The coronavirus pandemic has finally caught up with Shanghai. China’s wealthiest and most populous metropolis is on the brink of a citywide lockdown despite reporting only around 150 new cases on Tuesday.
The financial hub’s 25 million residents risk joining tens of millions confined to their apartments across China in the cities of Changchun, Shenzhen and Langfang, as Xi Jinping’s government responds to an outbreak of Omicron which is the most serious test of the Chinese health system since the pandemic broke out in Wuhan more than two years ago.
For the first time since the start of 2020, people in Shanghai are working out contingencies for their separated family members, as the possibility rises of being held in a government quarantine facility under Beijing’s uncompromising zero-Covid controls. .
Anxiety in Shanghai is reverberating in the world’s most populous country as health authorities reported daily cases of more than 5,000 in 27 regions, a tenfold increase since early March. Beijing’s decision to reinstate sweeping shutdowns has rattled markets across the country and stoked business owners’ fears of prolonged disruption.
The uncertainties in Shanghai are particularly acute for parents who, in several cases last week, were prevented from collecting their children from school until late in the evening as authorities carried out rapid testing campaigns. Others who travel for work fear being trapped far from home if caught in the authorities’ relentless virus nets.
“A lot of people are really exhausted now. There is no clear endgame and over the past two years, at least in Shanghai, we have never had to deal with that,” said a financial industry executive who could not. leave his apartment.
Jin Chaopeng, a 23-year-old accountant in Shanghai, said panic buying had accelerated as online delivery services were overwhelmed in recent days.
“No one knows when the lockdown will end,” said Jin, who has been stuck in his apartment since Saturday.
Gu Honghui, director of Shanghai’s epidemic prevention task force, said on Tuesday that a citywide lockdown was unnecessary, but advised companies to ask employees to work from home.
In a series of measures to reduce the risk of transmission, aviation authorities said they would divert hundreds of international flights from Shanghai to other cities until at least May schools were closed and an increasing number of residential complexes cordoned off as mass testing campaigns were extended.
The highly infectious variant of Omicron has spread rapidly in China despite the more than 3 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine delivered to a population of 1.4 billion. The outbreak has once again drawn attention to the effectiveness of locally produced vaccines and the underlying vulnerabilities of the health system, including a huge elderly population at higher risk of severe illness and many hospitals in need. limited resources.
Jerome Kim, chief executive of the International Vaccine Institute, South Korea, said Beijing’s approach to containment and mass testing would be “increasingly difficult” to sustain.
Kim suggested that Beijing could learn from the “controlled release” measures used in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, of slowly reducing social distancing, contact tracing and lockdown rules, while prioritizing vaccine boosters and treatment. These maintained relatively low mortality rates among highly vaccinated populations despite massive Omicron outbreaks.
However, given China’s secrecy over its vaccine technology and stockpiles of virus treatments, it was unclear whether the government would have the confidence to change course.
“China could try to continue its current policy but there is no guarantee, with Omicron, that it will be as successful as [as it was in combating the earlier variants]”, Kim said. If there was no change, he added, then the closures would probably be “city after city and perhaps, entire provinces, as they originally did. “.
Beijing will also be wary of unvaccinated elderly deaths that have overwhelmed Hong Kong hospitals and morgues.
The latest outbreak creates more problems for economic planners in Beijing, who are already trying to orchestrate a soft landing from a debt-fueled housing crisis and shield China from the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. , while pursuing an ambitious growth target. by 5.5 percent.
The decision to lock down Shenzhen, a city of 17.5 million people and China’s most important technology hub, on Monday caused production to stop at dozens of factories, including Apple supplier Foxconn, putting a strain on testing already frayed global supply chains.
Klaus Zenkel, a factory owner and president of the South China European Chamber of Commerce, said uncertainty over how companies would ship existing inventory was compounding the shutdown concerns.
“It affects everyone now, everything is closed except the supermarket,” Zenkel said. “Who knows [which city] will be next?”
Danny Lau, who runs a metal fabrication plant in Guangdong, said the facility was forcibly taken offline on Monday and could be closed for weeks. “We cannot take any goods out of the factory due to the lockdown,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Guangde and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong