Shanghai fears a second lockdown as China battles Covid variant BA.5

The arrival of the BA.5 variant coronavirus in China threatens economically damaging lockdowns across the country, including in Shanghai, where many residents have only recently emerged from a grueling two-month confinement in their homes.

Over the weekend, the country’s most populous city confirmed the increasingly dominant subvariant of Omicron had arrived just weeks after declaring victory against the coronavirus following a city-wide lockdown.

Although the total number of infections in China remains small compared to many other countries — the National Health Commission reported 352 locally transmitted cases Monday — Beijing remains deeply concerned that the arrival of the highly transmissible subvariant could lead to a mass outbreak and a wave of deaths will result. particularly among the undervaccinated elderly population.

Shanghai residents share their experiences of life in lockdown

Shanghai authorities were quick to try to allay fears of a return to April and May when the city’s reputation as a smoothly functioning international financial hub was shaken by China’s most disruptive coronavirus restrictions since the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

Asked if another full-scale lockdown was imminent, the government said on social media app WeChat it only planned to conduct PCR tests for all residents in nine of the city’s 16 boroughs.

While only one street was classified as high risk, 37 were classified as medium risk on Monday, meaning residents are not allowed to leave their homes.

On microblog Weibo, many noted that officials in Shanghai had made similar denials about a broader lockdown in March. “Originally I half believed them. As soon as there was a rejection, I rushed to stock up on merchandise,” reads one comment, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes.

Growing concern from local residents clashed with continued optimistic messages from propagandists. On Friday, the local government launched a month-long campaign to collect images, videos and objects to tell a “heartwarming” story of the city’s lockdown, according to the Shanghai edition of Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based state newspaper.

During the last lockdown, shopping for groceries or securing basic healthcare became a daily struggle for the city’s 25 million residents. Calls to mental health hotlines have tripled. For many, the trauma was compounded by the authorities’ constant shifting of targets, leading to deep uncertainty about when the restrictions would end.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the likely consequences of a coronavirus policy change “unthinkably” bad in the clearest indication yet of where the priorities lie.

Implementing a “dynamic zero-Covid policy” is still best suited to China’s national circumstances, he said, protecting the overall safety and health of the masses “even if it temporarily hampered economic growth somewhat.”

At the same time, Xi ordered that healthy economic performance should be maintained “as far as possible,” and presented local officials with a difficult balancing act.

Economic indicators plummeted during the strict lockdowns, and the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds hit a record 18.4 percent in May, prompting emergency meetings led by Premier Li Keqiang, where he urged officials to do more to do. The government has also begun gradually streamlining the coronavirus policy, including reducing quarantine requirements for international arrivals from 14 to seven days at a government-run facility.

But even with renewed stimulus, many analysts doubt China can meet its annual economic target of 5.5 percent gross domestic product growth, especially as the arrival of BA.5 has prompted cities across China to tighten coronavirus controls again.

After months of lockdown, people and traffic are returning to the streets of Shanghai

Macao, the former Portuguese colony and leading gambling destination in Asia, announced on Monday that it would close its casinos for a week, the first time in more than two years that it has taken such strict measures to contain an outbreak of contain more than 1,500 confirmed infections.

A similar tightening of restrictions is happening across China, with cities like Hangzhou, Hefei and Nanchang increasing the frequency of mandatory PCR testing. As of midnight Sunday, the northern city of Lanzhou imposed weeks of “temporary control measures” and closed most shops and public spaces after reporting just over two dozen cases.

The spread of BA.5, which appears to be resistant to antibodies from vaccines and previous infections, also increases the urgency of China’s vaccination campaign. In Beijing, the local government last week imposed China’s first vaccination mandate for public places – only to reverse the decision days later after a public backlash against compulsory vaccination.

“China needs to go back to basics and launch a strong initiative on third-dose administration, especially in the elderly,” Hong Kong University virologist Jin Dongyan told local media.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report. Shanghai fears a second lockdown as China battles Covid variant BA.5

Dustin Huang

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