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Shanghai eases child separation policy amid Covid lockdown frustration

The city’s practice of isolating infected children away from their parents as it battles a virus outbreak has set off widespread anger across the country.
A health worker takes a throat swab sample from a child in Beijing on March 21, 2022.
A health worker takes a throat swab sample from a child in Beijing on March 21, 2022.Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: Reuters

SHANGHAI — Shanghai on Wednesday made some concessions on a widely unpopular child separation Covid policy, in a nod to growing public frustration as it extends a citywide lockdown that has left some residents struggling to buy food.

The lockdown of China’s most populous city, which started in parts of Shanghai 10 days ago and has since been expanded to confine practically all of its 26 million residents at home, has massively disrupted daily life and business.

Public criticism over the curbs, part of Beijing’s elimination strategy, has ranged from complaints over crowded and unsanitary quarantine centers to difficulties in buying food or accessing medical treatment.

But the most controversial policy has been Shanghai’s practice of separating Covid-positive children from their parents, which came to the fore on Saturday and set off widespread anger across the country.

In the face of such criticism, the Shanghai government two days ago said it would relax the policy slightly to allow parents to accompany children if they were also infected. But children would still be separated from parents who were not Covid-positive, prompting further complaints.

On Wednesday, a Shanghai health official said guardians of children with special needs who are infected with Covid could now apply to escort them, but would need to comply with certain rules and sign a letter saying they were aware of the risks.

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He did not provide further details and the Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment for clarification.

The comments brought widespread public relief, especially among parents, though some questioned why there was still a need to apply. A hashtag on the subject on China’s Weibo social media platform drew more than 40 million views by Wednesday afternoon.

“This is the right thing to do, carry out management in a humane way,” said one widely liked Weibo comment.

Shanghai also said Wednesday it would conduct another round of citywide tests, a mix of antigen and nucleic acid testing. Movement curbs on residents will continue until testing results can be evaluated, officials said.

There are signs that the curbs, which were initially scheduled to last about five days for most, are fraying residents’ nerves. Many are beginning to worry about food and drinking water, as supermarkets remain shut and deliveries are restricted.

Some have complained of having to wake up at dawn for a chance at booking a grocery delivery, but finding them sold out within seconds. Others have turned to community WeChat groups to try to bulk buy fruit and vegetables.

Liu Min, vice head of Shanghai’s commerce commission, told reporters that authorities were working hard to resolve bottlenecks and take care of the “basic living needs” of the population.

She said efforts would be made to ship food and other necessities to Shanghai from other provinces, and to build emergency supply stations in and around the city to ensure vegetable supplies. But she said the biggest challenge was getting deliveries to homes.

Shanghai will also work to “release delivery capacity,” saying the 11,000 riders working for major e-commerce platforms in the city could go to work if they submitted daily negative Covid nucleic acid and antigen tests, she added.

Shanghai detected a record 16,766 new asymptomatic coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up from 13,086 a day earlier. Symptomatic cases also rose to 311 from 268 the day before.

While the city’s case numbers remain small by global standards, Shanghai has emerged as a test bed for China’s Covid elimination “dynamic clearance” strategy, which seeks to test, trace and centrally quarantine all positive cases as well as their close contacts.

The city has set up 62 temporary quarantine sites at hotels, stadiums and exhibition centers, and is also converting the National Convention and Exhibition Center into a facility that can hold 40,000 people.

Analysts say the impact of the current restrictions on the economy is mounting, especially for small businesses, with nearly 200 million people across China under some sort of lockdown, according to estimates by Nomura.