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Xi Jinping says China must maintain zero tolerance for COVID, even as locked-down Shanghai residents grow desperate for food and freedom

April 14, 2022, 11:33 AM UTC

Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday that China needed to keep its COVID-zero approach, even as residents in Shanghai grow increasingly frustrated with delays and disruption sparked by a poorly-implemented lockdown.

“Prevention and control work cannot be relaxed,” said Xi during a trip to Hainan, according to Xinhua

The Chinese public is losing patience with China’s tough approach to COVID-19, which uses lockdowns and mass testing to completely suppress outbreaks. The country has also closed its borders to the outside world for years now, forcing those arriving from overseas to complete 14 days of hotel quarantine.

Yet the more transmissible Omicron variant has led to longer and tougher lockdowns, especially in Shanghai, China’s financial center. Nearly the whole city has been locked down since April 5; some areas have been locked for much longer.

Shanghai’s COVID measures have significantly disrupted people’s lives. Families have struggled to get food in locked-down compounds, often resorting to bartering with their neighbors. Manufacturers, like iPhone supplier Pegatron, have shut down their Shanghai factories, while other workplaces, like Shanghai’s port, are asking workers to sleep on-site to ensure that services keep running. 

Chinese social media users have also expressed outrage at viral stories of officials separating COVID-positive children from their parents, and doctors denying medical treatment to patients due to COVID fears.

On Monday, the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai evacuated its non-essential personnel, “due to a surge in COVID-19 cases and the impact of restrictions related to [China’s] response.”

The tough measures haven’t controlled the financial hub’s outbreak. Shanghai reported almost 28,000 cases on Thursday, a record for the city. Over 2,500 of those were symptomatic—another city-wide record.

The scale of China’s lockdowns also threaten to hamper the country’s economy. Nomura economists note that approximately 373 million people—a population larger than the entire U.S.—are now living under some form of lockdown. Chinese manufacturing and home sales both declined in March, with factory activity at its lowest level since the start of the pandemic. Manufacturers are also reporting supply chain difficulties as China’s truckers are snarled in quarantines and other COVID restrictions.

China Premier Li Keqiang on Monday warned that China’s economic growth was at risk, and said officials needed to have a “sense of urgency” when implementing their economic policies. Earlier this month, Morgan Stanley cut its 2022 forecast for China growth to 4.6%, down from 5.1%

China is one of a few governments still pursuing a zero-tolerance policy for COVID. Others have started to transition to a policy that treats COVID as endemic, instead focusing on keeping cases to a manageable level while protecting vulnerable populations.

For example, Singapore allowed fully-vaccinated visitors to enter the city without quarantine from April 1. The city also expanded the maximum size of social gatherings to ten people and removed its outdoor mask mandate.

Even Hong Kong—which officially follows China’s COVID-zero policy—has in practice loosened some of its tougher policies after the city battled its largest outbreak in February and March. The city lowered inbound quarantine to seven days for vaccinated arrivals, and now allows some COVID-positive individuals to isolate at home. On Thursday, the city announced that it would ease some social distancing restrictions, including extending dine-in hours and reopening gyms and cinemas.

There are a few signs that China may be considering loosening its approach. On Wednesday, eight major cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, were allowed to trial a shorter ten-day quarantine for international arrivals and close contacts of positive cases, as opposed to the 14 days normally required. The trial will last for a month.

For the moment, however, Xi is keeping the country on its COVID-zero course. “Persistence is victory”, he said.

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