Apr 5, 2022 - World

China’s extreme COVID lockdowns cause widespread suffering

Illustration of a man in a glass box
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

People in Shanghai are facing food shortages, disruptions in medical care, and censorship as the city is in lockdown amid China's biggest wave of infections since early 2020.

Why it matters: China's "zero-COVID" policy has saved countless lives, but the extreme measures required to fully contain the highly transmissible Omicron variant are causing other kinds of suffering.

State of play: Authorities extended the lockdown today, after Shanghai reported 13,000 new COVID cases on Monday, a dramatic surge compared to China's usually low national case count, which for most of 2021 hovered in the dozens.

  • Thousands of Chinese military personnel have been called in to help test all of the city's 26 million residents.
  • The lockdown began on March 28.

What's happening: Food shortages resulting from panic buying, a lack of workers and movement restrictions are frustrating many of Shanghai's residents.

  • Treatment disruptions due to medical staff and device shortages reportedly left some dialysis and chemotherapy patients without care for days.
  • Authorities have censored local coverage of protests against COVID restrictions, as well as social media posts and other sources of information about the difficult conditions there.
  • Numerous factories, including Tesla's factory there, are still closed.

What they're saying: Ma Chunlei, secretary-general of Shanghai Municipal People's Government, apologized in a press conference last week and said the city's preparations were "not sufficient."

  • “We sincerely accept your criticism and are working hard to improve it," Ma said.
  • Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan vowed on Saturday to eradicate COVID cases in the city, indicating the central government intends to stick to its zero-COVID policy, the New York Times reports.

Zoom out: Shanghai isn't the only Chinese city to go into lockdown in recent weeks.

  • The southern city of Shenzhen was briefly shuttered, and the entire province of Jilin in China's northeast remains in lockdown since mid-March as it battles an outbreak.
  • Residents of Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, have also faced food shortages and other disruptions during the lockdown.

The big picture: China's zero-COVID policy worked well earlier in the pandemic, when there were less transmissible variants and protecting an unvaccinated population was far more imperative.

  • But China is now in a bind — one that analysts saw coming. In January, U.S. consultancy Eurasia Group listed China's zero-COVID policy as a major global risk in 2022.
  • "The initial success of China's zero-COVID policy and Xi's personal attachment to it makes it impossible to change course," Eurasia Group analysts wrote.
  • "China's policy will fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring in turn more severe lockdowns. This will, in turn, lead to greater economic disruptions, more state intervention, and a more dissatisfied population."

This pattern was already apparent with the weekslong lockdown in the Chinese city of Xi'an earlier this year, with residents struggling to obtain food and necessary medical care.

What to watch: Chinese health authorities have approved the use of Pfizer's COVID treatment drug and have just given the green light to clinical trials for domestically developed mRNA vaccines — meaning China may soon have more tools in its arsenal to fight COVID.

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