The arrival of the BA.5 coronavirus variant in China is threatening economically damaging lockdowns across the country, including in Shanghai, where many residents only recently emerged from a grueling two months of confinement in their homes.
Even though total numbers of infections in China remain low compared with many other countries — the National Health Commission on Monday reported 352 locally transmitted cases — Beijing remains deeply concerned that the highly transmissible subvariant’s arrival will lead to a mass outbreak and a wave of deaths, especially among the under-vaccinated elderly population.
Shanghai authorities quickly tried to ease fears of a return to April and May, when the city’s reputation as a smoothly run international financial hub was shattered by China’s most disruptive coronavirus restrictions since the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
In response to questions about whether another large-scale lockdown was imminent, the government said on the social media app WeChat that the plan was merely to conduct PCR tests for all residents in nine of the city’s 16 districts.
While only one street had been designated high risk, 37 were deemed medium risk on Monday, meaning residents are not allowed to leave their homes.
On the microblog Weibo, many noted that Shanghai officials had made similar denials about a wider lockdown in March. “Originally I half believed them. As soon as there was a denial, I rushed to stock up on goods,” read a comment that received more than 10,000 likes.
Growing concern from residents has clashed with continued upbeat messaging from propagandists. On Friday, the local government launched a month-long campaign to collect pictures, videos and objects to tell a “heartwarming” story of the city’s lockdown, according to the Shanghai edition of Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based state-run outlet.
During the last lockdown, buying groceries or securing basic medical care became a daily struggle for the city’s 25 million residents. Calls to mental health hotlines tripled. For many, the trauma was worsened by constantly shifting goals from the authorities, creating deep uncertainty about when restrictions would end.
Last month, in the clearest indication yet of where priorities lie, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the likely consequences of a shift in coronavirus policy “unthinkably” bad.
Implementing a “dynamic zero covid policy” is still best suited to China’s national circumstances, he said, and protects the overall security and health of the masses “even if it temporarily somewhat impacts economic growth.”
At the same time, Xi ordered that healthy economic performance should be maintained “as much as possible,” leaving local officials with a tricky balancing act.
Economic activity indicators plunged during strict lockdowns, and the unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds hit a record of 18.4 percent in May, leading to emergency meetings headed by Premier Li Keqiang in which he urged officials to do more. The government has also begun to gradually tweak coronavirus policy, including reducing quarantine requirements for international arrivals from 14 to seven days in a government-run facility.
But even with renewed stimulus, many analysts doubt that China can hit its yearly economic target of 5.5 percent growth in gross domestic product, especially as the arrival of BA.5 has led cities across China to toughen coronavirus controls once again.
Macao, the former Portuguese colony and leading Asian gambling destination, announced Monday it was closing its casinos for a week, marking the first time in more than two years it had adopted such strict measures, to stem an outbreak of more than 1,500 confirmed infections.
A similar ratcheting up of restrictions is taking place across China, with cities including Hangzhou, Hefei and Nanchang increasing the frequency of mandatory PCR testing. Starting at midnight Sunday, the northern city of Lanzhou imposed week-long “temporary control measures,” closing most businesses and public spaces after it reported just over two dozen cases.
The spread of BA.5, which appears to be resistant to antibodies built from vaccines and previous infections, is also adding urgency to China’s vaccination drive. In Beijing, the local government imposed China’s first vaccine mandate for public places last week — only to reverse the decision days later after a public backlash against forced immunization.
“China needs to return to the basics and launch a powerful drive for third doses to be administered, especially among the elderly,” Hong Kong University virologist Jin Dongyan told local media.
Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.