China battling unrest over ‘zero-Covid’ lockdown cycle

Tough new restrictions in Shanghai trigger widespread anger

Healthcare workers conducting Covid-19 tests in Shanghai, China
Healthcare workers conducting Covid-19 tests in Shanghai, China
(Image credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

China has begun relocating entire communities from areas of Shanghai as officials scramble to stem a fresh outbreak of Covid-19 infections.

According to the BBC’s Shanghai correspondent Robin Brant, “an official notice from local Communist Party officials in an area in the north of the city details orders to transfer residents to quarantine facilities more than 100 miles away”.

The move has sparked an “onslaught of complaints” from Shanghai over “zero-Covid measures” that is “challenging” Beijing’s “attempts to control information”, The Guardian reported.

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Relocation, relocation, relocation

Shanghai is entering a fourth week of lockdown, but the number of new confirmed Covid cases is continuing to rise.

On Monday, China’s most populous city reported 22,248 new infections and three related deaths – the first Covid fatalities recorded in Shanghai since the beginning of the pandemic, although experts have cast doubt on official figures.

“Around 25 million people in Shanghai remain locked down as Chinese authorities try to control the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the Asian nation since the initial lockdown in Wuhan at the start of 2020,” Deutsche Welle (DW) reported.

But the measures have placed enormous “pressure on public health facilities and health care workers” in the coastal city, a global financial hub, the broadcaster added.

The Communist Party notice seen by the BBC’s Brant reportedly also outlined plan to “to move people from their homes in Pingwang to the neighbouring province of Zhejiang, where they will stay for at least a week”. The notice said that “only those who tested negative could go”, according to Brant, who added that “it's not clear why people with negative tests are being moved”.

What is known is that officials are facing “great pressure to cut the risk of transmission and reduce cases to zero”, he added.

But “China’s strict system of censorship is struggling” in the face of a growing backlash over Covid measures, The Guardian reported.

Amid “widespread food shortages, delivery failures and fatal healthcare disruptions”, the government has urged residents to harness “positive energy”, the paper continued. But “far from inspiring residents to fall in line, the methods have made tensions grow”, with an increasing number of social media users criticising the authorities.

Video footage posted online showing officials cracking down on outspoken citizens has further radicalised many people. In one video seen by the paper, “pandemic workers appeared to be forcing their way into a man’s flat to demand he remove a critical post”.

End of the road?

Since the pandemic hit, the Chinese authorities have championed their “zero-Covid” approach as the only way to stem deaths and keep the country’s economy growing. In contrast to the West’s approach of “living with the virus”, Beijing has claimed to have kept the virus at bay through centralised management and tight restrictions.

But the “clumsy lockdown of Shanghai is testing the ‘zero-covid’ strategy”, said The Economist. Until recently, the city “remained relatively unscathed by Covid”.

Following widespread outbreaks, however, Shanghai authorities have “converted multiple hospitals, gymnasiums, apartment blocks and other venues into central quarantine sites” that are now housing “tens of thousands of people”, DW said.

Some of these people are reported to be there against their will. Health workers “have been filmed striking people or pulling them by their hair from their homes”, said The Economist. And footage from makeshift quarantine centres has shown patients “protesting against a lack of food, water and treatment”.

But “the authorities’ most controversial policy has been separating Covid-positive children from their parents”, the paper continued. Videos of “dozens of children, some just months old, lying five to a bed, caused an uproar”, forcing the authorities to backtrack on the policy.

The “human costs” of the lockdown have “sparked frustration and despair”, said The Guardian’s editorial board, but China’s “leaders have no exit strategy”.

“To let the virus loose now, with low vaccination rates among older people, and reliance on the less effective domestically produced vaccine, would be likely to result in significant disruption and death,” the paper added.

Echoing that warning, The Economist said that while Shanghai “residents have been filmed on their balconies, chanting to be set free”, a “large outbreak in the country could result in millions of deaths”.

“The effort in Shanghai may look like a military campaign, but it is to avoid a broader war,” the paper concluded.

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