Every morning, people across Shanghai wake up early to try to buy groceries online, frantically refreshing the pages of various stores in the hopes of getting lucky.
“I’m running out of food and am terrified,” said Erin Zhang, who lives in the city’s central Puxi area. Like millions of people in Shanghai, she’s been unable to leave her house for more than a week now, owing to a strict COVID-19 lockdown that caught many residents unprepared.
Restrictions were due to end for much of the city this week, but on Tuesday authorities in the Chinese financial centre extended them indefinitely as they await the results of a city-wide testing effort that saw samples taken from almost 26 million residents in just 24 hours.
Almost 80 per cent of those samples have been tested, authorities said, with positive results followed up at the individual level.
On Tuesday, Shanghai reported a record 13,354 new cases, a marked increase from Monday’s 9,006, itself an unprecedented high. The vast majority of cases are asymptomatic, however, something experts have attributed to the city’s proactive screening process – but has led to accusations of overreaction from many residents.
Tens of thousands of medical workers, volunteers and soldiers from across the country took part in Monday’s mass testing. It is hoped it will allow authorities to isolate positive cases and stamp out infection chains, hastening an end to the lockdown.
The restrictions have been met with a rare level of anger and resistance in a country where the population until recently broadly supported stringent efforts to contain the virus.
Children who have tested positive have been separated from their parents, and some residents have shared heartbreaking stories on social media, as well as photos and videos of distressed toddlers and infants packed into busy hospital wards.
On Monday, the policy was changed to allow parents who have also tested positive to stay with their infected children.
But for the most part residents have been enraged by confusing quarantine regulations and logistics failures that have seen many residents struggle to get enough food.
“Day 17 of my Shanghai COVID lockdown and food remains the priority,” American lawyer Jared Nelson wrote on social media Monday. “As usual, I woke up at 6 a.m. to try ordering deliveries. I have 10 apps that I cycle through repeatedly from various stores/platforms for several hours trying to find anything. No success by this method again today.”
Ms. Zhang said her neighbourhood committee has distributed some supplies, but she feared running out of basic staples. Many of the vegetables she received appeared to be on the verge of rotting, a common complaint online.
“I couldn’t even eat half of them,” she said. “They were so gross, they looked like they had been sitting out for multiple days before they were given to me.”
For those parts of the city where more relaxed rules mean people can go to shops, there have been runs on produce and fresh meat, leaving shelves bare.
Shortages have even struck government-run COVID-19 isolation facilities. Videos shared online show people fighting over supplies, with one widely shared post on Weibo asking, “Is this Shanghai, or is this hell?”
Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics and governance at the University of Chicago, described the growing anger as “a pivotal moment not only for Shanghai but for China’s national ‘dynamic zero-COVID strategy.’”
Since 2020, Beijing has pursued one of the world’s toughest approaches to containing the pandemic, responding to outbreaks with swift lockdowns and mass testing. While this has proven largely effective, it is being severely tested by the more-infectious Omicron variant, and there are signs of growing fatigue among the public, particularly as much of the world shifts toward living with the virus.
Shanghai’s lockdown was originally intended to be district by district, not city-wide, and other municipalities have responded to recent outbreaks with more flexibility than before.
One motivation for moving toward a more relaxed approach is the cost of lockdowns and restrictions at a time when Beijing is trying to boost the economy.
According to a recent study by a team of economists in China and the U.S., a prolonged lockdown of a city Shanghai’s size could reduce China’s GDP by as much as 4 per cent. Existing measures may already be costing the country upwards of 295 billion yuan (US$46.3-billion) a month, Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Michael Song has estimated.
This does not mean China will abandon its zero-COVID approach any time soon, however. Despite the societal and economic costs of lockdowns, the ramifications of a nationwide outbreak could be even worse.
While about 90 per cent of China’s population is vaccinated, this is heavily skewed toward younger people, especially when it comes to getting a booster shot, vital to protecting against Omicron. As of March 31, only about half of people over 60 had received three jabs, according to Lei Zhenglong, an official with the National Health Commission (NHC).
Research has also found that China’s domestically produced vaccines, which rely on older technology than that of the mRNA jabs used widely elsewhere, offer less protection against Omicron, though booster shots largely make up for the disparity. Several domestic mRNA vaccines are currently going through trials, and on Monday, CanSino Biologics said its vaccine had been approved to join them.
Hong Kong has recently shown what happens when Omicron rages through a territory with poor vaccination rates. Since late December, Hong Kong has recorded the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world, with the majority of fatalities among elderly, unvaccinated people.
“Hong Kong is a particularly profound lesson for us, an example that if the vaccination rate for the elderly is low, the rate of severe cases and deaths will be high,” NHC deputy director Wang Hesheng said last month. “We must not regret when it is too late.”
With reports from Alexandra Li and Reuters.
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