More cities in China imposed partial lockdowns on Friday as COVID-19 cases soared to the highest since the pandemic, bringing fresh restrictions for a weary Chinese public.
The National Health Commission on Friday reported 32,695 cases, beating Thursday’s record, which was itself the highest number since April when Shanghai was under a two month-long lockdown.
The Chinese capital, Beijing, reported 1,860 of those cases, and on Friday resembled a ghost town with an increasing number of residential complexes locked down. Offices have been told to close, most schools have shifted to virtual learning, and e-commerce apps struggled to fulfill orders for groceries, bringing back memories for many of the early days of the pandemic in 2020.
If the early lockdowns were tolerated and seen to have spared China the mass deaths seen in many countries, public views, three years on, are markedly different as the economic costs mount from the continued “zero-COVID” regime and China remains an exception from the rest of the world which has learnt to live with the virus having focused on vaccinations. Reinforcing Beijing’s isolation, millions of Chinese in recent days have watched in envy at the crowds gathered in Qatar for the World Cup, with the stark contrast emerging as a major talking point on Chinese social media.
Clashes have broken out in recent days in many cities in China, from riots in the “iPhone hub” of Zhengzhou to clashes in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou in the south, where residents have opposed prolonged lockdowns.
The government has continued to defend “zero-COVID” and warned that easing the policy would mean a wave of deaths with many unvaccinated elderly. Authorities have not however made any discernible attempt to revive a flagging vaccination booster campaign.
The biggest news on Chinese social media on Friday was widespread anger at what many in China saw as a lockdown-caused tragedy in the city of Urumqi in the western Xinjiang region, where at least 10 persons died from a fire in an apartment block.
Videos on Chinese social media showed fire trucks spraying water that barely reached the fire as they were stationed outside the gates of the residential compound.
Internet users questioned state media reports that said the compound wasn’t locked down and asked why fire trucks were not able to enter. The fire was widely seen as a lockdown-caused tragedy, adding to growing public frustration over the current measures particularly with most of the recent cases reported to have been mild or asymptomatic.
The economic tolls of lockdowns are also mounting. Currently more than one-fifth of the country’s GDP was under lockdown, estimated a report from Japanese financial firm Nomura, up from under 10% just one month ago. With more lockdowns expected as cases continue to rise with no expected wavering from “zero-COVID”, the report said areas accounting for as much as 30% of the GDP will likely be under lockdown in coming weeks, leading to plunging economic growth for the last quarter of the year.
Reflecting the government’s worries about the economy, the Chinese central bank on Friday for the second time this year cut its reserve requirement ratio to release US$70 billion to spur the economy.