HONG KONG — Officials in Shanghai, which has been on lockdown for weeks as officials battle China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, said Friday that they aimed to achieve zero cases outside quarantine by May 20.
That could allow restrictions to be eased in the city of 26 million people, where residents have complained of food shortages and mental health challenges as the lockdown has been extended multiple times.
As the rest of the world moves to live with the virus, China’s Covid strategy is drawing more scrutiny, including rare criticism from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, who said it was not sustainable in the face of the highly transmissible omicron variant.
“Considering the behavior of the virus, I think a shift will be very important,” he said at a news conference this week, adding that he had discussed the issue with Chinese experts.
His comments came after President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to China’s Covid strategy, which has kept cases and deaths far below those in the United States and other countries. A shift in course could threaten his plan to secure an unprecedented third term at a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year, analysts say.
At a meeting led by Xi last week, the party’s top leaders pledged to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero-Covid,’ and resolutely fight against any words and deeds that distort, doubt or deny our country’s epidemic prevention policies.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The message sent the Shanghai government scrambling to double down on anti-Covid measures, as some residents who had been allowed limited movement for the first time in weeks were ordered back into their homes. Others reported hazmat-suited workers known as “Big Whites” forcing their way into people’s homes to carry out disinfection and carting off whole buildings of people to quarantine if one resident tested positive.
Tedros’ comments were swiftly suppressed by Chinese censors, who removed a post from the United Nations account on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, and blocked users from searching for his name.
Asked about his comments, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China’s Covid policy was based on “national realities” and that officials were adjusting anti-epidemic measures based on changing conditions.
“We hope relevant people will look at China’s Covid policy in an objective and rational light, learn more about the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.
Zhao pointed to a study published this week in the journal Nature, which said an uncontrolled omicron outbreak in China could result in a “tsunami” of cases and 1.55 million deaths, mostly among unvaccinated people 60 and older. Chinese leaders fear a repeat of this year’s deadly omicron outbreak in its territory of Hong Kong, which like mainland China had a low vaccination rate among older people.
Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the model in the Nature study is at odds with the real-world data coming out of Shanghai, where there have been more than 600,000 cases since March 1 and fewer than 600 deaths.
“It is actually crystal clear that the real damage is not as severe,” he said.
Many of the measures being taken in Shanghai are not productive and may even be counterproductive, Jin said.
“They should vaccinate the kids, vaccinate the elderly — that’s the first priority,” he said. “If they can do this well, then they are in a much better position to abandon the zero-Covid policy.”
Xi told the party meeting that the Shanghai lockdown would succeed just as it had in Wuhan, the central Chinese city that was on lockdown for 76 days in 2020 after the virus was first detected there the previous year. But a lot has changed since then, said Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow who studies China’s state-society relations at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“People aren’t coalescing around the party-state’s zero-Covid strategy as much as they once were, and we see that division being played out online,” she said.
Some Chinese academics and economists have been censored online after questioning the legality of some measures in Shanghai or raising concerns about the economic impact of the nation’s current lockdowns, which extend to dozens of cities and affect hundreds of millions of people.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund lowered its 2022 growth forecast for China from 4.8 percent to 4.4 percent, citing the lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere. In March, as the omicron outbreak brought tighter restrictions, unemployment in Chinese urban areas rose to 5.8 percent, the highest since May 2020.
China’s Covid restrictions have also been criticized by overseas business groups like the American Chamber of Commerce in China. According to a survey of 121 companies the group conducted from April 29 to May 5, more than half of the respondents said they had delayed or decreased investments in the country because of the omicron outbreak.
“We understand China choosing to prioritize health and safety above all else, but the current measures are throttling U.S. business confidence in China,” chairman Colm Rafferty said.
China’s strategy is in fact evolving, said Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank based in Beijing. He pointed to the situation in Beijing, which is reporting a few dozen omicron cases per day: There is mass testing, a partial transportation shutdown, a ban on dine-in service and lockdowns in some residential buildings, but a citywide lockdown has been avoided so far.
He said the Beijing experiment could provide a new path for China if it proved successful, but that it would take another week or two to find out.
“If it works, China may come out doing well again, if not, then you have to find a way to follow the international pattern,” Wang said. “But China would not give up now at this moment to do that. I think we still need some time.”