HONG KONG — Officials in Shanghai, which has been on lockdown for weeks as officials battle China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, said Friday they aim to reach zero cases of out-of-quarantine by May 20.
That could make it possible to ease restrictions in the city of 26 million people, where residents have complained about food shortages and mental health problems as the lockdown has been extended several times.
As the rest of the world begins to live with the virus, China’s Covid strategy is coming under more scrutiny, including rare criticisms from World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said it was untenable in the face of the highly transferable ommicron variety.
“Given the behavior of the virus, I think a shift will be very important,” he said at a news conference this week, adding that he had discussed the matter with Chinese experts.
His comments came after President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to China’s Covid strategy, which has kept the number of cases and deaths well below those in the United States and other countries. A change of course could jeopardize his plan to secure an unprecedented third term at a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year, analysts say.
At a meeting led by Xi last week, the party’s top leaders pledged to “hold unswervingly to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero Covid’, and to fight resolutely against all words and deeds that threaten the epidemic prevention policy of twist, doubt or deny our country. †
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The news caused the Shanghai government to rush to double down on anti-covid measures as some residents who had been given restricted movement for the first time in weeks were ordered back to their homes. Others reported that workers who are suitable for hazardous materials known as “Big Whites” enter people’s homes to perform disinfection and transport entire buildings of people to quarantine if a resident tests positive.
Tedros’ comments were quickly suppressed by Chinese censors, who removed a post from the United Nations’ account on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, and blocked users from searching for his name.
Asked about his comments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China’s Covid policy was based on “national realities” and officials were adjusting anti-epidemic measures based on changing circumstances.
“We hope that relevant people will view China’s Covid policy in an objective and rational light, learn more about the facts and not make irresponsible comments,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Zhao pointed to a study published this week in the journal Nature, who said an uncontrolled omicron outbreak in China could result in a “tsunami” of cases and 1.55 million deaths, mostly among unvaccinated people aged 60 and older. Chinese leaders fear a repeat of this year’s deadly ommicron outbreak in the territory of Hong Kong, which, like mainland China, had low vaccination coverage among the elderly.
Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the model in the Nature study is at odds with the real data coming from Shanghai, where there have been more than 600,000 cases and fewer than 600,000 cases since March 1. 600 deaths.
“It’s actually crystal clear that the real damage isn’t that serious,” he said.
Many of the measures taken in Shanghai are unproductive and may even be counterproductive, Jin said.
“They have to vaccinate the kids, vaccinate the elderly — that’s the number one priority,” he said. “If they can do this well, they will be much better able to abolish the zero-covid policy.”
Xi told the party meeting that the lockdown would succeed in Shanghai, as it would in Wuhan, the central Chinese city that was on lockdown for 76 days in 2020 after the virus was first discovered there the year before. But a lot has changed since then, says Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow who studies China’s state-society relations at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“People don’t unite as much around the party-state zero-covid strategy anymore, and we see that division being played out online,” she said.
Some Chinese academics and economists have been censored online after questioning the legality of some measures in Shanghai or expressing concerns about the economic impact of the country’s current lockdowns, which extend to dozens of cities and affect hundreds of millions of people.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund cut its 2022 growth forecast for China from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent, citing lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere. In March, as the ommicron outbreak brought tighter restrictions, unemployment in Chinese urban areas rose to 5.8 percent, the highest since May 2020.
The Covid restrictions in China have also been criticized by overseas business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce in China. According to an survey among 121 companies The group, which was held from April 29 to May 5, said more than half of respondents said they had delayed or reduced investment in the country because of the ommicron outbreak.
“We understand that China chooses to put health and safety above all else, but current measures are limiting US business confidence in China,” Chairman Colm Rafferty said.
In fact, China’s strategy is evolving, said Wang Huiyao, founder and chairman of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing. He pointed to the situation in Beijing, which reports dozens of omicron cases a day: There are massive tests, a partial shutdown of transportation, bans on dining services and lockdowns in some residential buildings, but a citywide lockdown has been avoided so far.
He said the Beijing experiment could open a new path for China if successful, but it would take another week or two to figure it out.
“If it works, maybe China will come out okay, if not, you have to find a way to follow the international pattern,” Wang said. “But China wouldn’t give up on doing that right now. I think we need some more time.”