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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 biggest cities have found themselves backtracking on easing restrictions.

Beijing delayed the reopening of 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 food services at restaurants .

Both cities resumed mass testing over the weekend as outbreaks of the Omicron variant stubbornly persist despite the country’s zero-tolerance-COVID measures. Shanghai even briefly re-quarantined most of the city on Saturday morning to conduct its mass testing, which revealed just 66 cases over the weekend.

While much of the world has definitely moved on to living with the virus, China, by all measures, is digging and even expanding its mass testing method and suppression authorities are calling “Dynamic Zero-COVID” where all positive cases, no matter how mild, were to be isolated and quarantined.

Prior to Omicron, China’s zero-COVID measures had allowed Chinese citizens to lead normal lives 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.

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

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

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Shanghai’s chaotic lockdown implementation, however, came to show the economic and social toll of the country’s tough measures, with Bloomberg Economics predicting China’s growth will be slower than the US for the first time since 1976 .

Council on Foreign Relations senior researcher for global health Yanzhong Huang believes that, despite this, Chinese authorities are learning a very different lesson from the outbreak and the omicron lockdown in Shanghai than when previous zero COVID stalwarts like New Zealand opened after the failure of the omicron. tusks.

“[The Chinese health authorities] think they didn’t respond quickly enough,” Huang told ABC News. “[They believe] if they had acted at the very beginning of the epidemic, they could have cut off transmission and brought the situation under control immediately.

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

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

Since May, China has implemented a strict new PCR testing regime in most major cities across the country – including those where no cases have been detected – and requires people to test negative for COVID-19 every 48 to 72 hours to work, run errands or use public transport.

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

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

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

Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Officials say constant screening will allow them to catch cases early before they spread exponentially so they don’t have to resort to an extended lockdown like Shanghai’s.

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

Chinese English-language outlet Sixth Tone calculated that it would cost around $12.55 billion a year to maintain just this testing regime which would have been paid for by 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 around 74 million people currently under full or partial lockdown measures, up from around 355 million people in April.

Last month, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he did not believe zero COVID was “sustainable, given the current behavior of the virus and what we plan for the future”.

Prompt Chinese ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian to reply immediately, “We hope relevant people can see China’s epidemic prevention and control policy objectively and rationally, get more knowledge of the facts, and refrain from to make irresponsible remarks”.

“The Chinese government’s epidemic prevention and control policy can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective,” Zhao said. “China is one of the most successful countries in epidemic prevention and control in the world, which is evident to the entire international community.”

PICTURED: A health worker in a booth takes a swab sample from a man on a street in the Jing'an district of Shanghai, China June 12, 2022.

A health worker in a booth takes a swab sample from a man on a street in the Jing’an district of Shanghai, China, June 12, 2022.

Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

With a focus on testing and isolation, the conversation around vaccinations has been relatively quiet. Although China was one of the first countries to roll out a vaccination program, around 100 million Chinese citizens remained unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, the majority of whom are vulnerable elderly people.

China mainly relied on its own domestic traditional technology vaccines which – although proved less effective against infection than the mRNA vaccines now used in much of the world – still protected people against the virus. hospitalization and death.

CFR’s Huang said even if vaccination rates improved or an effective, domestically-made mRNA vaccine was rolled out, it was unlikely to change the government’s attitude toward zero-COVID.

“That’s the problem,” Huang said, “if your intention is zero-COVID and you can’t tolerate any infection, no matter how mild, even if it reaches 100% vaccination, even if you have the best vaccines in the world, you cannot prevent infections.

Huang believes that the longer China maintains this policy, the greater the immunity gap between China and the rest of the world.

“You’re basically prolonging the inevitable,” Huang says. “You have to face the reality that with such a large population not exposed to the virus and having a relatively low level of immunity to the virus, no matter how drastic the measures you take, you cannot prevent the virus from dying. ‘infiltrate the borders and affect the Chinese people.’

China’s borders have remained effectively closed since March 2020 and in early May this year, the National Immigration Administration announced on Weibo that it would “strictly restrict non-essential departures of Chinese citizens” and prohibit approval new passports.

PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks chat in Yu Garden, amid new lockdowns in parts of the city to curb the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China.  June 10, 2022.

People wearing protective face masks chat in Yu Garden, amid new lockdown measures in parts of the city to curb the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China. June 10, 2022.

Aly Song/Reuters

While many had hoped China would start easing restrictions after the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February, the outbreaks that emerged soon after clouded those prospects. A major Communist Party meeting to come in the fall where Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in office was seen as the next step, but it also looks increasingly unlikely.

In a sign of how long China’s strict measures will last, look no further than next year’s Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup soccer tournament which is set to start in mid-June 2023. cities but last month completely waived its accommodation rights “due to exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“The zero-COVID policy is the biggest obstacle to China’s economic recovery right now,” Huang said. “But if they choose to walk away from zero-COVID, it will be difficult because this issue is politicized. Walking away means you have to admit the failure of zero-COVID in which the leader himself has so invested.”

During a visit to the western province of Sichuan on Friday, Xi made his position clear.

“Perseverance is victory,” Xi said. “We should unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-COVID’, build trust, eliminate interference, overcome paralyzing thoughts, pay close attention to key epidemic prevention and control tasks, and resolutely consolidate the hard-won results of epidemic prevention and control”.

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Post expires at 1:38pm on Saturday June 25th, 2022