Analysis: Shanghai’s chaotic Covid lockdown puts other Chinese cities on edge

In the southern port city of Guangzhou, where all 18 million residents faced mandatory testing after a handful of infections were found last week, officials stressed that food and other supplies were well taken care of — despite one local paper reporting shortages at supermarkets due to “panic buying.”

Meanwhile, online posts and articles about preparing for outbreaks circulated on Chinese social media — including tips on how to store vegetables to make them last and what to prepare for stays in quarantine. Other articles talked about how cities were ensuring there would be enough supplies to cover lockdown periods.

The signs of public concern come as China enters a difficult phase of its fight against the virus. Shanghai’s outbreak and another in northeastern Jilin province have seen the highly transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant spread to levels never seen before in China.

While the vast majority of cases in recent outbreaks have been in Jilin and Shanghai, infections have been found in some 29 provinces and municipalities.

This poses a significant challenge for China’s Communist Party as it remains steadfast in its “zero-Covid” commitment to eradicate the virus.

And Shanghai’s experience could set a precedent for increasingly harsh measures rolled out elsewhere to control Omicron, experts say.

“Even with the mass testing, we can assume that the virus has moved beyond Shanghai before the city was locked down,” said health security expert Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong.

“While the targeted approach may be returned to in smaller cities, the legacy of Shanghai will see a return to mass lockdowns for larger cities in the near to medium term.”

Simultaneous outbreaks?

All this comes at a politically sensitive time for Beijing, ahead of a twice-a-decade political reshuffle this fall when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to take on a third term — a move unprecedented in recent decades.
Analysts have long said China would not risk relaxing its zero-Covid stance before then, over fears of a destabilizing outbreak. Health authorities have warned the virus could overwhelm health care systems, and put the elderly, who lag in vaccinations, at risk.

But even as Beijing sticks to its zero-tolerance approach, it is facing the possibility of multiple major outbreaks as Omicron spreads.

Resources would be severely stretched if China sticks to its typical playbook, in which it sends medics from around the country and health officials from Beijing to outbreak hotspots to support everything from mass testing to building makeshift hospitals.

It also raises the possibility that local authorities will roll out more stringent controls to ensure the spread of the virus doesn’t reach levels seen in Shanghai.

Authorities there have come in for criticism for initially aiming for a more targeted approach, in comparison with the southern city of Shenzhen, which brought an outbreak last month under control by swiftly locking the whole city down for a week.

In Shanghai, where some residents have been under lockdown for weeks, city officials on Monday announced a tentative relaxation of some measures for residents in areas deemed low risk.

“(More lockdowns) is a reality that many Chinese face, due to the nature of the virus …(and because) the zero-Covid strategy needs to use lockdowns to handle this issue,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“China’s propaganda also makes a public policy change very difficult. Every time… (the leadership) says ‘we are successful, we are the only ones in the world who can actually contain the virus.’ So maybe in one month they will say this (in Shanghai), but other places will be suffering.”

Broken trust

Meanwhile, repeated lockdowns and other restrictions could place China’s citizens in difficult positions, especially as some recent outbreaks of Omicron, like those in Shanghai and Changchun, have been stubborn.

In both cities, case numbers continued to rise despite lockdowns, leaving people wondering when freedom — and in some cases, daily necessities or access to medical care — would arrive.

And in the wake of the challenges faced by locked-down citizens in Shanghai and Jilin, citizens have raised serious questions in online discussions about whether the cost of controlling the virus is greater than the risk of the virus itself.

“Perhaps the most crippling legacy of Shanghai is that the government will need to re-strengthen the trust the people have in the medical sector and government to deal with the pandemic effectively,” said City University’s Thomas.

“Otherwise their ability to control future outbreaks will be much more limited,” he said.

Next phase

There are already multiple restrictions being rolled out throughout the country.

On the heels of its mass testing, authorities in Guangzhou moved school classes online and said people should not leave the city unless necessary and to do so would require a negative Covid-19 test.

The city reported 37 cases on Sunday, after nearly a dozen infections were reported a day earlier.

Lockdowns in Shanghai and other Chinese cities pose a growing threat to the economy

In the central city of Wuhan, where the virus was first identified at the end of 2019, passengers riding the city metro now need to show proof of a negative Covid test.

And in Beijing, residents in a so-called high-risk neighborhood had their movements restricted. Authorities in the Chinese capital authorities said last week that hundreds of close contacts were being monitored, as they raced to track “multiple transmission chains,” including those linked to clothing stores and a kindergarten.

Cities neighboring Shanghai have enacted their own lockdowns over the past week, amid fears of a spillover. In nearby Zhejiang province, authorities pledged to ramp up controls on people entering the region.

These outbreaks all remain small, for now. But how effective these measures will be — and how much they will impact people’s lives — in the long term remains in question.

“Because the Omicron variant is so transmissible and in most cases mild, it is much harder to prevent spread once it becomes established than previous variants were,” said Alex Cook, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

“While China may have enjoyed astonishing successes in its zero-Covid policy until recently, it is unclear whether the strategy remains viable in the Omicron era,” he said.

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