China has intensified propaganda efforts to drum up national support for its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy just as experts warn of the heavy economic blow from extended lockdowns.
On Thursday, China’s official Xinhua news agency published an article saying the country’s medical system risked “breaking down” if there was a mass Covid outbreak. It echoed President Xi Jinping’s comments on Wednesday calling for citizens to “overcome complacency” in “response to the virus’s mutation”.
“The global pandemic is still severe, so we cannot relax the controls now,” Xi said during a visit to the southern province of Hainan.
Beijing’s decision to enhance its lockdown measures to fight the spread of the highly infectious but milder Omicron variant stands in marked contrast to most of the rest of the world, which is learning to live with the virus.
Bo Zhuang, a Singapore-based analyst at Loomis Sayles, said local governments were “hugely underestimating” the economic damage caused by lockdown measures that have disrupted supply chains and frozen vital intercity connections that enable the flow of goods around the country.
“China’s economy relies on supply chains,” said Zhuang, pointing to how several electric-vehicle makers, including Tesla, have suspended production because they could not source components.
Dozens of electronic components manufacturers in Kunshan halted production on Wednesday after lockdown measures were extended to the city, which neighbours Shanghai.
Shanghai, the centre of China’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan in early 2020, reported 27,719 cases on Wednesday, according to data released on Thursday, a slight rise on the more than 26,330 cases reported on Tuesday.
In late March, authorities imposed a two-stage lockdown that was expanded to encompass the entire city of 26mn.
One official close to China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention expressed concern about tightening controls on the healthcare system.
The official, who did not want to be named, said: “From a medical standpoint, I don’t think the zero-Covid policy is viable any more. Shanghai is running out of medical professionals to measure test results and beds to accommodate patients.
“If we don’t want to live with Covid, the only solution is to become stricter.”
Many residents struggled to gain access to food and medical supplies at the start of the lockdown, but others have since said those shortages have begun to ease.
But people across the rest China have started bulk-buying essentials with an eye on the lockdown in Shanghai. Economists at Nomura, the Japanese bank, estimated that 45 Chinese cities and 373mn people were under full or partial lockdown, compared with 23 cities and 193mn people a week ago.
The Xinhua op-ed called on citizens to endure the “temporary inconvenience” of lockdown. “Only when the pandemic is controlled can we protect people’s lives . . . and create favourable conditions for normal production.”
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing and Andy Lin in Hong Kong