SHANGHAI: Shanghai's bespoke approach to tackling coronavirus outbreaks is coming under strain as new cases rise in the Chinese metropolis, with authorities reluctant to impose a comprehensive lockdown as other cities have done.
The city of 26 million has become a testing ground for China's ability to control flare-ups of the more contagious but less deadly Omicron variant while keeping the economy steady in an approach it describes as "slicing and gridding", which involves screening neighbourhoods one by one.
Shanghai's handling of the latest COVID-19 wave was an opportunity to showcase its virus-tackling ability without imposing the blanket closures that have brought major Chinese cities such as Xi'an and Changchun to a standstill.
Zhang Wenhong, who leads Shanghai's COVID-19 prevention team, said on Thursday (Mar 24) that while Omicron was harder to eradicate, it was not as "scary" as earlier strains, and in future, keeping life normal in the city should be as high a priority as curbing the virus.
On Friday, he said there were signs the city's methods were bringing COVID-19 under control and if the proportion of new cases outside locked-down districts continued to drop, an "inflection point" in the outbreak would come soon.
Residents have grumbled about seemingly endless cycles of testing and the piecemeal approach to ending transmission chains, with some saying the cost of zero-COVID had become too high.
On Friday, a hospital said a nurse had died after COVID-19 restrictions meant she could not get emergency treatment for asthma. The case was featured in social media criticism of Shanghai's policies.
While some residents said China must start "co-existing with COVID", others said a thorough, city-wide lockdown should be imposed instead of the ongoing "payment in instalments" method.
Signals from the central government in Beijing are mixed.
China's zero-tolerance policy has kept its borders all-but-shut for two years, even as most countries adapt to living with COVID-19.
Last week, President Xi Jinping said that while preventing outbreaks was a priority, it was necessary to "work hard to pay the lowest price to achieve the biggest prevention and control results".
But there are concerns the stealthier and more infectious Omicron has already broken through.
Shanghai's locally transmitted asymptomatic infections surged to a record 1,582 on Mar 24, up from 979 a day earlier, but just 29 new symptomatic cases were recorded, up from four.
"Shanghai feels it cannot do a city-wide lockdown because it is not only tantamount to admitting the failure of the Shanghai model, but also feels like it is disobeying Xi Jinping's directive," said Yanzhong Huang, global health specialist at the Council On Foreign Relations, a US think tank.
Shanghai is caught between the need to stay as close to "zero-COVID" as possible while keeping the country's most important financial hub ticking over.
"You can have all this policy innovation, but it is all subject to the constraints of zero-COVID," Huang said.