Since March, China has been battling its biggest coveted wave yet, with Shanghai now the biggest hotspot. All 25 million residents are under lockdown, with national health workers and the Chinese military dispatched to boost the city’s response.
On Tuesday, the country recorded more than 20,000 new cases – the epidemic surpassed its peak in 2020.
Although this number is still much lower than in many other countries, it is a dramatic spike for China, which adheres to a strict zero-covid strategy aimed at border control, mass testing, quarantine and all outbreaks of infection. Strict lockdown.
The sustainability of that policy is now in question, as new, highly contagious covid forms are spreading throughout the population.
Here’s what you need to know about the latest outbreak.
Which part of China is being affected?
In early March, cases began to rise in various provinces of the country, including Shandong in the east, Guangdong in the south, and Jilin in the northeast.
By the end of the month, the virus had spread to 29 of China’s 31 provinces, according to the National Health Commission (NHC). 90% of all cases identified in March came from Jilin and Shanghai, the two largest hotspots.
Several cities, with a combined population of more than 37 million residents, were placed under various levels of lockdown in March. Many of these lockdowns were relaxed in early April – excluding Shanghai, as authorities struggled to bring its cases under control.
So far, only two Kovid deaths have been officially reported during the wave, both from Jilin in March.
How is life in lockdown?
As the situation deteriorated, the Shanghai system was expanded and extended.
In late March, the Shanghai government denied any plans for a citywide lockdown – even calling the reports “untrue” and “disturbing social order”. On March 27, the government announced that it would launch a stalled lockdown, targeting one half of the city first, then the other half.
By March 31, the government had abandoned its stance, effectively imposing a citywide lockdown on all 25 million residents who were barred from leaving the area without being examined.
Compulsory citywide trials have led to an increase in cases, officials say – they are requesting to extend the lockdown until further notice, while further testing, result review, positive case transfer and analysis of the overall Covid situation.
According to state media and the People’s Liberation Army, more than 30,000 doctors and 2,000 military personnel have been sent to the city to implement these measures and meet the needs of the entire lock-down population.
But restrictions have also seen a rare rise in public frustration and criticism of the government, with residents describing the challenges of access to basic supplies such as food or medicine.
“We were not killed by Kovid, but by the Kovid control system,” a popular comment on the highly censored Chinese social media platform Weibo noted.
On Monday, a quarantine center in Shanghai launched a parent-child separation area. And on Wednesday, the Shanghai Health Authority announced that it would amend the policy, which would allow parents to apply for permission to go with covid-positive children with their “special needs” on a negative test. They did not specify which conditions would qualify as “special needs.”
Parents who test positive can also have a quarantine facility with their Covid-positive children.
What variant is spreading?
Omicron is driving this uprising, in other cases BA.1 – the original Omicron – and other descendants, including BA.1.1 and BA.2.
Since its inception, the number of international cases – which has declined since the first week of January – has risen again.
Studies further suggest that BA.2 is much more contagious – although researchers are still studying the severity of this variant. Some epidemiologists say that the basic reproductive number may be as high as 12, which means that every sick person infects an average of 12 people.
This will equate it to measles, which also spreads through the air. The basic breeding number for BA.1 is estimated to be about 8.
Will China stick to zero-covid?
As the outbreak spreads, experts and international observers have speculated that the wave, a more contagious form, and China’s mass vaccination campaign could end the zero-covid.
As of Friday, about 78% of the country’s 1.4 billion people had been fully vaccinated, according to the NHC.
Prior to the outbreak, scientists and leaders indicated they were re-examining the strategy, with a prominent epidemiologist writing on Weibo in early March writing that the zero-covid “would not remain unchanged forever.”
But now that it looks like the distant future, Chinese authorities have made it clear that they are considering the option – the virus is spreading across the country, potentially making the health system irresistible – the worst option.
Wu Junyu, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that China would “continue to focus on a dynamic zero-covid policy,” according to the state-run tabloid Global Times. Relaxing restrictions seen in other countries and opening borders could lead to “many problems such as (a pressure). Medical resources and increasing deaths, “he added.
And on Monday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said in Shanghai that the city needed “a stronger attitude, stronger action and more efficient coordination” to achieve zero-covid.