Shanghai reports first 3 deaths of current COVID wave as questions mount about reliability of China’s data

April 18, 2022, 11:37 AM UTC

Shanghai reported its first deaths as the biggest COVID flareup China has faced during the pandemic prompted more cities around the country to impose restrictions on their residents.

Three people died on Sunday in Shanghai, according to the municipal government. Aged between 89 and 91, all three had underlying conditions and were each unvaccinated. Another 16 are in critical condition, Wu Qianyu, an official with the city’s health commission, said at a briefing Monday.

The newly reported deaths are the first since two people passed away in mid-March in the northeastern province of Jilin. They had been the first COVID fatalities in more than a year in China, where a strict zero tolerance approach had contained the virus until the more infectious delta and omicron variants emerged last year.

With much of the rest of the world lifting restrictions as COVID becomes endemic, criticism has mounted that China’s insistence on eliminating the virus is inflicting too heavy a toll both socially and economically. Tens of millions in Shanghai and other cities have been barred from leaving their homes as part of lockdowns aimed at stymieing infections, leaving residents struggling to secure food and medicines.Play Video

Beijing has responded by repeatedly vowing to stick with its COVID Zero policy. A front-page commentary publish Monday in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, called on the nation to support President Xi Jinping’s COVID Zero strategy, showing any shift remains unlikely.

In its article, the People’s Daily said Xi’s strategy to snuff out the virus has proved “correct and effective” and that China should be “uniting more closely around the party’s leadership with Xi Jinping as the core.” Citizens should follow the strategy “unswervingly and unrelentingly” with “earlier, faster, stricter and more practical” measures, it said.

Shanghai, which has been the epicenter of this wave, reported more than 22,000 cases Sunday, taking total infections in the financial hub to more than 300,000. Nationwide, China reported 23,362 cases Sunday.

Most reported cases in China have been mild or asymptomatic, with the number of severely ill patients remaining negligible. That’s raised questions among many in the public about the need for strict lockdowns.

The low number of deaths in China has also cast suspicion on the reliability of the data. The Wall Street Journal and Caixin are among media that have reported on fatalities having occurred at elderly-care facilities in Shanghai where there have been infections, but that none of those deaths have been attributed to COVID.

Beyond Shanghai, cities across China have been moving quickly to restrict movement by their residents in a bid to stamp out infections. Over the weekend,  the western city of Xi’an came under a partial-lockdown for four days after the city of 13 million identified more than 40 infections.

The central city Zhengzhou also locked down its airport district for two weeks and started mass testing in the area on Monday. The city of Wuhu in the eastern province of Anhui locked down its downtown area after finding just one infection. 

The economic impact is already starting to show. Data released Monday for the month of March, when the cities of Shenzhen and the province of Jilin imposed lockdowns, showed a retail sales declined 3.5% from a year earlier, worse than an estimated 3% drop. Residential property sales by value dropped 29%, while the surveyed urban unemployment rate jumped to 5.8%, the highest since May 2020.

With Shanghai’s lockdown not having started until the end of March, the impact of China’s COVID measures could be even more pronounced in coming months. Policy makers are responding with steps to cushion the economy, such as a reduction in how much banks must keep as reserves announced by the central bank late Friday.

In Shanghai, officials have encouraged companies to restart production using so-called closed loop systems in which workers live at their factories. So far, more than 600 firms have started operations, including Quanta Computer Inc., which makes laptops for Apple Inc. 

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