This month, China has faced its worst outbreak since the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan. From March 1 to 24, the country had reported 56,000 infections — more than the total cases in Wuhan two years ago. On Sunday, 6,215 positive tests were recorded, with 3,500 of those in Shanghai.
The resurgence has created a dilemma for Chinese policymakers. They recently announced that a road map was being created to ease the “zero covid” approach and that cities were experimenting with more targeted and short-lived containment protocols. Treatment guidelines were updated to allow asymptomatic patients to be isolated in centralized facilities, instead of at hospitals. Antigen test kits were approved.
“Local officials are in a tough spot — they are being told to maintain zero-covid and simultaneously limit economic disruption,” analysts at the research firm Trivium China wrote.
“Given the paramount importance of maintaining social stability and preserving China’s sterling record on the coronavirus,” they added, there are unlikely to be major changes in the country’s “dynamic clearing” strategy to totally eliminate the virus before the 20th Party Congress in October. In that key meeting, President Xi Jinping is widely expected to take on a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
As China’s leading financial hub, Shanghai had been at the forefront of trying out more flexible measures. Last year, when cases were discovered at one of the city’s main international airports, most residents were unaffected. During the current outbreak, too, it had resisted the citywide measures adopted in places like Jilin or Shenzhen, opting instead for rolling, block-by-block home quarantines for two-day periods.
But the approach failed to halt transmission of the virus. After weeks of officials denying citywide restrictions were imminent — police detained two men for spreading “rumors” about it — the Shanghai government announced what has been dubbed a “yin-yang lockdown.”
Starting at 5 a.m. Monday, districts to the east of the Huangpu River, which snakes through the city, are spending four days at home before it becomes the turn of those living west of the waterway, starting at 3 a.m. on Friday.
As residents hurriedly prepared for confinement, they shared pictures of empty supermarket shelves and shoppers scrambling to buy provisions. Local rappers turned the experience into a song about everyone “snatching vegetables then getting PCR tests.”
The decision to escalate restrictions brings Shanghai closer to measures adopted by northeastern Jilin province, which has imposed some of the strictest rules of the most recent outbreak.
Beijing’s staunch adherence to zero covid often appears puzzling to much of the developed world, where, despite much higher case numbers than China’s, blanket lockdowns are no longer considered necessary because of high vaccination rates.
Many in China, too, find it difficult to understand the strategy.
In a sign of mounting impatience, a senior epidemiologist’s response to the question “Why can’t China end epidemic control measures like other countries?” drew nearly 500 million views on the microblog Weibo on Wednesday.
In Shanghai, rapid shifts in policy are wearing out locals like Zoey Yang, a 30-year-old consultant who lives to the west of the Huangpu River. She has gone through one 48-hour isolation period and is preparing for four more days at home.
“There was one day I heard the community broadcast saying that my neighborhood would be put into another lockdown starting at midnight, but the next day, that lockdown was suddenly canceled without explanation,” Yang said. “You can get really confused sometimes.”
“It’s just too difficult,” she added. “We are one of the last countries in the world to still implement a zero-covid policy. How are we going to continue doing this if we want to engage with other countries?”
For most of the pandemic, China’s coronavirus policy has, on balance, been popular at home, especially when compared with waves of rising infections and deaths in other parts of the world.
Officials occasionally acknowledge that the disruptions can be substantial but argue that the trade-off is worth it. Speaking earlier this month, Wang Hesheng, deputy director of the National Health Commission, said China’s ability to maintain regular economic activity and standards of living for most people was conditional on “sacrificing the normal lives of a tiny portion of people and controlling movement in a tiny portion of locations.”
Even as officials work on a plan to live with the virus, they continue to argue that the costs are worth it for the number of lives saved. An officially endorsed study released late last year estimated that China would soon face 630,000 infections per day if it ended international and internal restrictions in an approach similar to that of the United States.
Low vaccination rates among the elderly and concerns about domestic vaccines’ relatively poor efficacy at preventing infection make such projections especially concerning. By extrapolating from the extremely high casualty rates in Hong Kong, which also relied primarily on Chinese vaccines, Britain-based research firm Airfinity recently projected that a million people could die if an outbreak of a similar scale occurred on the Chinese mainland.
Politics feature as much as public health in official explanations for China’s divergence from much of Europe and North America. Earlier this month, Xi told a meeting of the top party officials that the country should stick with dynamic clearance, describing the policy as reflecting the “outstanding advantage of the [Chinese Communist] Party’s socialist system.”
“To persevere is to win,” he added, while also urging the need for more targeted approaches that impose fewer costs on people’s lives.
Public anger continues to be sparked by incidents of unnecessary harm as a side effect of poorly managed lockdowns. Last week, when a nurse in Shanghai died of an asthma attack after being refused admittance to her own hospital, commentators drew comparisons to a pregnant woman who lost her baby after being refused treatment in Xian.
Another sign that people are losing patience is the emergence of a genre of online comedy, loosely modeled on Soviet Union jokes about the secret police, taking aim at overly zealous enforcers of covid policy dubbed “epidemic prevention hobbyists.”
Bliss, goes one joke, is when these enforcers knock on your door in the middle of the night and tell you to quarantine because their advanced systems have identified you as a close contact of an infected person — and it turns out they want the guy down the hall.
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.