Shanghai inches closer to reopening

A worker in a protective suit passes food through a gap in the barrier at a residential area in Shanghai on Thursday. (Reuters Photo)

SHANGHAI: China’s biggest city is inching toward gradual reopening from two months of gruelling Covid-19 lockdowns, while Beijing has said some mobility curbs would be loosened starting on Sunday.

However, most of the restrictions that have dramatically curtailed movement in the Chinese capital remain in place even as new daily case numbers decline to low double-digits.

Shanghai aims essentially to end its lockdown from Wednesday. More people have been allowed out of their homes and more businesses permitted to reopen in the past week, although most residents remain largely confined to their housing compounds and most shops are limited to making deliveries.

Shanghai officials urged continued vigilance on Saturday, even though the vast majority of its 25 million residents live in areas that are in the lowest-risk “prevention” category.

“Wear masks in public, no gathering and keep social distance,” Zhao Dandan, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, told a daily news conference.

Videos on social media showed revellers including many foreigners drinking and dancing in the street on Friday night in a central area of the city, interrupted by police telling them to go home.

Another video showed a group in the street singing an emotional anthem from 1985 called Tomorrow Will be Better, accompanied by a keyboard player. The police arrive, allowing the song to finish before asking them to go home, prompting online praise for the show of restraint.

The two-month lockdown of China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city has frustrated and infuriated residents, hundreds of thousands of whom have been quarantined in often crowded central facilities. Many residents struggled to access sufficient food or medical care during its early weeks.

Where’s the exit plan?

While nationwide case numbers are improving, China’s strict adherence to zero-Covid has devastated the world’s second-largest economy and rattled global supply chains, alarming investors worried about the lack of a roadmap for exiting from what has been a signature policy of President Xi Jinping.

The economic impact was evident in data released on Friday showing that April profits at industrial firms fell an annual 8.5%, their fastest drop in two years, with high raw material prices and supply chain chaos caused by Covid curbs squeezing margins and disrupting factory activity.

China’s approach, which Beijing says is needed to save lives and prevent its health system from being overwhelmed, has been challenged by the hard-to-contain Omicron variant. Much of the world, by contrast, is trying to get on with normal life despite the continued spread of coronavirus.

The conflict between vanquishing the spread of Covid and supporting the economy comes amid a politically sensitive year, with Xi expected to secure an unprecedented third leadership term at a congress of the ruling Communist Party in the autumn.

During an emergency meeting on Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged the weak growth and said economic difficulties in some aspects were worse than in 2020 after China was initially hit by Covid. His remarks prompted market expectations of further measures to support the economy.

On Friday, Shanghai’s suburban Fengxian district cancelled a requirement for residents to have a pass to go out.

The state-run Shanghai Securities News reported modest steps toward a return to normal for the financial sector, with the more than 10,000 bankers and traders who have been living and working in their offices since the start of lockdown gradually returning home.

The Shanghai branch of China Citic Bank plans to send nearly 30 staff to its office tower by Wednesday while 11 staff members at Bank of Shanghai returned to work this week at its office headquarters, the newspaper reported. More than 100 bank outlets had resumed operations as of Friday, it said.

China on Saturday reported 362 new coronavirus cases, down from 444 a day earlier.

While Shanghai officials reported one community-level case in its Songjiang district, they expressed confidence in the measures they were taking to trace and control the infection chain.

Beijing transport restarting

In Beijing, public transport services including buses, subways and taxis will be allowed to resume on Sunday in three districts including Chaoyang, according to Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the city government.

Shopping centres outside of controlled areas will also be allowed to reopen with capacity limits on the number of people. Chaoyang is home to Beijing’s central business district, most foreign embassies and has a large expatriate population.

The number of new infections has fallen for six straight days in Beijing with no cases outside of quarantine reported on Friday, Xu said. “This round of the outbreak has been effectively controlled,” he said at a briefing Saturday.

Community spread is a key metric used by government officials to determine the severity of an outbreak and whether to ease restrictions.

Workers in some Beijing districts who were required to work from home previously will be allowed to return to their workplaces, and hotels and hostels in five districts on the city’s outskirts will be permitted to reopen, Xu added.

The city reported 12 new local cases for Saturday as of 3pm, compared with a peak of almost 100 earlier in the wave, as health authorities stamped out most clusters in their early stages. Still, officials in the capital warned of challenges in trying to eradicate the spread of virus, which has persisted for more than a month.

“Beijing is on a key stage of shifting from an emergency response to the virus outbreak to handling the situation on a more regular basis,” Xu said. “The risk of a resurgence remains and we still need to consolidate the prevention work.”

Schools and kindergartens will remain suspended in the city and university campuses will stay closed, with students urged to go home before the summer holidays, Xu said. Dining-in will still be banned at restaurants, he added.