Youf Vladimir Putin hadn’t ordered an invasion of Ukraine, the headline-making story right now would be the intensifying war between China and COVID-19. Shanghai, population 26 million around 26 million), state officials announced on March 27 that the eastern half of the city would be locked down until April 1 for mass COVID-19 testing. When that’s accomplished, the western half will be locked down until April 5. The western half will be locked down until April 5.
a quarantine facility.
Tens of thousands of dollars have been invested in Jilin province (pop. Already, 17.5 million have been taken into custody. But the closure of Shanghai, the commercial and financial heart of the world’s second largest economy, is the most drastic move yet taken as part of the “zero COVID” policy, a plan designed to keep COVID-19 infection numbers as close to zero as possible. This plan was successful in controlling the spread of the disease. China’s leaders have reported fewer than 5,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic as the death toll in the U.S. nears 1 million. Even if China’s official numbers are suspect (and they are), the loss of life has surely been proportionally much closer to the levels reported in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, which, until recently, have also exercised ultra-strict COVID-control policies.
However, zero-COVID has a severe economic impact. China’s economic growth has been slowing for years as rising wages reduce incentives for foreign companies to use China as a manufacturing hub and as large-scale state investment in infrastructure and real estate development creates an oversupply of both. China was forced to pay more for fuel, food and other commodities due to the pandemic in China and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Even if Shanghai is shut down for just a few hours, it will only add to the problem.
These facts have led to some changes in zero-COVID regulations. Instead of being forced to go into overcrowded hospitals, people infected with mild symptoms are now able to report to the local quarantine centers. Certain quarantines are now shorter. But despite the economic damage already done, the massive lockdown in Shanghai demonstrates that China’s government isn’t ready to change course.
This trouble happens at an extremely sensitive time politically. This fall, a Communist Party Congress is expected to ratify a landmark decision to award Xi Jinping a third term as China’s leader. Since the pandemic erupted, Xi has tried to deflect blame for COVID-19’s origins and for the early censorship that allowed the virus to go global. He’s made his case for the superiority of China’s system by pointing to the political turmoil, economic fallout, and higher death toll in America and Europe.
However, the Omicron variant has complicated life in China. It’s hit the country hard because so few Chinese have been either infected with COVID-19 or jabbed with the more effective vaccines found in the U.S. and Europe.
Xi has the potential to hope that domestically produced mRNA vaccines and new treatments will be available sooner than anticipated. But the risk is rising that COVID-19’s disruption of Chinese life will get worse before it gets better—and that Xi will have to carefully manage the economic and political fallout to keep his long-term consolidation of political control on track.
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