China has imposed lockdown measures in its two largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai — the twin engines that power much of the country’s economy — in a ruthless effort to stamp out COVID-19 outbreaks.
Shanghai is at the center of the latest outbreak, reporting more than 15,000 new cases daily. Authorities have responded with a citywide lockdown that has lasted for weeks, confining almost all 25 million residents of the once-busy financial center to their homes or neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Beijing officials have conducted mass testing, closed schools and placed targeted lockdown on some apartment buildings to curb infections. These measures have raised fears of a broader lockdown similar to that in Shanghai.
Throughout the pandemic, China has adhered to a strict zero-COVID strategy, using lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and border closures to contain the virus. But the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant has called into question the sustainability of this strategy, as the virus is spreading to different cities and provinces faster than the government can contain it.
Authorities are now enforcing full or partial lockdowns in at least 27 cities across the country, with those restrictions affecting up to 180 million people, according to CNN calculations.
Here’s what you need to know about the COVID situation in China.
WHERE ARE THE LOCKDOWNS AND RESTRICTIONS?
The number of cases in China began to rise in March and soon grew into the worst flare-up the country has seen since the first outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020.
The northeastern province of Jilin was hit hard in the early stages of the outbreak. authorities The provincial capital Changchun, an industrial hub, went under a strict city-wide lockdown on March 11, and the nearby city of Jilin followed on March 21.
On Thursday, authorities in Changchun and Jilin City, which together have more than 13.5 million residents, said they would soon begin gradually easing lockdowns — though what that process will look like or under what conditions people will be left unclear doing so will be allowed to leave their homes.
Authorities also placed several other cities under lockdown in March, including the major economic hub of Shenzhen – although some of those measures have since been lifted.
Shanghai, which has recorded more than half a million cases since March 1, introduced a phased lockdown in late March. This had expanded into a full citywide lockdown by the end of the month.
Some neighborhoods can start easing lockdown measures if they haven’t reported any cases in the past two weeks, Shanghai authorities said on Wednesday – but it’s a tenuous freedom, with the risk of another lockdown, albeit a local case is discovered.
In Beijing, a mass testing campaign has gripped nearly 20 million residents — about 90% of the city’s population. Another round of citywide testing is underway April 27th to 30th.
Targeted lockdowns in Beijing’s Chaoyang district this week prevented residents of at least 46 buildings from leaving their homes or properties, while more than 5,300 people were placed under lockdown in Fangshan district.
The capital closed schools in many of its most populous districts on Thursday. Several major hospitals also announced their closures, and a growing number of entertainment venues, including movie theaters, have also been ordered to close.
Full or district-wide lockdowns are in effect in more than two dozen cities including Hangzhou, home to 12.2 million people; Suzhou, home to 12.7 million people; and Harbin, home to 9.5 million people. They stretch across 14 provinces, from the far northeastern province of Heilongjiang to southern Guangxi and the mountainous western province of Qinghai.
HOW IS LIFE IN LOCKDOWN?
Much of the lockdown in Shanghai has been one of chaos and dysfunction – sparking alarms in other cities this fear that they might be next.
Many residents have complained about food shortages, lack of access to medical care, poor conditions in makeshift quarantine camps and tough measures such as authorities separating infected children from their parents.
In March, a nurse in Shanghai died after being turned away from an emergency room at her own hospital, which was closed for disinfection. In early April, a health worker beat a corgi to death after its owner tested positive for COVID, with the killing caught on camera. Last week, workers reportedly broke down the door of the home of a 92-year-old woman in the early hours of the morning to force them in quarantine.
These stories and many more have gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking a rare outcry online.
Similar stories have also been reported from other parts of the country. In March, students at a lockdown university in Jilin city asked for help, saying they were left without basic services. Also in March, some Changchun residents reported that they were struggling to get medical care for non-COVID diseases like cancer or kidney disease as hospitals turned away patients.
These incidents – particularly in Shanghai, long considered China’s most modern and cosmopolitan city – have put people elsewhere on high alert.
Though Beijing has yet to restrict people’s movement outside of designated high-risk areas, many residents – fearing a broader lockdown – began panic buying this week, forming long queues at supermarket checkouts and emptying shelves.
WHAT WERE THE ECONOMIC COST?
The lockdowns and restrictions have dealt a massive blow to activity – particularly in economically important cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Unemployment hit a 21-month high in March. Many companies have been forced to shut down operations at several locations, including automakers Volkswagen and Tesla and iPhone assembler Pegatron. The Chinese currency, the yuan, weakened rapidly this week, plunging to its lowest level since November 2020.
There are signs that the Chinese leadership is also nervous. In March, President Xi Jinping said China must “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development.” On Tuesday, Xi called for “broad” infrastructure investment to spur growth — unusual for the Chinese leader, who rarely presents detailed economic plans and usually leaves it to Premier Li Keqiang.
The Chinese government is “painfully aware of the damage to the economy,” Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said earlier this month. He cited a private meeting with a Chinese ministry but declined to name the agency.
“They are concerned about unemployment,” he added. “They worry about foreign companies investing money elsewhere.”
WHY DOES CHINA STICK TO ZERO-COVID?
Despite rising anger With chaotic lockdowns and a death toll that remained relatively low until this latest outbreak, authorities and state media have warned that China’s zero-COVID policy is not about to change anytime soon.
The serious situation in Shanghai “highlights the need to adhere to the dynamic zero-COVID policy,” nationalist tabloid Global Times said on Wednesday.
“If Shanghai, equipped with the best medical system in the country, is in dire need of help amid the rising number of severe cases, who will be there to offer help when other parts of China are also battling the onslaught of the coronavirus?”
There are a few reasons why China is so adamant about zero-COVID. Many Chinese leaders and scientists have expressed concern that easing restrictions could allow the virus to spread across the country, possibly causing a spike in infections and deaths, and overwhelming the health system — especially given declining vaccination rates among the elderly.
While China has focused massive resources on developing and manufacturing its own homegrown vaccines, it has failed to ensure they reach the arms of the elderly population. Now that authorities have confirmed expectations that death rates in the country will remain low, they have no choice but to rely on lockdowns to protect the vulnerable.
There is also a political element, as Xi is putting his personal stamp on the zero-COVID policy throughout the pandemic. The central government has frequently pointed to the low official death toll as evidence of the effectiveness of its strategy and to bolster its claim to superiority over Western governments.
Xi has personally reiterated his support for zero-COVID throughout the pandemic, claiming last year it shows China’s commitment to saving “every life” — making the stakes especially high now that the government is struggling to simultaneously contain the virus and to keep the threshing economy going and appease public discontent.
And it comes at a particularly sensitive time for Xi, months ahead of his expected move into an almost unprecedented third term this fall.
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