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As China seeks ‘zero COVID,’ Shanghai delays reopenings and orders mass testing


HONG KONG — Just 10 days after Shanghai lifted its harsh two-month lockdown and less than a week after Beijing declared its outbreak under control, China’s two largest cities found themselves walking back on loosening up restrictions.

Beijing delayed reopening schools on Monday as a new outbreak centered around a popular bar district pushed cases to a three-week high and Shanghai, once again, suspended dine-in services at restaurants.

Both cities were back to conducting mass testing over the weekend as outbreaks of the Omicron variant stubbornly persist despite the country’s no tolerance zero-COVID measures. Shanghai even briefly placed most of the city back in lockdown Saturday morning to conduct its mass test, which only turned up 66 cases through the weekend.

As much of the world has shifted definitively to living with the virus, China, by all measures, is digging in and even expanding their method of mass testing and suppression authorities call “Dynamic Zero-COVID” where all positive cases, no matter how mild, needed to be isolated and quarantined.

Before Omicron, China’s zero-COVID measures had allowed Chinese citizens to go about their lives as normal for nearly two years as COVID-19 ravaged the rest of the world. China still has one of the lowest official COVID-19 death rates in the world.

PHOTO: A guard wears protective clothing as he stands next to a barrier fence outside an apartment under lockdown, during a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing, China, on June 13, 2022.

A guard wears protective clothing as he stands next to a barrier fence outside an apartment under lockdown, during a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing, China, on June 13, 2022.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The chaotic implementation of the Shanghai lockdown, however, came to show the economic and social toll of the country’s stringent measures with Bloomberg Economics predicting that China’s will grow slower than the U.S. economy for the first time since 1976.

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Global Health Yanzhong Huang believes that, despite this, Chinese authorities are drawing a very different lesson from the omicron outbreak and lockdown in Shanghai than when previous zero-COVID stalwarts like New Zealand opened up after omicron broke down their defenses.

“[The Chinese health authorities] believe they didn’t respond speedily enough,” Huang told ABC News. “[They believe] if they took action in the very beginning of the outbreak they would have been able to cut the transmission and bring the situation under control right away.”

In other words, it wasn’t the zero-COVID policy that didn’t work, it was poor implementation that landed Shanghai in lockdown.

So instead of realizing zero-COVID methods were increasingly ineffective against highly transmissible variants like omicron, Huang says authorities came to opposite conclusion: they needed to double down and that zero-COVID is the only way to go.

Since May, China has rolled out a stringent new PCR testing regime in most major cities across the country — including those where no cases have been detected — and are requiring people to test negative for COVID-19 every 48 to 72 hours in order to work, shop or use public transport.

This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of new semi-permanent testing facilities being set up across the country with the aim of having a testing booth within a 15-minute walk of every resident in all provincial capitals and cities with more than 10 million residents.

PHOTO: A worker wearing personal protective equipment stands behind a fence in a residential area under COVID-19 lockdown in the Huangpu district of Shanghai, China, on June 13, 2022.

A worker wearing personal protective equipment stands behind a fence in a residential area under COVID-19 lockdown in the Huangpu district of Shanghai, China, on June 13, 2022.

Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Officials argue that constant screening will allow them to catch cases early before they spread exponentially so they would not have to resort to a prolonged lockdown like Shanghai’s.

Shanghai alone has set up 15,000 testing sites in the city but even then social media is teaming with daily clips of long lines of residents waiting to be tested. These booths are usually manned by one or two technicians sealed in an air-conditioned metal and glass cabin with two rubber gloves or openings to take a patient’s sample.

The English-language Chinese outlet Sixth Tone calculated it would cost an estimated $12.55 billion a year to maintain just this testing regime which would have be paid for by the local governments.

PHOTO: People line up for nucleic acid tests on a street, amid new lockdown measures in parts of the city to curb the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China, June 11, 2022.

People line up for nucleic acid tests on a street, amid new lockdown measures in parts of the city to curb the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China, June 11, 2022.

Aly Song/Reuters

Meanwhile according to Japanese investment bank Nomura there are still eight cities across China and an estimated 74 million people currently under full or partial lockdown measures, down from an estimated 355 million people in April.

Last month, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commented that he did not believe zero-COVID is “sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future.”

Prompting the Chinese Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian to immediately…



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