Some districts with virus outbreaks in Shanghai were locked down on March 14, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

China’s government has decided to lock down Shanghai from Monday after thousands of asymptomatic people tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend in the country’s largest commercial city.

Many in Shanghai were shocked by the announcement of a citywide lockdown on Sunday evening as they were told last Saturday that the Chinese financial hub would not be locked down due to economic considerations.

Shanghai’s lockdown showed China was still not ready to adopt the “living with the virus” strategy other countries have adopted. As many as 126 million people aged above 60, or 48% of those in the age group, have not yet received a booster shot.

Medical research found that elderly people with only two doses of China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines were not fully protected from the Omicron variant. Hong Kong’s under-vaccinated elderly population made the city into the pandemic’s morbidity epicenter in recent weeks.

With more Chinese cities now expected to follow in Shanghai’s footsteps and lock down, it is expected the Chinese economic recovery will slow significantly in the first quarter. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 1.6% on Monday morning, but closed up 2 points at 3,214.

Police cordon off a residential neighborhood in Shanghai’s Huangpu district amid a new outbreak of Covid-19 in a file photo. Image: AFP

In early March, Shanghai recorded dozens of Covid-19 cases per day after some medical staff were infected by incoming travelers. On March 14, Shanghai reported four local cases, plus 34 cases who were asymptomatic. It did not follow Shenzhen, which recorded 60 cases on the same day and locked down the city.

When Shenzhen finished its one-week lockdown and still reported 28 cases per day on March 21, Shanghai saw 31 new cases and 865 asymptomatic infections. The government refused to lock down the city as most new cases were identified in its closed-loop systems.

It also denied an online rumor, which said 8,000 cases had been found in Beicaizhen, a district in Shanghai’s Pudong area.

Last Saturday, 38 new cases and 2,231 asymptomatic infections were reported in Shanghai. In a media briefing, Wu Fan, the associate dean of the Shanghai Medical College at Fudan University, said the city would only lock down some high-risk districts as a citywide lockdown would hurt the Chinese and global economies.

On Sunday, Shanghai recorded 50 new cases and 3,450 asymptomatic infections. In the evening, the Shanghai government announced it would lock down the city in two stages over nine days while authorities carried out Covid-19 tests on the population of 25 million.

The eastern side of the city would be locked down from Monday until April 1, and the western side from April 1-5. Public transport will be suspended and firms and factories must halt operations or work remotely.

Many Chinese cities have faced a dilemma after President Xi Jinping said in a meeting of the Standing Committee of the politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on March 17 that China should minimize the economic costs while controlling its epidemic.

Shanghai’s lockdown shows China would not consider following Hong Kong to “live with the virus”, at least in the short term.

As of Monday, a total of 7,207 people who tested positive died in Hong Kong during the fifth epidemic wave in the first quarter this year. Of those deaths, 96% of them were aged above 60. That means the Omicron variant has killed 0.34% of the 2.03 million elderly people in the city within two months.

In China, 1.24 billion people, or 88% of the total population, have received two doses of indigenously-produced inactivated vaccines as of March 24, according to the National Health Commission.

A temporary vaccine center in Shanghai. Photo: WikiCommons

Wang Huaqing, the chief immunologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said 212 million people over 60, or 80.3% of those in the age group, had been inoculated with two doses, but only 138 million people, or 52%, had received a booster shot.

Zunyou Wu, the chief epidemiologist for China at the CDC, said the proportion of serious cases to all Covid cases had remained small as the pathogenicity of the Omicron variant was not as strong as other strains, while the vaccination rate in China kept growing.

However, Wu said as a large number of people were infected due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the total number of deaths and social harm, as well as the impact caused by the epidemic, had not been alleviated.

The results of recent medical research conducted by the University of Hong Kong showed that people aged above 60 could only enjoy a protection rate of 77.4% against death if they received two doses of Sinovac, compared with a protection rate of 92.3% for those who received BioNTech.

The protection rate against death will rise to 95-97% only after a person gets a booster shot, the research said.

Theoretically, hundreds of thousands of elderly people could be killed by the Omicron variant if China shifts to a “live with the virus” strategy now. Meanwhile, some economists are worried that the Chinese – and hence global – economy will be hurt by the lockdown measures.

“After Shanghai goes into a full lockdown in two stages, we’ll see even more full-scale lockdowns elsewhere, and this creates more worries about future disruptions to supply chain productions and also household consumption,” Tommy Wu, a lead economist at Oxford Economics, told RTHK.

Wu said the Shanghai lockdown, together with others in Shenzhen and other parts of the country, would reduce China’s GDP by 0.5 to 1 percentage point in the first quarter.

Read: Hong Kong showing China how to live with the virus

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3