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Shanghai is going into a staggered lockdowns because of rising COVID cases


Shanghai is going into a staggered lockdown this week. It's the latest Chinese city to be sealed off and shut down to contain the coronavirus, and those moves are raising questions about the long-term viability of China's zero-COVID approach. Let's ask more about this from NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Emily, what prompted this lockdown?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It was prompted by a surge in cases. Today they reached more than 4,000, which doesn't sound like a lot to other countries, but in Shanghai, where they were seeing zero cases a day for months, this is really scary. And Shanghai is also not the first city to be locked down. Basically, all of March, the country has been frozen. Domestic travel has been impossible. An entire province north of Shanghai, Jilin, has been sealed off, continues to be sealed off, as China deals with its biggest surge in COVID cases ever, which is really dispiriting because people here feel like we've gone back in time to early 2020, when the city of Wuhan was locked down, if you remember. And the same horrible stories about a shortage of food and medical resources are emerging again. I talked to one woman, Miss Suin (ph), today in Shanghai. She didn't want to give her full name because there have been people who have been detained for speaking negatively about the lockdown. But she's been desperately trying to reach her mother. Here's her story.

SUIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She's saying her 80-year-old mother is in a nursing home that's under lockdown, so she can't reach her. She's living in the same room with four other people, two of whom are now COVID positive. But because the lockdown has taken place so suddenly, there's no space to quarantine those two people, and she's afraid her mother may be infected as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Emily, how is this lockdown going to work?

FENG: It's being done in two stages. Shanghai has 25 million people, so they can't test and lock down everyone at once. The city is cut in half by the Huangpu River, and today the east side went into lockdown, meaning you can't leave home, you can't leave the city, and everyone there will get tested. Then on Thursday, the west side will go into lockdown. And what's unique about this lockdown is I'm starting to notice some real discontent, some real grumbling, about the economic cost of the lockdown and the burden of constant testing. But it doesn't mean that people don't support these zero-COVID policies. They're still broadly popular in China. But I'm noticing frustration, not at the policies but the fact that China's still stuck with no path forward to living with a world where COVID is endemic. Instead, China is still stuck in this repetitive cycle of lockdowns.

MARTÍNEZ: So if there's frustration, then, is there any chance at all that China could maybe move forward one day and relax some of these very strict COVID policies?

FENG: Well, this is the big question. And there's a lot of public health officials that have been saying online, in essays and interviews that China needs to figure out a way one day to open up. But there's no clear timeline for this. This is still a distant possibility. And what makes this frustrating is nearby, other places have been opening up. Singapore and South Korea said this month, we're open for business. They removed border closures, got rid of quarantines, restarted international flights. Taiwan nearby says they're going to reduce quarantines. But by contrast, China is still living in conditions similar to early 2020. And this contrast has been especially painful in places like Hong Kong, where cases are still reaching more than 7,000 people a day. Basically, 10% of the population has become sick in the last month. The only upside is that this has provided precious data to public health authorities about how well vaccines work in China, how infections spread, and that could give China a blueprint to open up in the future.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.