China tackles growing Covid outbreak with lockdown and testing in Shanghai

(AP) - China began its most extensive coronavirus lockdown in two years on Monday to conduct mass testing and control a growing outbreak in Shanghai as questions are raised about the economic toll of the nation’s “zero-Covid” strategy.

Shanghai, China’s financial capital and largest city with 26 million people, had managed its smaller previous outbreaks with limited lockdowns of housing compounds and workplaces where the virus was spreading.

But the citywide lockdown that will be conducted in two phases will be China’s most extensive since the central city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, confined its 11 million people to their homes for 76 days in early 2020. Millions more have been kept in lockdown since then.

Shanghai’s Pudong financial district and nearby areas will be locked down from Monday to Friday as mass testing gets underway, the local government said. In the second phase of the lockdown, the vast downtown area west of the Huangpu River that divides the city will start its own five-day lockdown on Friday.

Residents will be required to stay home and deliveries will be left at checkpoints to ensure there is no contact with the outside world. Offices and all businesses not considered essential will be closed and public transport suspended.

Security guards in protective gear load goods on a trolley to transfer to barricaded residential buildings locked down for health monitoring following a COVID-19 case detected in the area, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Beijing. China began its largest lockdown in two years Monday to conduct mass testing and control a growing outbreak in its largest city of Shanghai as questions are raised about the economic toll of the nation's "zero-COVID" strategy. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Security guards in protective gear load goods on a trolley to transfer to barricaded residential buildings locked down for health monitoring following a COVID-19 case detected in the area, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Beijing. China began its largest lockdown in two years Monday to conduct mass testing and control a growing outbreak in its largest city of Shanghai as questions are raised about the economic toll of the nation's "zero-COVID" strategy. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Already, many communities within Shanghai have been locked down for the past week, with their housing compounds blocked off with blue and yellow plastic barriers and residents required to submit to multiple tests for Covid-19.

Shanghai’s Disneyland theme park is among the businesses that closed earlier. Automaker Tesla is also suspending production at its Shanghai plant, according to media reports.

Panic-buying was reported on Sunday, with supermarket shelves cleared of food, beverages and household items. Additional barriers were being erected in neighbourhoods on Monday, with workers in hazmat suits staffing checkpoints.

In-person observations of the April 5 Tomb Sweeping Festival have been cancelled and memorials will instead be held online.

Some workers, including traders at the city’s stock market, were preparing to stay within a Covid-19 “bubble” for the duration of the lockdown.

Li Jiamin, 31, who works in the finance industry, said she had packed several days of clothing and supplies, and her company was sorting out sleeping and eating arrangements.

“The overall impact is still great,” Li told the Associated Press, pointing especially to losses suffered by workers in the informal sector who have no such support.

Shanghai detected another 3,500 cases of infection on Sunday, though all but 50 were people who tested positive for the coronavirus but were not showing symptoms of Covid-19. While people who are asymptomatic can still infect others, China categorises such cases separately from “confirmed cases” — those in people who are sick — leading to much lower totals in daily reports.

Nationwide, 1,219 new confirmed cases of domestic infection were detected on Sunday, more than 1,000 of them in the north-eastern province of Jilin, along with 4,996 asymptomatic cases, the National Health Commission reported on Monday.

Two deaths were reported on March 20 in Jilin. Before that, mainland China’s official death toll had stood at 4,636 for a year.

China has reported more than 56,000 confirmed cases nationwide this month, with the surge in Jilin accounting for most of them.

Jilin province is enforcing travel bans and partial lockdowns in several cities, including Changchun, one of the centres of the Chinese auto industry. Although the province has seen more than 1,000 new confirmed cases per day, prevention and control measures taken there do not appear to have been as extreme as in other places.

As has become customary, Jilin has been building pre-fabricated temporary wards to house Covid-19 patients and those under observation as suspected cases. The city of Suzhou, about an hour from Shanghai, as well as Changsha in the country’s centre and Shenyang in the northeast are also erecting such structures capable of housing more than 6,000 people.

Shanghai itself has converted two gymnasiums, an exhibition hall and other facilities to house potential infected patients.

China has called its long-standing “zero-tolerance” approach the most economical and effective prevention strategy against Covid-19.

The new measures being enforced in Shanghai aim to “curb the virus spread, protect people’s life and health, and achieve the dynamic zero-Covid target as soon as possible,” the city’s Covid-19 prevention and control office stated in an announcement on Sunday evening.

That requires lockdowns and mass testing, with close contacts often being quarantined at home or in a central government facility. The strategy focuses on eradicating community transmission of the virus as quickly as possible.