Shanghai eases two-week lockdown, letting some residents out

BEIJING (AP) — Some Shanghai residents were allowed to leave their homes as the city of 25 million eased a two-week lockdown Tuesday after a video posted online showed what was said to be people they ran out of food by breaking into a supermarket.

About 6.6 million people are allowed to go outdoors, but some must stay in their own neighborhoods, online news outlet The Paper reported, citing city officials. The government said some markets and pharmacies would reopen.

A health official has warned that Shanghai does not have the virus under control despite the relaxation of restrictions.

“The epidemic is in a period of rapid growth,” Lei Zhenglong of the National Health Commission told a news conference. “Community transmission has not been effectively contained.”

The abrupt closure of most businesses beginning March 28 and stay-at-home orders left the public furious over lack of access to food and medicine. People who test positive for the virus are forced to live in sprawling temporary quarantine facilities criticized by some as overcrowded and unsanitary.

Meanwhile, the US government announced that all “non-emergency US government employees” would be withdrawn from its Shanghai Consulate. A Foreign Ministry spokesman defended China’s handling of the outbreak and accused Washington of politicizing its evacuation.

Also on Tuesday, the government of Guangzhou, a hub of manufacturing and commerce northwest of Hong Kong, announced a new round of virus tests for its 19 million people. Most access to the city was stopped after 27 infections were found on Monday.

The unusual severity of the Shanghai lockdown appeared to be driven as much by politics as public health concerns.

The fighting in China’s richest city is an embarrassment during a politically sensitive year in which President Xi Jinping is expected to try to break with tradition and win a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party.

China’s number of cases is relatively low, but the ruling party is pursuing a “zero tolerance” strategy aimed at isolating each case. Some officials have been fired for not acting aggressively enough, giving others an incentive to impose extreme measures.

The government reported 24,659 new cases as of midnight Monday, including 23,387 without symptoms. That included 23,346 in Shanghai, of whom only 998 had symptoms.

In Shanghai, more than 200,000 cases have been reported but no deaths in the latest wave of infections.

The government eased restrictions by announcing that residents of areas with no cases for at least two weeks can leave their homes from Tuesday. He said they could go to other areas that also had no new cases during that time, but were urged to stay home when possible.

Such “prevention areas” have about 4.8 million people, The Paper reported, citing city officials. He said all but 500,000 of them were in less crowded suburbs.

An additional 1.8 million people in “control areas” with no new cases in the last week are allowed to leave but are unable to leave their neighborhoods, according to the report.

Another 15 million people in “quarantine areas” who have had infections in the last week are still unable to leave their homes. The report gave no indication about the status of the remaining 3.4 million people in the official population.

The closure of Shanghai, home to the world’s busiest port and China’s main stock exchange, has raised fears that global manufacturing and trade will be affected.

Automakers in Shanghai, a manufacturing hub, have suspended or reduced production due to component supply disruptions. The port administration says operations are normal, but the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China has estimated that the volume of cargo it handles every day has fallen by 40%.

Residents complained that the closure left them without access to food or medicine and unable to care for elderly relatives who lived alone.

The government distributed packages of vegetables and other food for a few days at least twice to some households. Others said they received nothing.

A video that circulated online on Saturday showed what a caption said were people in the Songjiang district breaking into a supermarket and taking boxes of food.

The police denied that the event took place in Shanghai. A police statement on Tuesday said the video was posted by a man in Kunshan, west of Shanghai, but did not say when or where it was filmed. He said the man received unspecified “administrative sanctions” for “disturbing public order with fabricated acts.”

The Associated Press was unable to find the source of the video or when and where it was filmed.

Official plans in late March called for suspending access to Shanghai districts for four days in a row while residents were tested. After the number of cases skyrocketed, that changed to a citywide indefinite lockdown with just a few hours’ notice.

Despite city officials’ promise to improve the food supply, residents said online grocers were often sold out early in the day or unable to deliver. Suppliers said they added hundreds of employees to speed up deliveries.

Last week, the State Department advised Americans not to travel to China due to “arbitrary application” of anti-virus laws and restrictions. He cited the risk of “parents and children being separated.”

On Tuesday, a statement from the State Department said the US government decided “it is best that our employees and their families be reduced in number” due to “changing circumstances on the ground.”

The Foreign Ministry criticized the announcement, saying China’s anti-virus work is “scientific and effective.”

“The United States should immediately stop attacking China’s epidemic prevention policy, stop political manipulation on the epidemic issue, and stop smearing and discrediting China,” said a ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian.

AP video producer Liu Zheng, researcher Yu Bing in Beijing and researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed.

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