China put 17.5 million Shenzhen residents under lockdown, attempting to stop a Covid-19 epidemic. This move could disrupt production at the port and technology hub.
A government notice states that the lockdown will include three rounds of mass city testing. This is due to an increase in virus cases to almost 3,400 nationwide. The measure, announced Sunday, followed earlier restrictions placed on Shenzhen’s central business district, and will last until March 20.
Bus and subway lines were all shut down, as well as businesses that provided essential services. Workers were instructed to stay at home. Residents will be barred from leaving Shenzhen—home to the headquarters of giants Huawei Technologies Co. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., as well as one of China’s busiest ports—except in limited situations.
The city is home to the China headquarters and a key manufacturing facility of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Apple Inc.’s main maker of the iPhone and other products.
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According to some, the rise in infectious diseases in the city could be due to an epidemic in Hong Kong. Around 300,000 are in isolation and under quarantine. Covid-related outbreaks in Shanghai have also led to schools switching over entirely online and restrictions being placed on entry into the city. Bus services from other provinces were halted, and China’s aviation regulator is in discussions with airlines about diverting all international flights into the financial center, Bloomberg News reported Friday.
Growing clusters spawned by the highly infectious omicron variant in China’s most developed large cities and economic powerhouses have turned into an unprecedented challenge for the country’s Covid Zero strategy.
China is being left isolated by the policy that gave it long periods of virus-free status and low death rates. Until now, officials had largely resisted more hardcore measures such as lockdowns in China’s biggest cities and relied more on targeted responses, only to see omicron continue to spread.
China economic chaos caused by COVID-19
Covid Zero has caused chaos in cities around the world. In Tianjin, multiple rounds of mass screening in January led to production interruptions at Toyota Motor Corp.’s plant. Nomura Holdings Inc. claims that Beijing’s economic growth goal of 2022 will be harder to meet if the cost of such measures increases. Still, China reiterated its commitment to Covid Zero on Friday, with top health official Ma Xiaowei saying strict controls needed to be kept in place and that officials should avoid “war-weariness” in their work.
Changchun, a city of some 9 million people in China’s northeast, was locked down on Friday, with residents there also to be mass tested. Authorities are quickly building makeshift hospitals at Changchun, and Qingdao (an eastern port) in a similar fashion to the days before the outbreak in Wuhan. China is preventing the spread of any positive virus case, regardless how serious it may be.
The Covid surge in Hong Kong has provided an unprecedented challenge to Beijing, with the city’s tight border controls and weeks-long quarantines no match for omicron once it entered the city. Many thousands of people fled the Asian financial center to go back to the mainland. Shenzhen, Shanghai and other ports were the most busy.
Shanghai Disneyland will have a limited capacity. All visitors must present negative Covid tests results no later than 24 hours before they can enter the amusement park.
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Hong Kong’s health system and morgues have been under pressure from the record outbreak that’s pushed its death rate to one of the highest in the world. Although the number of virus cases in Hong Kong appears to be stable over the last week, the death rate has risen among seniors, who had the lowest rates of vaccination despite being more vulnerable.
The Hong Kong government is still formulating plans for the mandatory testing of all its residents, including timing and how they’ll ensure essential operations can continue if movement restrictions were to be imposed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Wednesday. For now, authorities will focus on vaccinating older people living at care facilities—which are seeing a surge in fatalities—and increase the number of hospital beds to treat patients, she has said.
Hong Kong, which is a strong supporter of Covid Zero has exposed the limitations of its strategy with authorities scrambling to find omicron after it passed the rigorous border protections. There seems to have been little planning for if the virus flared meaningfully in the city, resulting in scenes eerily similar to those seen in the early days of the pandemic in parts of Italy and the U.S. Hong Kong’s density and political climate makes it difficult to lock down, and despite pressure from Beijing officials have so far resisted calling one.
While China is publicly still committed to eliminating Covid, there are signs the country’s health officials and experts are at least considering how they may exit the approach and live with the virus as endemic.
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China has approved Paxlovid, an antiviral medication that was developed by Pfizer Inc. Last month. Many see this as proof of the planning. It may also signal that other countries are moving towards at-home diagnostics after the wider spread of the virus has made it difficult for their laboratories to detect.
That said, any shift will be slow and unlikely to occur before 2023, given the need for stability in a politically important year for President Xi Jinping, people familiar with China’s thinking have told Bloomberg.
—Jacob Gu provides assistance