China’s financial center of Shanghai started easing its lockdown in some areas on Monday despite reporting a record of more than 25,000 new Covid-19 infections, as authorities strive to get the city moving again after more than two weeks.
Pressure has been mounting on authorities in China’s most populous city, and one of its wealthiest, from residents growing increasingly frustrated as the curbs dragged on, leaving some struggling to find enough food and medicine.
Shanghai is grouping residential units into three risk categories as a step towards allowing “appropriate activity” by those in neighbourhoods with no positive cases during a two-week stretch, city official Gu Honghui said.
“Each district will announce the specific names of the first batch (of communities) divided into the three types, and three subsequent lists will be announced in a timely manner,” Gu told a news briefing.
While it was not clear how many of the city’s 25 million residents will have lockdowns immediately eased, the step promises some relief for many cooped up for more than three weeks in the battle against China’s biggest outbreak since coronavirus was first found in central Wuhan in late 2019.
One video, widely shared online, showed occupants of a row of apartment blocks screaming and shouting from windows.
Reporters from The Paper, a Shanghai state-run publication, livestreamed themselves visiting just-announced prevention areas in the central district of Jing’an, whose occupants said they were still locked in and waiting to be notified of next steps by their neighbourhood committees.
But they expressed joy at the news. “The moment we heard the news our mood improved…it’s been so many days,” a resident surnamed Pan told the news outlet from the front door of her compound. She said her and her neighbours had been sealed off since April 1.
“Still, even though we will be let out, I’ve told everyone it’s best not to go far, even if you order food, best to do it online,” she said.
Gu said Shanghai was divided into 7,624 areas that are still sealed off, with a group of 2,460 now subject to “controls” after a week of no new infections, and 7,565 “prevention areas” to be opened up after two weeks without a positive case.
Those in “prevention areas” who move around their neighbourhoods must observe social distancing and could be sealed off again if there are new infections, Gu added.
One of the first districts to release its list was the industrial area of Jinshan on Shanghai’s southwestern edge, which posted the names of residential sites still in high- and medium-risk categories.
Some social media users criticised the easing move as a big risk at a time of a record new daily caseload, but others said Shanghai had no choice.
“I think this is the Shanghai government admitting it cannot continue locking down while ensuring that its citizens don’t starve to death,” said a Weibo user, posting under the name Ruan Yi.
Complaints about controls continue, with some in the city’s Xuhui district telling Reuters that neighbourhood committees had put locks and bicycle chains on their front doors from late Sunday to confine them to their homes.
China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, prescribing central quarantine for anyone testing positive even in the absence of symptoms, is increasingly strained by the highly infectious, though less deadly, Omicron variant.
The policy has halted nearly all international travel, and is taking a growing economic toll as cities impose curbs, with southern Guangzhou and eastern Ningbo the latest to do so, even as other countries try to live with the disease.
On Monday, the European Chamber of Commerce in China said it sent a letter to China’s State Council, or cabinet, describing the challenges for firms because of the recent Covid prevention measures and urging the country to review the policy.
Data also showed that China auto sales plunged in March as the country’s curbs to rein in Covid-19 outbreaks took a toll, with Tesla Inc TSLA.O among automakers feeling the pain of limits on production.
Still, the “dynamic clearance” policy remained Shanghai’s “best option”, said national official Liang Wannian.
It was misleading to view Omicron as “big flu”, and lowering China’s guard would expose its huge elderly population to risk, especially as the virus mutates, said Liang, who heads a National Health Commission panel on Covid-19.
“If we lie flat, the epidemic would just be a disaster for these kinds of vulnerable people,” the People’s Daily newspaper of the ruling Communist Party quoted Liang, as saying, making use of a popular term for doing the minimum.
Shanghai added 25,173 new asymptomatic infections on Sunday, up from 23,937 the previous day, although symptomatic cases edged down to 914 from 1,006.
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