What's up with the COVID lockdowns in China?

·4 min read
COVID lockdown.
COVID lockdown. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Residents of Shanghai are slowly beginning to emerge from a harsh, government-imposed COVID lockdown. What was the reasoning behind the nationwide standstill and how does it play into China's "zero-COVID" strategy? Here's everything you need to know:

Why are there lockdowns?

China locked down its most populous city, Shanghai, at the end of March to try to control a rapidly-escalating surge in infections. The government argued that closing nonessential businesses, shutting down public transport, and forcing citizens to stay inside would help mass testing efforts. Officials were also worried that "uncontrolled spread could overwhelm hospitals and cause a catastrophic loss of life," considering "large numbers of Chinese adults 80 and older are unvaccinated and there is little immunity from earlier infections," The New York Times writes.

Initially, the lockdown was only supposed to last for a few days and was intended to target one half of the city at a time. But officials shortly thereafter abandoned that approach, and residents were left panicked and scrambling for supplies needed to survive, like food and medical care. What's more, all COVID-positive patients were forced to isolate themselves in facilities, meaning parents were separated from their children, regardless of age.

Elsewhere, Beijing has been denying rumors that officials are working to curb rising case counts with a lockdown similar to Shanghai's — something the city has avoided the entirety of the pandemic. Authorities last week urged residents not to panic-buy groceries and supplies, but did encourage them to stay home while the government prepared a new round of mass testing, Reuters reports. But lockdown or not, the situation in Beijing has begun to mirror that of Shanghai, Bloomberg notes: "While most Beijingers are still technically allowed outside, there are few places to go, with schools, gyms, and attractions shut, restaurant dining banned indefinitely, and some districts cordoned off altogether."

What is 'zero COVID'?

"Zero COVID" has been the Chinese government's long-running strategy for dealing with (and hopefully eradicating) COVID-19. While much of the rest of the world has now adopted a "living with COVID" attitude toward handling the virus, the Chinese Communist Party has continued its crusade to stamp out COVID entirely. The highly-transmissible Omicron variant, however, has thrown a very big wrench into those plans. And on Tuesday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the Chinese government's strategy "unsustainable."

How have these zero-COVID lockdowns affected China?

Economically, it's been a mess. "Three key pieces of Chinese economic data all fell short of expectations in April," writes Investing.com, "underlining the damage done by the extended lockdowns plaguing Shanghai and other big population centers to stamp out COVID-19." Retail sales and industrial production both took a tumble on the year, as the offshore yuan meanwhile fell 0.2 percent.

The restrictive lockdowns might also deepen China's population crisis, CNN posits: "To many young people, the crisis unfolding in Shanghai is setting off alarm bells. ... 'Who is willing to have children when things have come to this? Who dares to have children?' asked a user on Weibo."

To that same point, the lockdowns and government measures have caused public retaliation, as well. Last Sunday, for example, a group of students at an elite Chinese university in Beijing made headlines after protesting COVID restrictions they argued were poorly communicated and unfair, the Times writes.

Have China's lockdowns affected the rest of the world, too?

Absolutely. Nearly 60 percent of European businesses in China said they were cutting 2022 revenue projections as a result of the country's COVID restrictions, CNBC reports, per an April European Union Chamber of Commerce in China survey. The lockdowns have also proven themselves a supply chain nightmare, considering half of the world's 20 largest ports are located in China, Fortune reports. The damage has impacted companies like Apple, Amazon, General Electric, and perhaps most notably, Tesla, which depends on a massive factory in Shanghai.

When will this end?

After roughly six weeks of lockdown, Shanghai officials announced Monday their intention to gradually reopen the city as of June 1 "if progress toward controlling the Omicron outbreak is maintained," The Wall Street Journal summarizes. Per the government, all but one of the city's 16 districts have "eliminated the virus from the broader community," the Journal writes. Some shops will open this week, but many restrictions on movement will remain until May 21, "after which public transport and other services will resume gradually," Reuters notes. Some residents, however, appeared skeptical of the news.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, cases continue to rise. Despite no official lockdown at the moment, whether officials add or remove restrictions in the coming days and weeks will likely depend on the number of infections.

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