BEIJING — Shanghai will try again to reopen in a few days after it has eliminated COVID-19 transmission among the general population as the outbreak in China’s largest city subsides, an official said Friday.
The strict lockdown of the city — now in its seventh week, but lifted and reinforced at times to the frustration of residents — is part of the ruling Communist Party’s “zero-COVID” policy that has exacted a mounting economic toll and that even the World Health Organization says may be unsustainable.
The goal in Shanghai is to achieve “elimination in society,” meaning any new cases would only be in people already in isolation, Vice Mayor Wu Qing said at a news conference. That would allow an “orderly opening, limited (population) flow, and differentiated management,” Wu said.
No exact date beyond the middle of the month was given, nor did Wu say how the reopening would occur except that the city intends to gradually restore industrial production, education and medical services.
Shanghai officials have made similar assurances in the past, only for restrictions to return even as cases wane in the city of 25 million people.
Complaints about food shortages and other hardships and videos posted online showing people in Shanghai and other areas arguing with police have been deleted by censors.
In Beijing, which has a much smaller outbreak, more daily testing has been ordered, classes have been suspended, people have been ordered to work from home, restaurants are restricted to takeout service, and many shops, tourist sites, banks and government offices are closed.
Some residential communities are under lockdown and residents have been warned to avoid traveling between city districts.
Shanghai reported 2,096 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, all but 227 of them in people not showing symptoms. Beijing reported 50 cases, in line with recent daily totals.
At a Friday briefing, National Health Commission spokesperson Mi Feng said that while case numbers are dropping, local transmission has not been entirely cut in some places and the situation remains “grim and complex.”
In a sign that testing may become routine in the future, authorities have ordered all cities to set up testing sites that are no more than 15 minutes’ walk from where people live. Shanghai alone now has more than 5,700 in operation, with plans for another 4,200, state media reported.
China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed as “irresponsible” WHO’s doubts expressed earlier this week about continuing the “zero-COVID” approach mandating strict lockdowns, mass testing and the compulsory removal to crowded centralized quarantine centers of anyone who tests positive or is a close contact.
Experts have questioned the policy’s continued use given that vaccines are widely available, and it has affected growth in the world’s second largest economy as well as global supply chains.
Yet it has become ever-more closely identified with Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is determined to maintain tight social control and shore up his and the party’s authority ahead of a key party congress later this year.
Already highly limited rights to privacy, free speech and personal autonomy have been further restricted in the name of fighting the pandemic. China’s borders have been largely closed for more than two years, and this week the government said it would tighten restrictions on outbound travel by Chinese citizens and increase scrutiny over the issuance of passports.
At a meeting last week, the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee said it was committed to “resolutely fighting any attempts to distort, question or dismiss China’s anti-COVID policy.”
“In the face of mounting uncertainties due to COVID-19, one thing remains certain — China will stick to its dynamic zero-COVID policy that has proven pragmatic and effective,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in an editorial Thursday.
China’s outbreaks and the ensuing restrictions have led to a number of events being canceled or postponed, most recently the Asian Games originally scheduled for September in the city of Hangzhou, 177 kilometers (110 miles) west of Shanghai.