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Shanghai is on lockdown under China's 'zero COVID' policy


China has been grappling for weeks with its biggest wave of COVID-19 since the early days in the pandemic two years ago. And starting today, the government imposed a lockdown in the city of Shanghai. It is a big step for a big city. We are joined by NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch to tell us more about it. Hi, John.


SNELL: So, John, to start with, Shanghai is massive. How is this going to work?

RUWITCH: Yeah, Shanghai is one of the biggest cities in the world. It's got roughly 26 million people. That's more than Florida, more than all of Australia.


RUWITCH: The city is basically bisected by a river called the Huangpu River. That's where its iconic skyline is with the colonial buildings and the forest of skyscrapers. You may have seen pictures. Basically, they're going to use that river as a dividing line. So starting today, half of the city, the east side, for the most part, is shut down. And five days from now, the west side is going to be locked down for five days. Everyone will have to stay at home during the lockdown. They're going to have to stay indoors. Basic necessities will be delivered to the neighborhoods. There's no public transport. The bridges and tunnels across that river are closed, and everyone's subject to mass testing.

SNELL: This sounds incredibly complicated. How are people there reacting to this?

RUWITCH: Well, there's been a little bit of panic. There have been some videos that have popped up on social media showing empty store shelves. People are panic buying, scrambling to buy whatever they - whatever food and supplies they can. I saw a video that looked like a full-fledged brawl in a grocery store where two men were basically screaming at each other and swinging fists. I mean, to be at this point two-plus years into this pandemic is clearly frustrating to some people.

SNELL: Yeah.

RUWITCH: And that's because Shanghai has done a great job. Really, it's never really been on the front lines of the pandemic until now. The government tried to avoid a big lockdown. It took more of a scalpel approach, but ultimately felt that a bigger tool was needed.

SNELL: So what is the impact of all of this going to be?

RUWITCH: So as I said, China's approach has been very aggressive to this pandemic. It's involved strict border controls and mass testing and lockdowns. We've seen it play out elsewhere time and again. And I spoke about this with Mary Lovely, who's a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

MARY LOVELY: So far, there has been a cost, clearly. It's been borne by individuals, by local areas. You know, being forced to stay in your apartment for two weeks, not knowing where your food's going to come from - you know, these are high costs for the Chinese people. But that has not been transmitted to the rest of the world.

RUWITCH: And she means in a - transmitted in a really big way. Shanghai is an important industrial center. It's got a huge service economy - China's biggest port, China's most important stock exchanges. Companies are going to feel this, and they are already. Bloomberg reports that Tesla halted manufacturing at its new factory. Shanghai Disneyland's been closed. And to highlight how the concerns are sort of rippling outward, the global price of crude oil ticked down on the news because traders were fearful that demand would slow down because of the Shanghai lockdown.

SNELL: So does this shutdown of Shanghai say anything about China's broader COVID policy?

RUWITCH: It does. China has, you know, relatively low case numbers and deaths because of its willingness to employ these sort of what some might call draconian measures, these vast lockdowns. I asked Yanzhong Huang about this. He's a China health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. And he says the omicron wave and the Shanghai lockdown show, again, that, you know, despite the government's attempts to, you know, move away from zero COVID, they have low tolerance. And he thinks almost certainly they're going to succeed in containing this outbreak in Shanghai.

YANZHONG HUANG: But the thing is that it won't eradicate the virus. So it's just a matter of time for them to be hit by another wave of the outbreak.

RUWITCH: Yeah. And he says he thinks the socioeconomic costs are going up for China.

SNELL: NPR's John Ruwitch, thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.