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Peak of Omicron infections leads to lockdowns in China

BEIJING — Several of China’s largest manufacturing cities have ordered lockdowns, halting production of Toyota cars and Apple iPhones. Theaters, cinemas and many restaurants are closed in Shanghai. Northeastern Jilin Province on Monday banned its 24 million residents from leaving the province or traveling between cities.

China is grappling with the largest wave of Covid-19 infections since the coronavirus first emerged in central China more than two years ago. Ongoing outbreaks in two-thirds of the country’s provinces represent the toughest test yet of China’s zero-tolerance coronavirus policy.

Even as countries in the West are now relaxing or abandoning mask mandates and other measures, Chinese officials are applying some of their strictest methods yet. That’s largely because China can’t afford to lift restrictions.

The government is concerned about the relatively lower vaccination coverage among older adults in China. The country also has far fewer intensive care beds compared to the population than most industrialized countries. In China’s vast rural areas, hospitals and medical facilities are often basic, and a major outbreak can quickly overwhelm hospitals.

The United States and other Western countries have experienced much higher infection and death rates than China in the past two years, and still have higher rates today. But the seven-day average number of new cases in mainland China, now 1,584, has increased more than fivefold in recent days.

For many residents of China, the rapid spread of the virus is alarming.

“Due to the sheer volume of cases in a short period of time, it is inevitable that some panic will set in across the country, and Shanghai is no exception,” said Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease expert in Shanghai, posted on his social media account on Monday.

China has responded to the current wave of business by mobilizing its massive Communist Party apparatus to deploy workers and resources. In Jilin Province, where many cases have been recorded, workers build temporary facilities to house thousands of people who test positive. Across the country, workers collect and test millions of civilians every day. But that testing program is starting to get overwhelmed.

“We have noticed that in the past two days there have been problems such as long lines and slow test results at many test sites,” Lu Taohong, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference on Sunday evening.

The Chinese virus containment strategy aims to act quickly to shut down buildings or neighborhoods. In response to even a single incident, officials can close off all entrances to a retail store, office building, or even convention center. Anyone inside will have to stay there for a maximum of several days, as they will be tested for the coronavirus and sent into isolation if their results are positive.

In Shanghai, many foreign companies stockpiled mattresses last week in case their workers got trapped in their factories or their offices this week. There, multinationals told their employees to work from home this week.

In Guangzhou, the municipal government on Friday shut down the largest convention center in the world, which held an exhibition on beauty products. Videos circulating on Chinese social media platforms show crowds of stranded congress-goers scrambling for exits in an attempt to bypass the lockdown.

The rapid spread of the outbreak and the harsh response from the government have left some residents concerned about the impact of lockdowns on their livelihoods.

Li Yanhua, a supermarket manager in Shanghai, was told on Saturday evening that his neighborhood was closed and residents should be tested for Covid.

“It was all of a sudden, we’re not even prepared — my family doesn’t have enough vegetables and daily necessities,” said Mr. Li. “My shop is closed, but we still have to pay rent.”

Yet such measures are also widely accepted as necessary for the well-being of public health.

Li Junyan, a 33-year-old businessman in the locked-down city of Changchun in northeast China, has been forced to stop shipping fruits and health products to online customers due to travel restrictions, but he is philosophical about it. “There must be losses to my business, but there’s not much I can do,” he said.

He and the other three other members of his family have been locked in their apartment since Saturday. “In order not to cause chaos in society, I will stay at home for the public.”

Faye Li, 27, a fire management specialist at a food company in Shenzhen, said she wanted to spend the weekend with two friends downtown but canceled the plan because the government banned eating indoors. But she accepted this.

“The effect of the outbreak is small and I’m really not too concerned,” said Ms. Li. “I’m used to this.”

Chinese doctors and health officials insist continued mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns are necessary. Opening too early can be disastrous, they warn.

Many of the cases in recent days have been the Omicron variant, which, while highly transmissible, has also made people less sick than previous variants of the coronavirus. Just over half of those infected with the coronavirus in China in recent days show no symptoms, data released by the government shows.

But they are still contagious.

“The rate of asymptomatic infections is high, the spread is hidden and early detection is difficult,” Wu Fan, vice dean of Shanghai Medical College at Fudan University, said at a government news conference on Sunday. “It’s not enough to simply screen in key areas or populations — it’s necessary to reduce or slow people’s mobility.”

Following scandals of city-wide lockdowns in which people went hungry in their homes or even died from lack of medical care, particularly in Xi’an, central government leaders have instructed local officials to exercise greater caution when imposing such restrictions.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang said in an annual policy speech last week that the goal of China’s pandemic policy was “to protect people’s life and health, to continue the normal course of business and life, and to ensure the safety of industrial and supply chains.”

But the rapid increase in infections threatens to negate that progress. dr. Zhang, the Shanghai expert, is one of the few prominent proponents of easing “Covid zero” precautions, but even he said in an online message Monday that now is not the time for that.

“It is very important for our country to continue to follow the covid-zero strategy in society for the foreseeable future to suppress the fifth wave of the extremely rapidly spreading Omicron epidemic to a fully manageable level,” he wrote. “But this does not mean that we will permanently adopt the strategy of citywide lockdown and full testing.”

Shenzhen, a huge metropolis of nearly 20 million people that is the tech center of China and borders Hong Kong, has residents locked up on Sunday night. It stopped buses and subways and ordered businesses to close except supermarkets, farmers’ markets, pharmacies, medical facilities and the port, which is one of the world’s largest.

Dongguan, another huge factory city adjacent to Shenzhen, imposed a similar lockdown on Monday.

In southern China, in particular, many have responded to the Omicron outbreak by blaming nearby Hong Kong, where a major epidemic has flooded hospitals and morgues, largely due to the lack of vaccinations for elderly residents.

Hu Xijin, a nationalist columnist, complained in a post on his social media account on Sunday: “Hong Kong has brought down Shenzhen.”

Li YouAmy Chang Chienand Joy Dong research contributed.

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