Shanghai prepares to ease Covid lockdown as factories reopen

Show caption Shanghai residents stand on a street waiting to take Covid tests. The city continues to report tens of thousands of cases a day. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters Coronavirus Shanghai prepares to ease Covid lockdown as factories reopen Authorities in city of 25 million people hope to limit transmissions to quarantine facilities by Wednesday Helen Davidson in Taipei @heldavidson Tue 19 Apr 2022 09.26 BST Share on Facebook

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Shanghai is preparing to ease its lockdown over the city’s 25 million people with authorities hoping Covid transmissions will mostly be limited to quarantine facilities.

Factories are returning to production in closed-loop systems, with Tesla staff reportedly told to sleep on site.

Amid China’s worst outbreak since Wuhan at the start of the pandemic, Shanghai continues to report tens of thousands of cases a day, with the majority among people in quarantine or isolation. On Monday, Reuters reported officials had set a target of reaching “zero-Covid at the community level” by Wednesday.

Currently, all positive cases must be isolated, mostly in mass dormitory-style warehouses, or in hospitals if treatment is required. Community-level zero-Covid will have been achieved once there is no further spread among the local population outside of quarantine and isolation facilities. Reaching such a target led to an easing of restrictions in other cities during recent outbreaks.

The number of new local transmissions detected on Monday fell to 19,442 from 21,395 the previous day, with 550 cases found outside the quarantine zones, down from 561 the day before.

Shanghai’s new target was communicated in a speech officially dated Saturday, to the city’s Communist party and organisations such as schools, according to Reuters’ sources, who declined to be named as the information was not public. China remains committed to its zero-Covid policy, despite the spread of the highly infectious Omicron strain across the country.

“The Chinese population has a degree of immunity because of vaccination but not exposure to the virus, because they handled it so well,” said Prof Robert Booy, infectious diseases and vaccine expert from the University of Sydney.

“The problem China has now is the Wuhan virus had a reproduction number of two, where the new ones have 12 or more. So it will be almost impossible to control despite the extraordinary efforts of quarantining millions of people at a time and testing them. It would be a miracle if they could control the virus despite their extremely fastidious approaches.”

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More than 340,000 cases have been reported since Shanghai’s outbreak began in March. This week, city officials reported the first deaths officially attributed to the outbreak, including three on Sunday and seven on Monday.

The apparent absence of any reported Covid-19 fatalities despite more than 340,000 cases since March has been met with scepticism from experts, particularly when compared with other countries.

Booy said the deaths of people with Covid were still Covid deaths.

“People who die with Covid die because of Covid … you can’t blame the death on the underlying problems,” he said. “It’s the combination of the two and that’s why you get so very very ill.”

All deaths reported this week were of people aged between 60 and 101, with underlying conditions. Officials said the “direct cause” of the deaths had been their underlying conditions, but still recorded them against the outbreak.

Prof Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at Hong Kong university, said Chinese health authorities did not usually count deaths from infectious diseases if there were underlying conditions, and that this had also been seen during past influenza seasons and the 2003 outbreak of Sars.

“I don’t think they deliberately covered this up or want to play down this. It’s not true. They are just doing what they did in past years,” he said, adding that he could “only guess” why authorities decided to announce this week’s 10 fatalities. “They might be trying to tell the people that there are deaths.”

However, Jin said at the same time officials were pointing at death rates in Hong Kong, which reports differently and has recorded almost 9,000 deaths in recent months, as a warning not to abandon zero-Covid policies like lockdowns.

In Shanghai, the low official death toll has led to suspicion of the official narrative, as people claim deaths of family members in nursing homes and hospitals are not acknowledged, and media reports are censored.

The lockdowns have caused major disruptions to daily life, and failures with the supply of food and other essentials have also sparked widespread frustration and anger.

Businesses and factories across Shanghai have been shut or restricted for more than three weeks, with major impacts on production and supply chains, further exacerbated by closed roads and other pathways in and out of the city.

Major companies including Tesla and Volkswagen are among 666 firms told they could restart production this week, under closed-loop management. A memo reportedly circulated at Tesla told employees they would have to sleep at the factory, with the company providing each with a sleeping bag and mattress, daily meals and a stipend.

Drone footage taken by Chinese media appeared to show Tesla employees arriving at the factory on Tuesday with luggage, and several people moving the frame of a Tesla car around the site. Volkswagen, which restarted production at its Changchun factories after restrictions there eased, said it was still studying the feasibility of resuming production in Shanghai, Reuters reported.

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu and Chi Hui Lin, and agencies