The coronavirus pandemic has finally caught up with Shanghai. China’s wealthiest and most populous metropolis is teetering on the edge of a citywide lockdown despite reporting only about 150 new cases on Tuesday.
The international finance hub’s 25mn people are at risk of joining tens of millions of people restricted to their apartments across Changchun, Shenzhen and Langfang, as Xi Jinping’s government responds to the most serious test of China’s health system since the pandemic erupted in Wuhan more than two years ago.
For the first time since early 2020, Shanghai residents are drawing up contingencies for family members being separated, as the possibility grows of being detained in a government quarantine facility under Beijing’s uncompromising zero-Covid controls.
The uncertainties are especially acute for parents who, in several cases last week, were blocked from collecting their children from schools until late in the evening as officials carried out quick-fire testing campaigns. Others who travel for work are worried about being trapped away from home if they are caught up in the authorities’ unrelenting virus dragnets.
“A lot of people are really burnt out now. There is no clear end game and for the past two years, at least in Shanghai, we’ve never had to deal with this, ”said a finance industry executive who was unable to leave his apartment compound.
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 come to an end,” said Jin, who has been stuck in his apartment since Saturday.
Gu Honghui, director of Shanghai’s epidemic prevention work group, said on Tuesday that a citywide lockdown was not necessary but advised companies to instruct employees to work from home.
In a series of measures to lower the risk of transmission, aviation authorities said they would divert hundreds of international flights from Shanghai to other cities until at least May, schools have been shut down and an increasing number of residential compounds sealed off while mass testing campaigns were expanded.
The anxiety in Shanghai is reverberating across the world’s most populous country as health authorities reported daily cases of more than 5,000 across 27 regions, a tenfold rise from early March.
The highly infectious Omicron variant has spread rapidly despite the more than 3bn Covid-19 vaccine doses delivered to a population of 1.4bn. The outbreak has focused attention once again on the efficacy of locally-produced vaccines and the underlying vulnerabilities of the healthcare system, including a huge elderly population at a higher risk of severe illness and many poorly-resourced hospitals.
Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute in South Korea, said Beijing’s approach of lockdown and mass testing would be “increasingly difficult” to maintain.
Kim suggested that Beijing could learn from the “controlled release” measures used in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, of slowly unwinding social distancing, contact tracing and lockdown rules, while prioritizing vaccine boosters and treatment. These have kept death rates comparably low 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’s no guarantee, with Omicron, that it will be as successful [as it was in combating the earlier variants], ”Kim said. If there was no change, he added, then lockdowns were likely in “city after city and maybe, entire provinces, like they did originally”.
Beijing will also be wary after deaths among unvaccinated senior citizens overwhelmed hospitals and mortuaries in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s decision to reinstitute sweeping lockdowns has rattled the country’s markets and stoked fears among business owners over prolonged disruptions.
The decision to lockdown Shenzhen, a city of 17.5mn and China’s most important technology hub, on Monday has caused scores of factories to halt production, including Apple supplier Foxconn, straining already frayed global supply chains.
Klaus Zenkel, a factory owner and chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in South China, said that compounding the problems of closures was the uncertainty of how companies would ship existing inventories.
“This is affecting everybody now, everything is closed except for the supermarket,” Zenkel said. “Who knows [which city] will be next? ”
Danny Lau, who manages a metal fabrication plant in Guangdong, said the facility was forced offline on Monday and might be closed for weeks. “We can’t get any goods out of the factory due to the lockdown,” he said.
The disruptions are creating more problems for economic planners in Beijing, who are already trying to orchestrate a soft landing from a debt-fueled real estate crisis and shelter China from the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while also chasing an ambitious growth target of 5.5 per cent.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Guangde and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong