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Beijing ramps up Covid quarantine, N. Korea says situation under control

file photo: covid 19 outbreak in shanghai
Shanghai Central Business District (CBD) in Shanghai

Beijing stepped up quarantine efforts to end its month-old COVID outbreak as fresh signs of frustration emerged in Shanghai, where some bemoaned unfair curbs with the city of 25 million preparing to lift a prolonged lockdown in just over a week.

Even as China’s drastic attempts to eradicate COVID entirely – its “zero-COVID” approach – bite into prospects for the world’s second-biggest economy, new reported infection numbers remain well below levels seen in many Western cities. The capital reported 48 new cases for Monday among its population of 22 million, with Shanghai reporting fewer than 500.

Still, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan called for more thorough measures to cut virus transmission and adhere to the nation’s zero-COVID policy during an inspection tour in Beijing, state agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

The situation in Beijing was manageable, but containment efforts cannot ease, she said, according to Xinhua.

In one example of the stringency of Beijing’s approach, around 1,800 people in one city neighbourhood were relocated to Zhangjiakou city in the nearby Hebei province for quarantine, the state-backed Beijing Daily reported.

Still in place are instructions for residents in six of the capital’s 16 districts to work from home, while a further three districts encouraged people to follow such measures, with each district responsible for implementing its own guidelines.

Beijing had already reduced public transport, requesting some shopping malls and other venues to close and sealing buildings where new cases were detected.

In Shanghai, authorities plan to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a more complete lifting of the two-month-old lockdown from June 1. Even then, public venues will have to cap people flows at 75% of capacity.

‘LET’S STRIKE’

With Shanghai officially declared to be a zero-COVID city, some authorities allowed more people to leave their homes for brief periods over the past week, and more supermarkets and pharmacies were authorised to reopen and provide deliveries.

But other lower-level officials separately tightened restrictions in some neighbourhoods, ordering residents back indoors to cement progress achieved so far during the city’s final lap towards exiting the lockdown.

That has led to frustration and complaints of uneven treatment among some residents.

While the zero-COVID status describes the entire city, and residents in some compounds have been allowed to move in and out of their homes freely, others have been told they can only go out for a few hours, and many of those stuck indoors were told nothing.

Videos circulating on social media this week showed residents arguing with officials to be let out of their residential compounds.

The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

One resident told Reuters people in his compound decided on the WeChat social media platform to go out in groups.

“Let’s strike at our gate tonight to demand that we be allowed to go out like many of other compounds in the neighbourhood,” he quoted one of his neighbours as saying in the group chat.

A video he shared then showed a group of people arguing at the entrance of the compound with a man who described himself as a sub-district official, who asked the residents to go back inside and discuss the situation.

“Don’t bother with him,” one person said as some people were socialising outside the compound.

People in at least two other compounds were planning to try going outside despite not being told they were allowed to do so, residents said.

ECONOMIC RESPITE?

At a time when most other countries are moving to models of living with the virus, China’s COVID measures are inflicting damage on its economy, as well as disrupting global supply chains.

Many analysts expect the economy to shrink in the second quarter, even if the overall COVID situation across China and economic activity has improved this month when compared with April.

To support the economy, China will broaden tax credit rebates, postpone social security payments by small firms and loan repayments and roll out new investment projects among other steps, state television quoted the cabinet as saying.

In one positive signal for Shanghai, electric vehicle giant Tesla TSLA.O plans to reach on Tuesday production levels similar to those before the lockdown at its plant in the city, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.

Nomura analysts estimate 26 Chinese cities were implementing full or partial lockdowns or other COVID measures as of May 23, accounting for 208 million people and 20.5% of China’s economic output. That would be down from 271 million the week before and 27% of output.

“But to us, this is merely a respite instead of a turning point,” the analysts wrote in a note. They said passing a turning point would depend exclusively on an exit from the zero-COVID strategy, and not so much on daily case numbers and monthly activity data.

empty street amid covid 19 pandemic in pyongyang
Empty streets in Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korea said on Tuesday there were no new deaths among fever patients in the country, the first time since it flagged a COVID-19 outbreak nearly two weeks ago, adding that it was seeing a “stable” downward trend in pandemic-related cases.

The COVID-19 wave, which North Korea first declared on May 12, has fuelled concerns over a lack of vaccines, inadequate medical infrastructure and a potential food crisis in the country of 25 million.

But the North said it was reporting “successes” in stemming the spread of the virus, and that there was no new fever death reported as of Monday evening despite adding 134,510 new patients.

It marked a third consecutive day the daily figure stayed below 200,000 and the first time for the North to report no new deaths since announcing the number of daily fever patients, according to the official KCNA news agency.

Apparently deprived of testing supplies, North Korea has not confirmed the total number of people testing positive for the coronavirus, instead, reporting the number with fever symptoms.

The total number of such cases, tallied since late April, rose to 2.95 million, while the death toll stood at 68, according to KCNA.

“In a few days after the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system was activated, the nation-wide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased and the number of recovered persons increased, resulting in effectively curbing and controlling the spread of the pandemic disease and maintaining the clearly stable situation,” KCNA said.

CREDIBILITY DOUBTED

Many analysts, however, doubt the credibility of the figures, saying they only demonstrate how hard it is to assess the actual scale of the COVID-19 wave in the isolated country.

“Through a mix of inadequate testing, disincentives at lower administrative levels to report serious outbreaks, cases, deaths, and whatever political motivations the top echelons may harbour, we have stats that are essentially nonsense,” Christopher Green, a Korea specialist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter.

North Korea has said authorities were distributing food and medicine across the country, with military medics deployed to help distribute drugs and conduct health exams.

The KCNA also said North Korea was expanding the production of essential medicine supplies, though it did not elaborate exactly what types were being produced.

South Korea and the United States have proposed to help North Korea fight the pandemic, including with vaccines, but Pyongyang has not responded to the offer.

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