village links two countries" arrangements. Yang Bianqiang, head of Ruili's public security bureau, previously noted that border control is an arduous task.

Ruili, a city with 210,000 permanent residents, is the China-Myanmar port with the largest flow of people, vehicles and goods. In 2019, Ruili's checkpoints cleared a total of 20.63 million people, accounting for almost half of the inbound and outbound traffic in Yunnan Province.

The city said on Wednesday that it was launching closed management of the Jiegao port community, and it was banning people and vehicles from passing along the Jiegao bridge, which links the two countries. Jiegao is a township in Ruili bordering Myanmar.

A local government official told the Global Times on Wednesday on condition of anonymity that the border areas are mostly fields and forests, and there are no natural barriers. Although border patrols have always been strict, "there are times when you can't notice," the official said. 

Due to the recent political unrest and epidemic surge in Myanmar, illegal crossings cannot be ruled out as the reason for the latest surge in Ruili, he said. 

He said that since the COVID-19 outbreak, border ports were fortified, checkpoints set up and barbed wire used. Civil servants have also devoted more than half of their time to epidemic prevention and control. Myanmar nationals in China are required to hold health certificates. 

A Ruili-based border police officer who requested anonymity told the Global Times that Ruili had taken special measures for Chinese who illegally left the country and reentered the country amid epidemic. 

"That move is to encourage them to undergo quarantine and treatment first, and wait until they are healthy before pursuing legal action," said the officer. "That may be the case for the five infected Chinese."

As for the four Myanmar nationals, as they were detected through the routine nucleic acid testing for key clusters, they are unlikely to be smugglers, the officer said. 

However, it is still unknown if the Chinese and Myanmar nationals had any interactions, and the local government is yet to give any further explanation. 

Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that cases are concentrated in Ruili so far, and the rest of Yunnan is safe.

All residents in the city must quarantine at home for a week and will not be allowed to go out without a special reason, the Ruili government said on Wednesday. All business premises except supermarkets, pharmacies and farmers' markets will be closed.

It is difficult to strictly guard against imported cases along the long and complicated border over prolonged periods. So it is understandable that sporadic imported cases have occurred, Zeng told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

Some analysts called for faster inoculation of border residents to ensure safety and routine exchanges. The Ruili government announced Wednesday that it will roll out a COVID-19 vaccination campaign from Thursday, with the current six vaccination sites to be increased to 11.