Hutong Cat | Two years after Wuhan, Shanghai is China's new Covid-19 epicentre

  • Barely weeks after the Games, the situation in Shanghai, China’s snazzy financial hub, home to about 25 million people and a handful of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, is grim.
Medical workers conduct ward rounds at Shanghai New International Exhibition Hall, which has been turned into a makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients, in Shanghai, China. (Reuters) PREMIUM
Medical workers conduct ward rounds at Shanghai New International Exhibition Hall, which has been turned into a makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients, in Shanghai, China. (Reuters)
Published on Apr 11, 2022 03:15 PM IST
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On April 7, 2020, Wuhan, the first city to be locked down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, celebrated its reopening after 11 weeks of harsh restrictions on movement and individual freedoms with a light show in the sky.

As restrictions were lifted, buildings lit up and honking cars lined up at toll booths for joy rides across city borders.

Some 11 million residents of the central Chinese city breathed a collective sigh of relief from exhausting restraints.

It was liberation from lockdown, a word, which wasn’t really in our collective until Wuhan’s status was unexpectedly updated to it on January 23, 2020.

The good thing was that despite the criticism of the nature of restrictions and the toll of over 50000 confirmed cases and 3869 deaths — which as it turned out were much, much smaller compared to global Covid-19 statistics — the policies worked.

In the remaining months of 2020 and until early 2021, China did not eliminate but effectively curbed the spread of Covid-19 at home with quick lockdowns, mass testing, effective tracking of contacts and mandatory quarantine to isolate infected people whenever new cases were recorded.

A new Covid-19 situation, however, evolved in 2021.

Unlike previous outbreaks, which didn’t spread far beyond a single geography, Covid-19 clusters in August 2021, for example, were confirmed in over 30 cities in 17 of China’s 33 provinces and regions.

China responded with more of the same policies but gave it the mathematically lofty name of the “Zero-Covid” policy, essentially meaning that every single Covid case – at least the ones transmitted locally – had to be eradicated.

In the following months, China’s anti-Covid policies didn’t change but the virus did; sneaky, virulent mutants began to spread faster and in manners stealthier.

So, towards the end of 2021, China subtly changed the name of its Covid-containment policy — also called rebranding in marketing — to “Dynamic-zero”, or some variation of the phrase thereof, accepting that there will be a handful of cases but large scale outbreaks will be prevented. At whatever cost.

The phrase “dynamic-zero” was much in use in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province when China allowed a large number of foreigners to fly in because of the Games.

The Covid-19 tally wasn’t high when the Games ended: A few hundred cases in the Games villages but no outbreak.

The dynamism of China’s anti-Covid policies had worked. Again.

No. Not really.

Barely weeks later, the situation in Shanghai, China’s snazzy financial hub, home to about 25 million people and a handful of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, is grim.

The megapolis and its people are looking at an indefinite lockdown as of April 9 with city authorities scrambling to control the Omicron-driven outbreak, which has logged a record number of cases every day from the beginning of the month.

Since March 1, and until April 7, the city had reported a total of 131,524 local positive infections, including 127,131 asymptomatic infections and 4,393 confirmed cases.

It’s not glamorous Shanghai alone facing the rapid Covid-19 spread.

The other severe local outbreak is in the northeastern Jilin province.

Daily case numbers in the province have given no sign of subsiding even as full lockdowns have entered their fourth weeks in the province’s two largest cities, Changchun and Jilin City.

The province has logged over 60,000 cases in the ongoing wave.

“We estimate that around 193 million people are currently under full or partial lockdowns, in regions that contribute around RMB 23trn of GDP. These 23 cities account for 13.6% of China’s population and 22.0% of China’s GDP, but these figures could underestimate the full impact,” Nomura, a global financial services group said, in a note on April 5.

The note, under the category “Lockdown Measures”, added: “Areas are classified into three categories for Covid containment: high risk, medium risk and low risk. As of 08:00 on 4 April, according to the State Council website, China currently has 57 sub-areas that are classified as high risk, and 355 areas are classified as medium risk, while the rest of the country is classified as low risk.”

The negative forecasts have failed to change China's Covid-19 containment policies.

After tweaking the “dynamic-zero” policy — including allowing centralised quarantine instead of hospitalisation for asymptomatic or even mild Covid cases — China is now doubling down on existing policies.

An opinion piece published in China’s official news agency, Xinhua, made it amply clear that there will be no change.

“Indeed, the new epidemic waves put the country's dynamic zero-Covid policy to the test. Based on more than two years of epidemic control experience, this policy has proved effective in China's fight against the virus. In the days to come, it will continue to guide the country's epidemic control and prevention efforts,” the Xinhua article said, adding: “In the face of more complicated and pressing challenges, China has the knowledge, determination, and ability to bring epidemic waves under control”.

That “determination” also comes from the knowledge about what could go wrong especially among the elderly — given that China is an ageing society — if the outbreak keeps spreading.

For example, the majority of those who died in the recent Hong Kong outbreak were unvaccinated old people; some 65% of the population above 80 in Hong Kong had not been vaccinated when the Omicron wave swept across the city.

China has around 264 million elderly and more than 250 million minors among its 1.4 billion people — the first category most vulnerable to the virus.

Here are some official vaccination numbers for the elderly on the mainland.

As of March 17, for people aged 60 to 69, the first dose rate, the full vaccination rate, and the booster vaccination rate hit 88.8%, 86.6%, and 56.4%, respectively.

Among people aged 70 to 79, the numbers were 86.1%, 81.7%, and 48.4%, respectively.

And, as for the group who are 80 or older, those three figures are 58.8%, 50.7%, and 19.7%, respectively.

“Generally speaking, of the 264 million people aged 60 or older, 211.76 million have been fully vaccinated, which means there are still 52 million people who have not received full vaccination. Among those, those aged 80 or older account for the largest proportion as their full vaccination rate and booster vaccination rate are a mere 50.7% and 19.7%, respectively,” Zeng Yixin, national health commission (NHC) Vice-Minister, said in March.

Containing the virus as early as possible is crucial for the country to safeguard the well-being of the elderly, which is the thinking among policymakers.

The NHC head, Ma Xiaowei said as much last month at a press conference.

“This is why the dynamic zero-Covid policy attaches equal importance to prevention and treatment, for China cannot afford to leave the virus on the loose. Ma (Xiaowei) warned that should China give up on epidemic prevention and rely entirely on treatment of symptoms, the country's medical system would be stretched too thin,” the Xinhua article said.

It’s clear that lockdowns, mass testing and curbs on international travel will continue to be implemented as Omicron clusters spread.

It’s also clear that the Communist Party of China is far from confident about its health infrastructure: Building makeshift hospitals is one thing but managing them with good doctors and enough healthcare workers is another.

It also, of course, raises questions about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines and whether the CPC policymakers are themselves not confident about the jabs, and hence, reluctant to move to “living with the virus” mode from the “dynamic-zero” policy.

At some point, in the weeks ahead, Shanghai, often called magical city or “Mo Du”, will get its own light show in the sky but until then it will have to hunker down and bide its time.

Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that

The views expressed are personal

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    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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