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To Avoid New COVID-19 Cases, China Closes Border With Russia


China has closed its land border with Russia. That means no one, not even Chinese citizens, can now cross into China from Russia. China says this is because it's worried about imported cases of the new coronavirus from Russia. And we're joined by reporters on both sides of the border now. NPR's Emily Feng is in Wuhan, China, and reporter Charles Maynes joins us on Skype from Moscow. Hello to you both.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.


GREENE: So Emily, help us understand what's happening on the Chinese side. I mean, you've reported how China's loosening some quarantine restrictions, but now they're intensifying them elsewhere. Why is China now focusing on this area on the border with Russia?

FENG: They're focusing on this tiny border city called Suifenhe, and they're doing so because they've seen a wave of new cases all from Russia this week. To give you some idea of how many cases they're getting, yesterday alone they had 120 people show up with symptoms, got tested positive and then another 150 who were not showing symptoms also test positive in just one day. That's why authorities in China locked down the city and they sealed it off from the rest of the country.

And this is a pretty big deal because Suifenhe is emblematic of these increasingly close China-Russian relations. The town borders Russian Siberia. It's small by Chinese standards; it's 70,000 people. But it's a really important trade juncture so tightly knit to Russian trade that you could even spend Russian rubles in this Chinese city. And until now, it had actually been loosening restrictions. In early March, they opened up this free trade zone with Russia, where Russian traders would come in visa-free and sell goods within the zone.

GREENE: Hmm. Well, Charles, I mean, given the importance of that trade and so forth, as Emily just said, how is this shutdown being perceived where you are?

MAYNES: Well, you know, you have to step back and remember that Russia mostly closed its borders with China in late January, and that was out of fear of the virus spreading into the Far East in particular. And back then, Russia said those measures really helped put a stop on the spread of the coronavirus. Official statistics say - and I want to stress the word official - in Russia's Far East, the numbers of infections are really low, just under a hundred in this massive, massive territory.

You know, it's Moscow that's the epicenter of the outbreak here with the majority of Russia's now near 12,000 cases as of today. And in fact, these new Chinese nationals who crossed the border had arrived on flights from Moscow to Vladivostok, a city in the Far East, before being taken to the border. Moscow's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin says that, in fact, these were Chinese tourists who were sent home for violating the city's self-isolation rules - basically a quarantine. And they, so in effect, were deported. You know, what's not clear is if Russian authorities knew they were infected. But it certainly plays to this growing perception that it's Moscow exporting COVID-19 cases, not only to the regions but, it appears in this case, to China as well.

GREENE: Hmm. Well, Emily, talk more about what the Chinese authorities are doing to try and contain this outbreak before it gets bad.

FENG: They're rushing to copy what they did in Wuhan, which, if you remember, is this lockdown they imposed on the city when the virus began here. That means in Suifenhe, people are now stuck in their own homes. They'll get groceries delivered to their door. They can send one person out every two days to pick up essentials. But no one can enter the city, and only residents can can come in now.

What authorities are really worried about are asymptomatic cases because these people can pass on the virus, but they're really hard to identify. And asymptomatic cases are a really big concern right now in Wuhan, where I am, because people can leave this week, but people who leave are not getting tested. Doctors here assured us they're taking precautions, but they admit it's a problem.

Here's what one doctor, who's head of a Wuhan hospital here, told me. His name is Zhang Dingyu.

ZHANG DINGYU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying there's a possibility of these people being infectious but to diagnose every asymptomatic case is impossible. You can't test all 1.3 billion Chinese people. So authorities in Suifenhe, near the border with Russia, say they're going to finish constructing a new centralized quarantine center, just like they did in Wuhan, specifically for these asymptomatic cases. And if they get more people with symptoms, they're going to divert them to other cities.

GREENE: Charles, when you were bringing up some of the numbers before, you stressed that these were official numbers. To what extent can we trust Russian authorities as they're giving us statistics about, you know, number of cases and so forth?

MAYNES: You know, it's a big question because with Russia's, as I mentioned, 12,000 cases, it's a lot but far less than what we've seen in China, in Europe and other places. And so all along, we've had this question - you know, how did Russia manage this? Russian authorities would say because of smart policies, but others would say it really gets back to how you count. You know, government critics argue that the government was keeping figures artificially low by classifying COVID patients with pneumonia. But also, doctors openly question the quality of Russian testing, and that's a concern that I heard in the Far East, as well.

SALAVAT SULEYMANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So I spoke with a man named Salavat Suleymanov (ph). He's a veteran clinical pharmacologist in Khabarovsk - that's the other main city along the Russian-Chinese border - and he told me he wasn't worried about fake statistics. But he definitely saw problems with testing. And you know, Khabarovsk has just 20 or so COVID cases, two deaths so far. But he says it's possible that half the city's population may have this latent asymptomatic symptoms that are such a concern in China. You know, without more accurate and wider testing, they simply don't know.

GREENE: Charles Maynes and Emily Feng, thank you both so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.