Ruinous ‘zero-COVID’ policies have both local and central authorities scrambling to save face and livelihoods
For over seven weeks now, Shanghai has enacted some of the strictest COVID measures the world has ever seen. Since mid-March, China’s largest metropolis and financial hub home to 26 million residents has reported over 15,000 positive cases everyday, though the number of new infections seems to finally be tapering off.
According to official data released on May 13, Shanghai saw 2,096 new infections over 24 hours, and reported only 70 new cases over the weekend. Over 600,000 people in Shanghai have been infected since March 1, official government data said.
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The stringent lockdowns and movement curbs have fueled a din of tragedy and violence as some people jump off rooftops after reaching their breaking point, and others have reportedly starved to death after completely running out of food and essentials, and unable to leave their homes to obtain more.
Many residents have also reported being forced into makeshift quarantine camps if they test positive for the virus — even if they aren’t showing any symptoms — and told to stay there until they test negative. Access to life-saving medicine for anything other than COVID-19 has been virtually impossible to obtain, and some have reportedly died as they wait to be admitted outside Shanghai’s hospitals.
Shanghai authorities: ‘Zero-COVID’ to be achieved by May 20; ‘outbreak is stabilizing’
On May 13, Wu Qing, the executive vice mayor of Shanghai, said in a press briefing that the city is looking to achieve its “societal zero-COVID” target by May 20.
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“The outbreak is stabilizing and the situation is improving although some small fluctuations [of new cases] are seen. After all, more than 99 percent of new infections were detected in quarantine areas, which have already been sealed off,” Wu said.
Shanghai deputy mayor Chen Tong also announced on May 15 that shopping malls, department stores, and supermarkets will resume in-store operations and allow shoppers “in an orderly way” starting May 16. Hair salons and vegetable markets would also be allowed to reopen in a limited capacity.
Chen added that Shanghai’s approach to the epidemic was entering a new transition “from emergency response to normalized prevention and control.”
Will the lockdowns really end this time?
Both Shanghai authorities and the central government seem to be laying the groundwork to end lockdowns in Shanghai and declare “victory” of its “zero-COVID” protocols even if there are still positive cases being reported — a stark contrast to weeks’ of unrelenting lockdowns that saw no end in sight.
But this isn’t the first time authorities in Shanghai have reversed the decision to loosen its COVID measures. On April 21, restrictions were again tightened in some districts, and residents warned that the curbs would continue until the virus was “completely eradicated from all of [Shanghai’s] neighborhoods.”
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On April 18, political risk consultancy SinoInsider reported that, “The Shanghai government and Beijing could even gradually move towards declaring ‘victory’ over the virus and the success of ‘zero-COVID’ in propaganda and official numbers even if it does not reflect the situation on the ground.”
SinoInsider also wrote in a May 9 analysis that Chinese leader Xi Jinping “has to promote and defend [‘zero-COVID’] at all costs, even if it means rolling out heavy-handed, ‘cult of personality’-type propaganda, as well as publicizing nonstop the ‘rational,’ ‘beneficial,’ and ‘scientific’ nature of ‘zero-COVID.’
The report added that “in order to ensure that the policy ‘works,’ the Xi leadership will have to find ways to tweak how ‘zero-COVID’ is defined and falsify data to pave the way in declaring ‘victory’ closer to the 20th Party Congress.”
Xi’s leadership at stake
Both the central government in Beijing as well as Shanghai authorities are likely being compelled to declare “victory” in the “battle to defend Shanghai” and extol the “success” of “zero-COVID” protocols sooner rather than later in this critical time when Xi’s leadership is facing tremendous internal and external pressures over its handling of the pandemic.
Lifting lockdowns in Shanghai is vital to rescuing China’s economy, appeasing an increasingly angry local populace, and stabilizing society in general. “Spinning tragedy into victory” in Shanghai would also help the Xi leadership push back against mounting opposition voices inside the Party, and cover up failures in its draconian epidemic prevention policies, SinoInsider reported.
If Shanghai is indeed looking to make a “victory” declaration by May 20, it is possible that Xi himself could visit the city to show support for his political ally Li Qiang and “resolutely oppose all distortions, doubts and denials” stemming from factional rivals, the New York-based consultancy analyzed.
Other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (the top-ruling body of the Chinese regime), like Li Keqiang could also be tasked to inspect Shanghai in the next few weeks as a show of support for Xi’s leadership.