China orders lockdowns, mass testing after record COVID surge

China has ordered mass testing in the eastern city of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, the latest measure as the country for a second day in a row reported a record number of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began.

China on Friday reported more than 32,000 infections in the past 24 hours, up from more than 31,000 reported on Thursday. The vast majority of the cases have been asymptomatic.

The numbers on Thursday and Friday surpassed a previous record set in April of just below 30,000 cases. That surge resulted in the commercial hub of Shanghai, home to 25 million people, being put under a two-month lockdown.

The newest wave has been accompanied by restrictions slowly tightening across the country, which has pursued a controversial zero-COVID policy aimed at eradicating the virus completely.

It also comes as the virus continues to evolve to evade immunity, with China remaining “somewhat under-vaccinated, and the vaccines that were used were not as efficacious as the mRNA vaccines that had been used in the Western world”, Patrick Fang, the division chief of pathology sciences at Sidra Medicine, told Al Jazeera.

“So their population is more susceptible, plus the virus is highly transmissible,” he said.

In Nanjing, authorities ordered mass testing set to begin on Saturday for five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, in Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, residents in eight districts have been told not to leave the area, despite only a handful of cases reported there.

The lockdown follows protests by hundreds of employees over conditions and pays at Foxconn’s vast factory on the outskirts of the city, with images of rallies emerging on Friday.

In the southeastern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, millions of people have been ordered not to leave their homes without a negative virus test.

Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok said Chinese officials seem to be “going about communicating things in a much quieter way, either through WeChat groups or local level communities”.

“There’s a lot of reasons why that’s happening, and part of it is to try and avoid any alarm among people in China,” he said.

Still, instances of panic buying have been reported in Beijing, where improvised quarantine centres and field hospitals have been hastily thrown up in gymnasiums, and exhibition centres.

The Associated Press news agency reported that residents in some areas have been told not to leave their compounds, some of which have been fenced in.

The unrelenting zero-COVID approach has sparked sporadic protests and hit productivity in the world’s second-largest economy.

Still, Fok said, the latest restrictions show China is likely a long way away from changing the policy.

“There has been a lot of discussions that China’s going to move out of this around March, when China’s parliamentary sessions take place,” he said. “But it does seem like it’s going to last longer than that. Particularly because of people’s perceptions about the virus, and that creates a lot of economic uncertainty going ahead.”

The Chinese economy grew by just 3 percent in the first three quarters of this year, well below the annual target of about 5.5 percent.

Full-year growth is widely expected by analysts to be just more than 3 percent.