Analysis: In zero-Covid China, virus-hit Shanghai is too big to fail

The city, which is grappling with a record number of daily Covid cases, has become the biggest — and potentially costliest — example of China’s insistence on adhering to its strict elimination strategy.

On Sunday, the ruling Communist Party announced the deployment of thousands of military personnel to the locked-down financial hub to assist in the mandatory screening of all 25 million inhabitants.

The plan, which will see every resident take a nucleic acid test starting Monday morning, comes as Shanghai reported a city record of more than 9,000 cases on Sunday.

Though the case numbers are small by international standards, the fast-spreading outbreak has placed Shanghai on the front lines of China’s uncompromising battle with the virus, as the government doubles down on testing, mandatory lockdowns, and controversial isolation policies that have seen young children separated from their parents if they test positive.

Enforcing these measures, while attempting to cater to the needs of a locked-down population has pushed officials to adopt a wartime footing. In recent days, more than 30,000 medics have been dispatched to the city, according to state media. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also deployed more than 2,000 military medical workers to Shanghai on Sunday, according to the official PLA Daily.

Political pressure has been mounting on Shanghai authorities to both quell the outbreak and address the growing chorus of concerns from residents grappling with the costs and inconveniences of the stringent measures.

For weeks, the city has been roiled by social and economic dysfunction, with financial workers forced to sleep in their offices, major port delays heaping pressure on supply chains, and locked-down residents left desperately seeking medical care and other basic supplies.

But if residents hoped the measures would soon ease, the arrival of Vice Premier Sun Chunlan to the city over the weekend left little doubt as to Beijing’s position.

Sun, who has spearheaded Covid-19 control efforts throughout the pandemic, on Sunday stressed that Shanghai must adhere to China’s zero-Covid policy without any “hesitation or wavering,” citing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s instruction to eliminate the virus and to win the “hard-fought battle” against pandemic.

China’s health authorities have repeatedly warned about the potential for health systems to be overwhelmed if the virus spreads widely in the population of 1.4 billion, especially as vaccinations lag among the elderly, and made clear that Covid control is an “overriding political mission.”

Young children separated from parents

City authorities acknowledged shortcomings in their response last week, with Ma Chunlei, secretary-general of the Shanghai municipal people’s government, on Thursday apologizing for not being “sufficiently prepared” for the outbreak.

In recent days residents have continued to take to social media to describe challenges accessing goods, including waking up in the early morning hours in an attempt to place orders for limited supplies.

“We have nothing now — oil, rice, all kinds of stuff. It’s too hard. I set an alarm at 6 a.m. but I still can’t get rice,” one user wrote below a social media post describing the situation in their Shanghai district, where authorities later said they would deliver supplies.

Fresh outrage over isolation measures was sparked over the weekend after photos emerged purporting to show a crowded, understaffed Shanghai hospital ward for children with Covid-19 who had been separated from their families due to isolation measures.

The photos, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, later clarified in a statement, were not of the Covid-19 pediatric isolation ward, but were taken as the hospital was transferring the regular pediatric ward to the outpatient and emergency building, where “more pediatric medical personnel have been deployed.”

But the policy itself, which requires all patients who test positive to be isolated in facilities, including young children and babies, has caused significant levels distress of among parents.

A mother surnamed Zhu told CNN that her 2-year-old daughter tested positive on March 26, and was separated from her and sent to the clinic on March 29, after which she received little information about her daughter besides updates that she was in good health.

“This disease does not require advanced medical skills, all she needs is care and companionship,” Zhu wrote on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo.

Only after repeated tries was Zhu, who is also confirmed to have Covid-19, allowed to enter Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and stay with her daughter on Monday, Zhu told CNN.

Addressing the concerns in a press conference Monday, Shanghai officials said that if the parents of infected children are also positive, they can stay together and receive medical observation and treatment, but kids aged under seven are still required to be sent to Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center for pediatric treatment.

End in sight?

Now, as the citywide mass testing rolls out and most of the city remains under lockdown, the looming question is when Shanghai will be able to loosen restrictions.

The city’s economy has been impacted by the restrictions, as backlogs and travel delays mount. The city is China’s financial capital, as well as being home to the world’s busiest container port — and the government will be wary of the potential long-term implications of a extended lockdown.

But case numbers have yet to fall in the city, and a similar situation is underway in northern Jilin province, which began more rigorous disease control measures earlier in March. The outbreaks, China’s largest in more than two years, mark the first time the country’s control measures are tested against the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant BA.2.

The challenges have some residents thinking back to the situation two years ago in Wuhan, when China battled its first outbreak of Covid-19. The city stayed under various forms of lockdown for a period of months and medical workers from around the country arrived to help.

“It’s been (two years since Wuhan) and everything has changed, but it seems nothing has changed,” wrote one social media user in a popular comment on Weibo, pointing to the arrival of medics from Wuhan to Shanghai. “I cry when I see Wuhan’s support.”

CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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