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China weighs whether to abandon Covid zero-tolerance approach

China‘s current Covid-19 outbreak would barely register as a blip for most countries, with 125 cases recorded Monday among its 1.4 billion people.

But infections have risen sharply since the middle of July, and some observers question whether Beijing’s drastic zero-tolerance tactics, which crushed previous surges, will be enough to extinguish the highly transmissible delta variant, which is fueling the current wave.

“The jury’s out on whether or not China’s traditional methods will be able to contain it this time,” said Craig Allen, a former U.S. ambassador who is president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

“Has the virus outsmarted them? We don’t know the answer to that, but that is the real-life drama being played out,” he said.

Chinese officials have kept a lid on the pandemic by deploying a zero-tolerance playbook that would be considered extreme in the West.AFP – Getty Images

While Covid-19 was first identified in China, the country has rarely officially recorded more than two dozen cases a day for over a year. Compare that with the U.S., where daily infection numbers have often been in the tens of thousands.

The U.S. and others have accused China of not being transparent about the early months of the pandemic, including questions about its early reporting of cases and the unproven theory that the coronavirus accidentally escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, which Beijing rejects out of hand.

But for months, it seemed clear that the contagion had been all but eradicated across much of China, with daily life largely returning to pre-pandemic normality.

Chinese officials have kept a lid on the pandemic by deploying a zero-tolerance playbook that would be considered extreme in the West: sealing off entire cities and enforcing mandatory testing on tens of millions of people.

The current wave started July 10, officials said, when nine airport workers tested positive after having cleaned an Air China flight that arrived in the eastern city of Nanjing from Moscow.

Officials have once again revved up the zero-tolerance machine, banning anyone from leaving the city of Zhangjiajie, canceling flights and trains across the country and shutting tourist sites. Nevertheless, infections have spread to 15 of China’s 31 provinces, state media reported Friday.

He Qinghua, a senior official with China’s National Health Commission, acknowledged Thursday that tackling the delta wave would be more complicated than in the past, particularly because it struck at the peak of summer travel.

“As long as local authorities strictly implement various prevention and control measures, I think the epidemic will be largely under control within two to three incubation periods,” he said at a news conference.

But whether or not China does get a handle on the most recent outbreak, some experts outside the country doubt that imposing lockdowns every time a few dozen cases pop up is the answer.

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“I don’t think zero tolerance can be sustained,” Xi Chen, a health economist at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Associated Press. “Even if you can lock down all the regions in China, people might still die, and more might die due to hunger or loss of jobs.”

Nomura, a Japanese investment bank, downgraded its growth forecast for the Chinese economy from 8.9 percent to 8.2 percent, citing “draconian measures” by the government.

And Allen, of the U.S.-China Business Council, said “interprovincial transportation of products is becoming a challenge,” as transportation routes between towns and cities are gummed up.

“For factory products that are made in city A but assembled in city B, that supply chain is being disrupted, and workers are not able to get to work,” he said.

A potential problem is that it is unclear how effective China’s vaccines are against the delta variant. China has not released clinical or real-world data, making peer-reviewed analysis difficult.

Dr. Zhang Wenhong, who advises the Chinese government and is sometimes referred to as “China’s Dr. Fauci,” says China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac shots work against the delta variant. But other countries that have used them, including Indonesia and Chile, have reported high numbers of breakthrough infections and deaths.

It is only through widespread vaccination campaigns that some Western countries are trying to live with high levels of infection in the hope that they will not cause mass deaths. In June, Singapore flipped from the “zero-Covid” policy favored by China and Australia to something resembling the Western model, which it called “a new normal.”

“With vaccination, testing, treatment and social responsibility, it may mean that in the near future, when someone gets Covid-19, our response can be very different from now,” Singaporean government ministers said in a statement.

“Some countries have surrendered to the virus, believing that it is impossible for humanity to win the battle against it,” an editorial in the state-run China Daily newspaper said.

Aly Song / Reuters

There have been similar murmurings in China, which some international observers have interpreted as a willingness to follow suit.

Shi Zhengli, an influential virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told the People’s Daily newspaper on Wednesday, “We must let go of our fear and be prepared to coexist with the new coronavirus for a period of time.”

Zhang posted on the social media site Weibo last week, “Most virologists in the world now recognize that this may be a permanent virus, and the world must learn to coexist with this virus.”

And Liu Guoen, an economics professor at Beijing’s Peking University, said Friday at an event hosted by the Chinese tech firm Baidu that China must decide whether to “adjust and optimize the current strategy.”

But the prospects of a U-turn any time soon look slim.

The state-run China Daily newspaper published an editorial Sunday pushing back against those who “argue that China should abandon” its position.

“Some countries have surrendered to the virus, believing that it is impossible for humanity to win the battle against it,” it said. “But they have never tried as hard as China did to tame it in the first instance, and they never won a victory over it as China did.”

The country’s position is extremely unlikely to change, at least until after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and the National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, said Steve Tsang, a professor and the director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.

“The zero-tolerance policy came directly from Xi Jinping,” Tsang said, referring to the Chinese president. “So until Xi decides to change his mind, it doesn’t matter what any other experts say.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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