Shanghai is at the center of the latest outbreak, reporting more than 10,000 new cases daily. Authorities responded with a citywide lockdown that lasted for weeks, confining nearly all of the once bustling financial hub’s 25 million residents to their homes or neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, officials in Beijing have launched mass testing exercises, closed schools and imposed targeted lockdowns on some residential buildings in a bid to curb infections. These actions have raised fears of a broader lockdown similar to Shanghai’s.
Throughout the pandemic, China has stuck to a strict zero Covid strategy that uses lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and border closures to contain the virus. But the arrival of the highly infectious variant of Omicron has called into question the sustainability of this strategy, with the virus spreading to different cities and provinces faster than the government can contain it.
Authorities are now imposing full or partial lockdowns in at least 27 cities across the country, with those restrictions affecting up to 165 million people, according to CNN calculations.
Here’s what you need to know about the Covid situation in China.
Where are the lockdowns and restrictions?
Cases in China began to rise in March, quickly turning into the worst outbreak the country has seen since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020.
The northeastern province of Jilin was hit hard at the start of the outbreak. The authorities have put the provincial capital Changchun, an industrial hub, under a strict citywide lockdown on March 11, with the neighboring city of Jilin following suit on March 21.
On Thursday, authorities in Changchun and Jilin city, which have a combined population of more than 13.5 million, said they would soon start easing lockdowns gradually – although it’s unclear what this process will look like, or under what conditions people will do it. be allowed to leave their homes.
Authorities also locked down several other cities, including the main economic hub of Shenzhen, in March – although some of those measures have since been lifted.
Shanghai, which has recorded more than half a million cases since March 1, introduced a staggered lockdown in late March. This had expanded to a full citywide lockdown by the end of the month.
Some neighborhoods can start easing lockdown measures if they haven’t reported any cases in the past two weeks, Shanghai authorities said on Wednesday – but that’s a tenuous freedom, with the threat of a reimposed lockdown if even a local case is detected.
In Beijing, a mass testing campaign covered nearly 20 million people, or around 90% of the city’s population. Another round of citywide testing is planned for From April 27 to 30.
Targeted closures in Beijing’s Chaoyang district this week banned residents of 13 buildings from leaving their apartments and residents of another 33 buildings from leaving their residential compounds.
The capital on Thursday closed schools in many of its most populated neighborhoods. Several major hospitals have also announced their closures, and a growing number of entertainment venues, including cinemas, have also been ordered to close.
Full or district-wide lockdowns are in effect in more than two dozen cities, including Hangzhou, home to 12.2 million people; Suzhou, home to 12.7 million people; and Harbin, home to 9.5 million people. They span 14 provinces, from the remote northeastern province of Heilongjiang to southern Guangxi and the mountainous western province of Qinghai.
What does life under lockdown look like?
Much of Shanghai’s lockdown has been characterized by chaos and dysfunction – which has sparked alarm in other cities this fear that they might be next.
Many residents have complained of food shortages, a lack of medical access, poor conditions in makeshift quarantine camps and heavy-handed measures such as authorities separating infected children from their parents.
In March, a furloughed nurse in Shanghai died after being turned away from an emergency department at her own hospital which was closed for disinfection. In early April, a health worker beat a pet corgi to death after its owner tested positive for Covid, the murder caught on camera. Last week, workers allegedly broke down the door of a 92-year-old woman’s house in the early hours of the morning force she in quarantine.
These stories and many more have gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking a rare online outcry.
These incidents – especially in Shanghai, long considered China’s most modern and cosmopolitan city – have people elsewhere on high alert.
Although Beijing has yet to restrict people’s movement outside of designated high-risk areas, many locals – fearing a wider lockdown is on the way – started panic buying this week, forming long lines waiting at supermarket checkouts and emptying shelves.
What was the economic cost?
The closures and restrictions have dealt a severe blow to activity, especially in economically important cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Unemployment hit a 21-month high in March. Many companies have been forced to suspend operations in multiple locations, including automakers Volkswagen and Tesla and iPhone assembler Pegatron. China’s currency, the yuan, has weakened rapidly this week, plunging to its lowest level since November 2020.
The Chinese government is “painfully aware of the damage to the economy,” Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said earlier this month. He cited a private meeting with a Chinese ministry, but declined to name the agency.
“They are worried about unemployment,” he added. “They’re worried about foreign companies putting money elsewhere.”
Why is China sticking to zero-Covid?
Despite rising anger in the face of chaotic shutdowns and a death toll that remained relatively low until this latest outbreak, authorities and state media have indicated that China’s zero-Covid policy will not change any time soon.
Shanghai’s dire situation “highlights the need to stick to the aggressive zero Covid policy,” nationalist tabloid Global Times said on Wednesday.
“If Shanghai, with the best medical system in the country, is in urgent need of help with the growing number of serious cases, who will be there to offer help if other parts of China also have to fight the coronavirus? onslaught of the coronavirus?
There are several reasons why China is so stubbornly sticking to zero-Covid. Many Chinese leaders and scientists have expressed concern that easing restrictions could allow the virus to spread across the country, potentially causing a spike in infections and deaths, and overwhelming the healthcare system – especially given lagging vaccination rates among the elderly.
While China has focused massive resources on developing and manufacturing local vaccines, it has failed to ensure these get into the arms of the elderly population. Now that authorities have confirmed expectations that death rates in the country will remain low, they have no choice but to rely on lockdowns to protect vulnerable people.
There is also a political element, with Xi firmly placing his personal stamp on the zero-Covid policy throughout the pandemic. The central government has often pointed to the low official death toll as proof of the effectiveness of its strategy and to assert its superiority over Western governments.
Xi has personally reiterated his support for zero-Covid throughout the pandemic, saying last year it showed China’s commitment to saving “every human life” – making the stakes particularly high as the government now struggles to simultaneously contain the virus, sustain the blight on the economy and assuage public discontent.
And for Xi, it comes at a particularly sensitive time, months before his expected entry into a near-unprecedented third term in power this fall.