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Chinese City Scheduled for Limited Re-opening After COVID-19 Scare

Medical workers attend to people lining up for nucleic acid testing at a residential compound in Ruili
Medical workers attend to people lining up for nucleic acid testing at a residential compound in Ruili

A Chinese city on the border with Myanmar last week began testing thousands of residents for the coronavirus after two Myanmar migrants tested positive.

In Ruili, a Yunnan province transit point on the porous 2,200-kilometer border, officials issued a lockdown order. Authorities rounded up many illegal migrant workers and sent them back to Myanmar.

China declared Ruili was in “wartime mode” as officials launched an effort to test some 200,000 people. Ruan Chengfa, deputy secretary of Yunnan’s party committee, said in a meeting that authorities had a strict policy of “complete inspection, strict quarantine. No entry and no exit.”

By Thursday, September 17, or two weeks after the first two migrant cases were detected, more than 360 testing sites had been set up in Ruili, with 1,200 health workers conducting tests.

On Monday, provincial authorities said all residents have tested negative for coronavirus, and the citywide stay-at-home order would be lifted, according to Reuters.

“Apart from the two imported cases, no local cases nor local transmission of the virus were found,” the Yunnan government said in a statement

Home quarantine for residents was scheduled to be lifted on Monday at 10 p.m. but cinemas, bars and internet cafes will remain shut, Reuters reported from the statement.

That partial reopening will come a day after the Myanmar Health Ministry announced a stay-at-home order for the Yangon region effective Monday amid a record daily increase in new cases of COVID-19. There are 44 townships in the Yangon region with a total population of more than 5 million people.

On Monday, the health ministry said it had recorded 264 new coronavirus cases, with most of the recent new infections in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial center. Myanmar has reported a total of 6,151 COVID-19 cases and 98 deaths as of Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

The Ruili episode began on September 3, when a 32-year-old woman from Myanmar took her three children and two nurses across the border from Muse to Ruili and stayed at her sister's home, according to one of China’s official news outlets, The Global Times.

Everyone in the sister’s residential area was tested, and all 1,185 results were negative. Authorities tracked down 190 close contacts and quarantined them, according to the report.

While the virus appears to be under control in much of China, Myanmar has seen a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and the scare in Ruili resulted in the shutdown of all business operations and public transit with everyone required to wear masks in public places.

The lockdown made life difficult for many.

“Even though the border gate is not completely closed, there are very few trucks crossing the border,” Win Aung Khant, chairman of Muse Highway Truckers Association said. “Myanmar trucks are not allowed to enter or unload goods in … Ruili. There are almost no Myanmar workers in Chinese side.”

Nang Aye Sein, spokesperson for the Lashio Chamber of Commerce, said agricultural and fishery export businesses were the most affected by the lockdown.

In a press conference on September 14, Yang Bianqiang, deputy director of the police department in Dehong Prefecture, where Ruili is located, said securing the border was difficult.

“There is no natural border between Ruili and Myanmar,” he said. “Citizens in Ruili and Myanmar speak the same language and visit each other very often. It is difficult to monitor their travels.”

The Myanmar and Yunnan border is infamous for its illicit activities in commodities such as jade, the number of illegal migrant workers who cross into China and the Chinese who cross into Myanmar to gamble in border town casinos.

In February, authorities on each side of the border in Ruili and Muse cooperated after five people believed to be infected with the coronavirus crossed from China into Myanmar.