Shanghai celebrates ‘new start’ after COVID restrictions eased

People venture out after two months stuck at home, but virus-related controls including regular tests will continue.

A group takes a night time selfie with the Shanghai skyline behind them as lockdown is eased in the city
A group of friends pose for a selfie near the Oriental Pearl Tower along Shanghai's Bund as a crippling two-month long lockdown was eased [Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

Some Shanghai residents welcomed the end of a tough two-month lockdown at midnight by heading out onto the streets as authorities began to ease the toughest COVID-19 related restrictions in China’s largest city.

Small groups gathered in the city’s former French Concession neighbourhood whistled, shouted “ban lifted”, and clinked glasses of champagne as the draconian rules came to an end.

Earlier, streets were lively as residents picnicked on grassy patches and children rode bikes down car-less roads. Dancing retirees, a common evening sight in Chinese cities, came out onto open-air plazas and along the Huangpu River for the first time in weeks under the watchful eye of police, deployed to discourage large crowds from forming.

Yin Xin, a spokesperson for the municipal government, said the city was embracing a “new start”, according to the state-run Global Times, and that its daily briefing on the coronavirus would no longer take place.

The ruthlessly-enforced lockdown fuelled anger and upset in the city of 25 million people and left many struggling to get food or find emergency healthcare. It also hampered manufacturing and other industries, disrupting supply chains at home and around the world.

“It was a very difficult time,” Dan Wang, the chief economist at Hang Seng Bank in the city, told Al Jazeera. She said she spent 70 days in lockdown.

“A lot of unexpected things happened and a lot of people’s confidence was shaken, and also about the future of China. I think it was probably the largest challenge China has faced in the past decade.”

As of Wednesday, residents will no longer need special passes to leave their compounds and public transport – both buses and the metro system will resume operation. Rail connections with the rest of China will remain limited.

Schools will partially reopen on a voluntary basis, while shops and malls will reopen gradually at no more than 75 percent of their total capacity. Cinemas and gyms will remain closed.

“The epidemic has been effectively controlled,” Vice Mayor Zong Ming said.

Tests still needed

Residents will have to get tests for COVID-19 every 72 hours to take public transport and enter public venues, and those who test positive, as well as their close contacts, will still have to endure a strict quarantine.

Cameron Wilson, a sports writer who lives in Sanlin Town in Pudong district, said people are cautious about official pledges to reopen as “people have had their fingers burnt” before.

“I think people will take each day as it comes. A resurgence is possible but with everyone needing to be tested every three days any future lockdowns will be short,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are in effect giving up the privilege of not having to be tested regularly and swapping it for not having to do long lockdowns.”

More than half a million people in the city of 25 million remained confined on Wednesday – 190,000 are still in lockdown areas and a further 450,000 are in so-called control zones because they live near recent cases.

Shanghai recorded 31 new cases on Monday, continuing a steady decline from more than 20,000 a day in April.

Li Qiang, the top official from China’s ruling Communist Party in Shanghai, was quoted as saying at a meeting on Monday that the city had made considerable achievements in fighting the outbreak.

But the city’s ordeal has raised questions over the sustainability of China’s ‘zero COVID’ policy that aims to snuff out any outbreak with mass testing and isolation at centralized facilities of anyone who is infected.

Huge temporary facilities were set up in exhibition centres and other venues to house thousands of people who had tested positive. Teams of health care and other workers flew in from around the country to help run the system.

Factories were closed, or allowed to operate only if staff slept on site to prevent the spread of the virus. Many of the workers are only now able to return home.

A man flies a kite as people walk on the Bund in Shanghai beneath grey skies on Wednesday morning
A man flies a kite as people walk along the Bund on Wednesday morning following the lifting of the lockdown [Aly Song/Reuters]

China says its approach, a signature policy of President Xi Jinping, is needed to save lives and protect its healthcare system.

But the uncertainty and discontent caused by the policy have created unwanted turbulence in a sensitive political year, with Xi poised to secure an unprecedented third leadership term later this year.

“The mood tonight is a bit like high school days. On the eve of the school year I was full of expectations for the new semester but I feel a little uneasy in my heart,” wrote one user of the Twitter-like Weibo.

Beijing, the nation’s capital, further eased restrictions on Tuesday in some districts.

The city imposed limited lockdowns, but nothing near a citywide level, in a much smaller outbreak that appears to be on the wane. Beijing recorded 18 new cases on Monday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies