SHANGHAI: Shanghai authorities combed the city on Thursday (May 12) for its last COVID-19 cases in the hope of clearing the way for an exit from a painful six-week lockdown, while Beijing curbed taxi services to keep a lid on its smaller outbreak.
The Chinese commercial hub of 25 million people has in recent days been tightening its lockdown for a final push to eradicate the virus by the end of the month, having made some significant progress, according to data this week.
Shanghai's mass testing detected just two new cases outside areas facing the strictest curbs on May 11, officials said on Thursday, but that was two more than none the previous day.
Significantly, the cases were found in two of the city's 16 districts, Xuhui and Fengxian, that authorities said this week were among eight that had achieved "zero COVID" status, having had no community cases for three consecutive days.
The latest cases show the difficulty in finishing off the highly transmissible Omicron variant despite ruthless enforcement of some of China's harshest restrictions since the virus emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.
The new infections also raise concern about how long a return to normal life might last under China's uncompromising "zero COVID" policy after the lockdown is finally lifted.
Yu Linwei, vice-governor of Xuhui, told a news conference his district would not relax anti-epidemic efforts, making sure everyone is tested and that new cases and their close contacts are isolated in quarantine as quickly as possible.
"We dare not slack off," he said.
Some of the district's residents, who had in recent days been allowed to leave their compounds for walks and grocery shopping, say they have received notices telling them they can't leave home and to prepare for more testing.
Overall, Shanghai reported 1,305 new local asymptomatic coronavirus cases for May 11, up from 1,259 a day earlier and 144 symptomatic cases, down from 228. But these were in areas already under the tightest controls.
The cases found in the relatively freer communities are the ones most closely watched for clues as to where Shanghai's outbreak is heading. Other Chinese cities under similar lockdowns began easing curbs after a period of zero cases in such areas.
China's caseloads are tiny fractions of what major cities around the world have come to shrug off, as most countries lift restrictions to "live with the virus" even though infections are still spreading.
China is bucking the global trend and has doubled down on its "zero COVID" policy, putting hundreds of millions of people in dozens of cities under movement curbs, causing significant economic damage and disruption to international trade and supply chains.
But China says it is saving lives.
It points to the 1 million COVID-19 deaths in the United States, and many more millions elsewhere, while its official toll since the beginning of the pandemic is just over 5,000.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this week China's policy was "not sustainable", prompting an angry rebuke from Beijing and censorship of his "irresponsible" comments.
The capital, Beijing, reported 46 new COVID-19 cases for May 11, up from 37.
Late on Wednesday, Beijing announced the suspension of taxis and ride hailing services in parts of Chaoyang district, Beijing's largest and the epicentre of its outbreak, and two other districts.
Authorities there have banned dine-in services at restaurants, closed some malls, entertainment and tourist venues, suspended sections of its bus and subway systems and imposed lockdowns on some residential buildings.
Having tightened restrictions earlier in its outbreak, Beijing is faring much better than Shanghai did at this point in its latest outbreak.
In an apartment building in Shanghai's central Jing'an district, residents were told once again they cannot leave their flats after being allowed out last week to walk around the compound.
"As restrictive as it was, those 10 minutes of freedom, being able to get some fresh air outside my building and walk my dog, kept my sanity," building resident Stephanie Sam, 27, said on the WeChat social media site.
The re-tightening of curbs has "taken away the last sliver of hope I had about this dystopian nightmare ending anytime soon", she said.
The district has reported zero community cases and, like other areas in the city, has entered what authorities call "silent management mode".
That usually means boards or fences around buildings, deliveries forbidden, and residents once again confined to their homes.