Three days of zero COVID-19 in Shanghai brings no reprieve from testing

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Shanghai posted a third straight day of zero COVID-19 cases for the first time in a month, though residents are still required to take frequent tests as officials seek to stamp out any flareup before it can take hold.

It’s the financial hub’s longest stretch of zero cases since a five-day COVID-free streak that ended July 1, the day before infections started to spike again. Beijing also recorded zero cases for Tuesday.

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Nationwide, 289 cases were recorded, down from 373 Monday and the peak of 935 infections two weeks ago.

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Nonetheless, the Shanghai government has announced it is conducting two rounds of mass testing in five of its 16 districts -- where about a quarter of the city’s population of around 25 million live -- this week. It will also roll out mass testing in all neighborhoods and public areas of other districts where infected people have been recently found.

And everyone living in Shanghai, which endured a bruising two-month lockdown during April and May, still faces the daily risk of being confined to their apartments or housing compounds for days or weeks at short notice. Under the current virus control policies, an entire residential building or compound will be placed under tight movement restrictions even if just one positive case or close contact is found there.

China’s adherence to COVID Zero, which requires mass testing, snap lockdowns and travel restrictions, has exacted a heavy economic and social toll. Top leaders told government officials last week that this year’s growth target of “around 5.5 percent should serve as guidance rather than a hard target that must be hit,” Bloomberg News reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Leaders acknowledged that the chances of meeting the target were slim.

The need to balance growth with virus controls is a top priority for President Xi Jinping, who has made COVID Zero a hallmark of his rule and is set to be handed an unprecedented third term in power at a twice-a-decade party congress later this year. But the emergence of more transmissible subvariants is testing China’s strategies like never before and leaves residents living with constant uncertainty.

In Shanghai, authorities have gradually allowed venues like museums and cinemas to reopen over the past month, and permit libraries and cultural centers to restart operations based on local COVID-19 control rules. But those rules can swiftly change and residents say doors to those venues are often still shut. Parents are also waiting for information from authorities on whether school kids can return to campus after the summer vacation.

While most of the world has shifted to living with the virus, Xi has said the country won’t pursue “herd immunity like other nations because it would exact too much of a toll, particularly on China’s elderly, who have lower vaccination rates.”

While health advisers have outlined potential exit strategies, saying over the months that opening up hinges on improved inoculation rates, increased access to antivirals, and greater capacity at hospitals, progress in those areas has been slow.

Read more: China’s Shanghai calls on public to share ‘heartwarming’ COVID-19 lockdown stories

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