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COVID: Shanghai says lockdown eases as spread eases

BEIJING –

Most of Shanghai has halted the spread of the community coronavirus and fewer than 1 million people remain under strict lockdown, authorities said Monday, as the city heads towards a reopening and economic data shows the dire impact of China’s ‘zero-COVID “politics showed.

Vice Mayor Zong Ming said 15 of Shanghai’s 16 districts have eliminated virus transmission among those not yet in quarantine.

“The epidemic in our city is under effective control. Prevention measures have gradually achieved success,” Zong said at a news conference.

Supermarkets, malls and restaurants were allowed to reopen Monday with caps on the number of people and mandatory no-contact transactions. But most of the city’s 25 million residents remain restricted in some form, movement around the city is severely restricted and the subway system remains closed for the time being.

Even as case numbers fall, city and national authorities have sent mixed messages about the state of Shanghai’s outbreak and when life in the city, where many residents have been confined to their homes, grounds and neighborhoods for more than 50 days, can go back to normal. June 1 has been given as the expected date for a full reopening.

Zong said authorities are “remaining sober” about the possibility of another outbreak, especially as reports of new infections continue to come in from centralized isolation centers and older, run-down neighborhoods.

“Citywide, our prevention efforts are not yet firmly established, and it will take all of our continuous hard work and the cooperation of the broad masses of citizens and friends … to restore the city’s normal operations in an orderly manner,” Zong said.

Shanghai’s reckless and often chaotic implementation of virus restrictions has sparked protests over shortages of food, medical supplies, freedom of movement and already severely curtailed privacy rights.

Despite this, China has dismissed any criticism of “zero-COVID”, including from the World Health Organization. The ruling Communist Party says it has pledged to “resolutely oppose any attempt to distort, question or dismiss China’s anti-COVID policy”.

China reported 1,159 cases of infection on Monday, the vast majority in Shanghai. Almost all were infections without symptoms.

Fifty-four cases have been reported in Beijing, where a much smaller outbreak has prompted mass testing and a house-by-house lockdown. Authorities have ordered people to work from home, moved schools online and restricted restaurants in the capital to takeout.

China’s strict lockdowns have wreaked havoc on jobs, supply chains and the broader economy, and data released Monday showed factory and consumer activity in April was even weaker than expected.

Retail sales slumped 11.1%, while manufacturing output slipped 2.9% after factories closed and those who continued to work with live-in workers were forced to halt production due to disruptions in manufacturing reduce supply of components.

About half of Shanghai’s 9,000 largest industrial firms are back to work after controls that shut down most of the city from late March were eased, said Fu Linghui, director of statistics at the National Bureau of Statistics.

Private sector economists have forecast China’s economic growth forecast for this year at just 2%, well below the ruling party’s target of 5.5% and last year’s 8.1% expansion.

While other countries are opening up to learn to live with COVID-19, China’s borders remain largely closed and even transportation within the country is severely restricted.

National carrier Air China reported an 84.3% drop in domestic passenger traffic in April from the same month last year, while another leading carrier, China Southern Airlines, reported an 81.7% drop.

Despite this news, politics continues to drive the ruling party’s response to the pandemic. Looking ahead to a key party convention later this year, party leaders said after a May 5 meeting that containing outbreaks would take precedence over the economy.

In a recent report, Eurasia Group predicted that China would only emerge from “zero-COVID” after the 20th National Party Congress, where President and Party leader Xi Jinping is expected to receive a third five-year term, and won. It will not be complete until the new government lineup is finalized next spring.

Easing the measures will also depend on improving medical treatment for COVID-19 patients as well as vaccination rates, which are particularly low among the elderly, the report said. Chinese citizens are also having to accept higher infection and death rates after more than two years of suppressing outbreaks at all costs, it said.

“Despite mounting economic and social pressures…China’s leadership remains committed to its ‘zero-COVID’ strategy,” the report said. Until the new leaders take office, “the political atmosphere around containment will remain tense.”


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Associated Press writer Joe McDonald contributed to this report

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