Aerial view of Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, PR China. Wikipedia Commons License.
16 Jan 2023

The fire that may have sparked a quarter billion Covid cases in only a few weeks


On December 8, China opened the Covid-19 restrictions up suddenly after years of heavy restrictions. Soon after, reports of millions of new cases were leaked to the media. Many countries around the world have re-introduced Covid-testing for passengers arriving from China.


Photo Credit: 
Aerial view of Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, PR China. Wikipedia Commons License

The sudden change from a "Zero Covid Vision" in China came after a large deadly fire brought large masses of people protesting on the streets. In the public view, the strict Covid protocols had hindered first responders from effectively getting to the fire scene. Many Chinese people were already tired from almost three years of lockdown, and the fire may have sparked what is now the largest single Covid infestation in history. 

According to an article on CNN, on November 24, 2022,  a child was charging a mobile tablet device when an electrical fault caused smoke to fill their home, in the city of Urumqi in China's far western Xinjiang region, as told by the child´s father to CNN. 

The residents where the fire started were allegedly able to evacuate, however residents on higher floors were stuck inside, unable to get after the elevator stopped working. Some households with previous Covid cases were also locked inside their apartments, leaving them with no way to escape. Ten people died in the fire, according to Reuters.com.

Urumqi has been under strict lockdown since August 2022, with most residents banned from leaving their homes.

Videos of the incident, taken from other buildings and from the street, have lead many to believe firefighters may have been delayed in reaching victims due to street-level lockdown restrictions. Footage shows one fire truck struggling to spray water at the building from a distance.

Public anger spread very quickly, and local residents started protests which quickly spread to a nationwide uproar.

Videos online showed people marching to a government building in Urumqi on the night of November 25, demanding an end to the lockdown.  The next morning, the Urumqi government said it would gradually ease the lockdown in certain areas. But by then, it was too late to stop the protests which were erupting across China.

The deaths in the apartment building on November 4th were not the first casualties perceived by the public to have been caused by China´s strict and prolonged Covid measures:

In September a bus crashed where 27 people died while transporting residents to a Covid quarantine facility. Earlier in November a toddler died during a suspected gas leak in a locked-down residential compound.


1/4 billion infections followed in only a few weeks

In a matter of only three weeks, leaked documents from China suggested about 250 million people had been infected since the restrictions were lifted.

The reason for the quick infection rate is thought to have been the effect of suppressing the spread for so long, and then suddenly removing most of the restrictions. Another factor is thought to be lower vaccination rates In China compared to other parts of the world. 


Over a million new infections per day in late December

According to the Washington Post, China is currently in the middle of what may be the world’s largest covid-19 outbreak. According to the article, there are no reliable national figures for the number of people among China’s 1.4 billion population who have been infected in the current outbreak. After admitting the difficulty of tracking infections, China’s National Health Commission stopped reporting daily tallies in December.

As of Jan. 8, there have been a little more than 500,000 confirmed covid cases since the pandemic began, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Statements from local governments indicate that the true number of infections is exponentially higher. Officials in Henan province estimated this week that 89 percent of the province’s 99 million residents have been infected. In Zhejiang province, officials said the province was seeing over a million new infections a day in late December. 


60 000 official Covid related deaths in one month

On January 14, the BBC wrote that China had reported 60,000 Covid-related deaths in just over a month. However, according to the article, China has been accused of underreporting coronavirus deaths

Last month, Beijing changed the way it categorises Covid deaths, only counting towards its total those who died of respiratory failure directly induced by the virus.

The World Health Organisation criticised the definition, describing it as "too narrow".


Two billion people expected to be travelling for the Chinese New Year holiday

As the Chinese New Years is approaching in January 22, close to two billion people are expected to travel . according to the Minister of Transport Xu Chengguang, a strong desire to travel has been pent up among the Chinese people, and he is now urging people to stay vigilant in their own measures to limit the spread of the virus. 


International restrictions re-introduced for Chinese travellers

With the Chinese borders now re-opened, many  countries around the world have re-introduced Covid-testing for passengers arriving from China since the beginning of 2023. The Chinese government has opposed these measures, and said it may introduce similar measures for passengers entering China. Many experts believe the restrictions will not have an effect on the rate of Covid spread outside of China, but agree that restrictions may be motivated for a short time to avoid unexpected spread of potential new and unknown strains of Covid-19.