BEIJING—The city of Shanghai is doubling down on pandemic restrictions after a brief period of loosening up, frustrating residents who were hoping a more than monthlong lockdown was finally easing as the number of new cases falls in China’s financial center.
On Tuesday, service was suspended on the last two subway lines that were still operating, marking the first time the city’s entire system has been shut down, according to The Paper, an online media outlet.
Teams in white protective suits have begun entering the homes of coronavirus-infected people to spray disinfectant, prompting worries among some about damage to clothes and valuables, and about leaving their keys with a community volunteer when they are taken to quarantine—a new requirement so disinfectant workers can get in.
In some areas, people have been ordered to stay in their homes again for a “quiet period” after being let out for limited shopping in recent weeks.
The Chinese regime’s adherence to a “zero-COVID” strategy, as many other countries loosen restrictions and try to live with the virus, is exacting a growing economic and human cost. Evermore extreme measures have been required to bring outbreaks under control because the Omicron variant spreads so easily. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is showing no signs of backing off anytime soon.
Shanghai reaffirmed Wednesday it would maintain the “zero-COVID” approach after the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was not sustainable and urged China to change strategies.
Relaxing prevention and control measures could allow the virus to rebound, deputy director of Shanghai’s Center for Disease Control Wu Huanyu told reporters.
“At the same time, now is also the most difficult and critical moment for our city to achieve zero-COVID,” Wu said at a daily briefing.
Wu gave no indication he was aware of the comments by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said he had discussing with Chinese experts the need to change to a new approach in light of new knowledge about the virus.
“When we talk about the ‘zero-COVID,’ we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” Tedros said at a news briefing Tuesday.
“And especially when we have now a good knowledge, understanding of the virus and when we have good tools to use, transitioning to another strategy will be very important,” he said.
Tedros was joined by Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, who said all pandemic control actions should “show due respect to individual and human rights.”
Countries need to “balance the control measures, the impact on society, the impact on the economy. That is not always an easy calibration to make,” Ryan said.
The CCP has strictly controlled all discussion about its controversial approach, which aims to totally stamp out outbreaks, and said it would tolerate no criticism. The entirely state-controlled media did not report on the comments by Tedros and Ryan and references to them on the Chinese internet appeared to have been removed by censors.
Fengxian district, a suburban area in southern Shanghai, entered a “quiet period” on Monday, with permits for residents to leave their compounds suspended and shops and supermarkets closed except for delivery, the Shanghai Media Group reported.
Workers at one supermarket filled bags with celery, cooking oil, and other groceries in a designated area, where delivery persons picked them up. Xie Yu, the manager, said the store is also trying to restock goods in high demand. “When offline sales are resumed, customers will be able to buy what they need immediately,” he said.
Escape from Shanghai is all but impossible, but that didn’t stop an unofficial how-to guide—detailing how to navigate lockdown controls and nab a seat on the few trains and planes leaving the city—from circulating widely on social media. Many in the city of 25 million people shared their frustrations over the renewed restrictions in chat groups.
The daily number of new cases in Shanghai reported on Wednesday had fallen to less than 1,500, down from a peak of 26,000 in mid-April. Seven more COVID-19-related deaths were reported, raising the toll from the outbreak to 560.
In the capital Beijing, residents have been ordered to undergo mass testing in a bid to prevent a major outbreak like that in Shanghai. The city, which reported 37 new cases on Wednesday, has locked down individual buildings and residential compounds, shut about 60 subway stations and banned dining at restaurants, allowing only takeout and delivery.
The actual number of COVID-19 cases may be much higher. China’s COVID-19 data is difficult to verify, as the Chinese regime routinely suppresses or alters information.
Beijing spokesperson Xu Hejian said the city needs to continue its strict measures as the outbreak has not stopped spreading.
While traffic is sparse in Beijing, it is almost non-existent in Shanghai, where the lockdown has been going on longer and is citywide. AP video shot Monday showed a silent and deserted city, with only a very occasional vehicle and a few food delivery drivers on scooters moving down empty roads. Most people are confined to their apartments or residential complexes, though there has been some easing in outlying suburban areas without new cases in their communities.
But notices issued in several Shanghai districts in recent days ordered residents to stay home and barred them from receiving nonessential deliveries as part of a “quiet period” lasting until Wednesday or longer. The measures could be extended depending on the results of mass testing, the notices said. The sudden re-tightening took residents by surprise.
A constitutional law professor, Tong Zhiwei, posted an article recently calling for Shanghai to end what he called “excessive pandemic prevention measures” such as quarantining residents and forcing them to surrender their house keys, saying the requirements contravene the rule of law.
The article has been removed from the internet as the CCP censors criticism of its response.
Thousands of people have been forced into quarantine centers after testing positive or having been in contact with an infected person, standard procedure in China’s zero-COVID approach.