By Ryan Woo and Brenda Goh
BEIJING/SHANGHAI – The Chinese capital Beijing tightened COVID restrictions on Sunday as it battled an outbreak, while Shanghai let more of its 25 million residents venture out for light and air after reporting a second day of zero infections outside of quarantine areas.
The outbreak in Shanghai, which began in March, has been China’s worst since the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Hundreds of thousands have been infected and the city has forbidden residents from leaving their homes, to great public anger.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, personally in Shanghai to oversee the city’s counter-epidemic work, said on Sunday that while now is not the time to relax, communities with no new cases for seven days should be allowed to return to “normal social order”.
The outbreak in China’s most populous city and the risk of a spread in Beijing are testing the government’s zero-COVID approach that has placed tremendous pressure on local economies in a year when Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as president.
Beijing, with dozens of daily infections in an outbreak now in its 10th day, has not locked down. More than 300 locally transmitted cases have been logged since April 22.
But on Sunday the capital tightened social distancing rules and launched a new round of mass testing in its worst-hit district.
The city of 22 million has in the past week conducted mass testing in most of its 16 districts, suspended all entertainment venues and banned restaurant dining.
“The impact of all this on us is too great – 20,000 yuan ($3,000) in a day gone, just like that!” said Jia, a manager at a burger restaurant in the east of Beijing.
“Our boss is stressing out about this too,” Jia said, asking to be identified only by his surname. “We have three branches in Shanghai. They’ve all been shut and losing cash for a month. And now this.”
Beijing’s Universal Studios theme park closed on Sunday, while in the highly visited Badaling section of the Great Wall, visitors were told to show proof of negative COVID test results before entering.
Chaoyang district, accounting for the biggest share of infections in Beijing’s outbreak, started an additional round of mass testing, with public health workers knocking on doors to remind residents to get tested.
“I do the PCR test everyday and I know I am not sick,” said a Chaoyang resident surnamed Ma, whose local health app on her mobile phone had marked her profile as abnormal.
“I feel caged, like I am sick. These restrictions are too excessive,” said Ma, who works in finance.
ANGER IN SHANGHAI
Shanghai’s citywide lockdown since early April has caused worries about food and concern about being taken to crowded quarantine centres should they catch the virus.
Extreme measures taken to seal up residential compounds, including fencing up entrances of buildings, have prompted outrage.
Some residents have turned to social media to vent their frustration, some clanged pots and pans outside their windows, and others clashed with public health workers.
The song “Do you hear the people sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables” has become a popular protest anthem. On Saturday, an online video of a Chinese orchestra playing the song, with the musicians performing from their respective homes, went viral with nearly 19,000 shares before it was blocked.
While much of the city remained in lockdown, new cases have fallen by half in recent days, prompting state media to describe the situation as steadily improving and to be “effectively under control”, suggesting a loosening of curbs ahead.
Shanghai officials, striking an upbeat tone at a news conference on Sunday, said curbs on some areas would be eased after the city managed to rein in transmission risks at the community level, excluding cases in quarantine centres.
Six of its 16 districts attained zero-COVID status, meaning three consecutive days with no new daily increases in infections, senior city government official Gu Honghui told a virtual news conference.
Public transport will be allowed to resume in five districts, but residents must remain in their districts as they visit supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals, a health official told the news conference.
Social media posts showed the streets of Fengxian, one of the six districts, filled with pedestrians and choked with scooters and bicycles.
Excluding imported cases arriving from outside the mainland, China reported 8,256 new local cases for Saturday, down from 10,703 a day before. Beijing accounted for 59 of the infections, while Shanghai saw 7,872 new cases and all of the nation’s 38 fatalities.
($1 = 6.6080 yuan)
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Jing Xu, Brenda Goh, Martin Quin Pollard, Alessandro Diviggiano and Zhang Yan; Editing by William Mallard, Tom Hogue and Angus MacSwan)