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Health workers wearing personal protective equipment arrive at a neighbourhood during the COVID-19 lockdown in the Jing'an district in Shanghai on April 24.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

Shanghai authorities battling an outbreak of COVID-19 have erected fences outside residential buildings, sparking fresh public outcry over a lockdown that has forced much of the city’s 25 million people indoors.

The largest district in Beijing, meanwhile, will require everyone living or working in the area to take three COVID tests this week, and put more than a dozen buildings under lockdown, after the Chinese capital reported 22 new cases for Saturday. The district, Chaoyang, is home to 3.45 million people.

In Shanghai, images of workers in white hazmat suits sealing entrances of housing blocks and closing off entire streets with green fencing – roughly two-metres tall – went viral on social media, prompting questions and complaints from residents.

“This is so disrespectful of the rights of the people inside, using metal barriers to enclose them like domestic animals,” said one user on social media platform Weibo.

One video showed residents shouting from balconies at workers trying to set up fencing. The workers relented and took it away. Other videos showed people trying to pull fences down. “Isn’t this a fire hazard?” asked another Weibo user.

Many of the fences were erected around compounds designated “sealed areas” – buildings where at least one person tested positive for COVID-19, meaning residents are forbidden from leaving their front doors.

It was not clear what prompted authorities to resort to fencing. A notice dated Saturday from one local authority shared online said it was imposing “hard quarantine” in some areas. Reuters was not able to verify the authenticity of the notice or all of the images, but saw green fencing on a street in central Shanghai on Sunday.

In recent days, Reuters has also seen police in hazmat suits patrolling Shanghai streets, setting up road blocks and asking pedestrians to return home.

The Shanghai government did not respond to a request for comment.

Shanghai is China’s most populous city and most important economic hub. It is battling the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 with a policy that forces all positive cases into quarantine centres.

The lockdown, which for many residents has lasted more than three weeks, has fuelled frustration over lost wages, family separation and quarantine conditions as well as access to medical care and food.

Shanghai is carrying out daily citywide COVID tests and accelerating transfer of positive cases to central facilities to eradicate virus transmission outside quarantine areas.

In the past week, authorities have also transferred entire communities, including uninfected people, saying they need to disinfect their homes, according to residents and social media posts.

Many residents have vented on the internet about the lockdown and express dissent, using euphemisms and other means to battle government censors who often remove content critical of the authorities. Videos of Do You Hear The People Sing?, a protest anthem from Les Miserables, have been widely reposted, with the title of the French musical receiving more than 90 million mentions on WeChat on Saturday, the chat app’s data showed.

Shanghai reported 39 COVID deaths for April 23, compared with 12 a day earlier and by far the most during the current outbreak. It did not report any deaths in the first few weeks, fuelling doubt among residents about the figures. It has since reported 87 fatalities, all in the past seven days.

The city recorded 19,657 new locally transmitted asymptomatic cases, versus 20,634 a day prior, and 1,401 symptomatic, versus 2,736.

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