Shanghai reached the long-awaited milestone of three consecutive days with no new COVID-19 cases outside quarantine zones on Tuesday, May 17, but most people will have to endure additional confinement before returning to more regular life.
The third day with no new instances in the community generally implies “zero COVID” status and the beginning of the relaxation of restrictions in other Chinese cities that have been under lockdown.
Many people in the 25-million-strong business metropolis were skeptical of the proposal on Monday, which laid out the clearest time frame yet for ending the lockdown, which has now been in place for seven weeks.
Shanghai intends to gradually restart outside activities, with some convenience stores and pharmacies reopening this week, but the majority of movement restrictions stay in place until May 21, after which public transportation and other services will be progressively resumed.
The lockdown should be lifted by June, but residents will still be forced to undertake frequent testing.
This week, more individuals were permitted to leave their houses, with joggers and dog walkers being seen. In the Shanghai river, one man was observed fishing.
However, tall fences surrounded many residential compounds, and there were practically no private automobiles on the streets, with the majority of people still confined to their houses.
A social media account run by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper posted photographs on Monday evening that it said showed breakfast joints, restaurants, and hairdressers opening up.
But one social media user described the post as “nonsense”.
“We have been locked in at home for two months … This story is meant for anyone else other than people in Shanghai.”
By Tuesday morning, the post had been deleted.
A video posted by another state-backed media outlet announced the reopening of an Alibaba Freshippo grocery store, showing about 10 members of staff in hazmat suits making heart shapes with their hands, but only two people who looked like shoppers.
A sign on the shop’s door showed customers had to show a negative COVID-19 test, a pass showing they are allowed out of home and an up-to-date mobile phone health app to go in.
Only 20 customers are allowed into the store at any one time.
In all, Shanghai reported fewer than 1,000 new cases for May 16, all inside areas under the strictest controls. In relatively freer areas, the ones monitored to gauge progress in eradicating the outbreak, no new cases were found for the third day.
Beijing’s latest daily caseload was 52, with authorities discovering a few dozen new infections on an almost daily basis despite gradually tightening restrictions over the past three weeks or so.
Dine-in services are banned in the capital, some malls and other businesses are shut, public transport is curtailed and many residents have been advised to work from home.
Data this week showed the havoc wreaked on the economy by the lockdown in Shanghai and the curbs in dozens of other major cities, with retail sales and industrial output plunging at their fastest pace in more than two years in April.
China’s uncompromising “zero COVID” policy has placed hundreds of millions of consumers and workers under various restrictions at a time when the rest of the world is lifting them to “live with the virus” even as infections spread.
But the difficulty of eliminating new outbreaks, as shown by Beijing’s struggles, raises concern over the sustainability of any return to normal life in Shanghai and elsewhere once restrictions are lifted.
China’s unswerving commitment to the zero-COVID policy, no matter the economic costs, means questions over the outlook will linger.
“The pace of recovery is likely to depend on the speed of normalization in Shanghai and Beijing and how fast confidence will return to the private sector,” Societe Generale strategists said in a note.
“On both points, the zero-COVID strategy could be a persistent drag.”