Officials in Chinese city Xi’an have sparked a backlash by saying they may turn to lockdowns “when necessary” to combat future flu outbreaks.
Xi’an will lock down areas and shut schools if an outbreak poses a “severe threat”, according to an emergency response plan published on Wednesday.
Many internet users have called the plan “excessive”, especially after criticism of China’s Covid controls.
Flu cases have surged across China just as its latest Covid wave is waning.
The spike in flu cases has also led to a shortage of antiviral medication at pharmacies across the country.
While there is no suggestion of an imminent lockdown in Xi’an, some have expressed fears that its plan could see a return to the zero-Covid approach, which the country abruptly abandoned in December.
Famous for the terracotta army, Xi’an experienced some of the country’s strictest lockdowns during the pandemic. Locals were banned from leaving their homes – even to buy food and other basic supplies – for a month in December 2021.
One person wrote on Chinese social media platform Weibo that influenza outbreaks had always been common before Covid, but “life went on as per normal” when they hit.
Another remarked that some local governments were “addicted to sealing and controlling”.
Xi’an’s plan segments its response into four levels, according to severity of the situation. Lockdowns may be called for when community spread reaches an acute level.
It is not the only Chinese city that has such emergency plans. In 2015, for instance, the Shanghai government said it may stop classes and work, as well as set restrictions on gatherings, in the event of a serious influenza pandemic.
“To local residents who were traumatised by the lockdown measures not long ago, the return to the same draconian method in coping with flu outbreaks is by no means justified,” Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the BBC.
But Tang Renwu, dean of Beijing Normal University’s School of Government said China was not likely to see a comeback of stringent lockdown policies.
Speaking to Singapore newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, Prof Tang said other local governments may put out similar plans in the days to come – as Chinese authorities are intent on containing the seasonal flu.
“Local governments should pay attention to their wording when issuing similar documents so as not to trigger social panic,” he said.