The surge of Covid cases across China, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, is straining hospitals and prompting lockdowns of neighborhoods in Shanghai, which until recently had been held up as a crown jewel in the government’s strategy for fighting the pandemic.
Shanghai, China’s largest city, has seen few cases until recently. Now, it is reporting more than 1,500 a day, and many residents are expressing anguish and dismay over China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus.
On Friday, anger and grief welled up online after a Shanghai hospital confirmed reports that a nurse who worked there, Zhou Shengni, had died from an asthma attack after finding the doors of its emergency department shut because of Covid restrictions.
“Due to pandemic prevention needs, the emergency department of our hospital’s southern campus had been temporarily closed,” Shanghai East Hospital said on its website. Ms. Zhou’s family rushed her to another hospital, but she died late Wednesday after “attempts to save her failed,” Shanghai East said.
“Just think, this happened in Shanghai, and it was a medical worker treated like this,” read one of many comments about Ms. Zhou’s death on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. “What about regular folks? Not just in Shanghai, but other parts too.”
The outbreak has fanned a rising debate in China over whether the government should rethink its stringent “zero Covid” strategy of eliminating all infections with relentless force, rather than finding a way to cope with higher levels of infection, as most countries have.
But officials across China have given no indications that the government is reworking its strategy. Instead, they insist that any easing of restrictions could exacerbate the surge of infections and further strain the medical system.
“We hope that everyone slows down their life at this time, cutting down on outings and moving around,” Wu Jinglei, the director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference on Thursday. “Pandemic prevention in our city has entered the most critical stage.”
On Friday, Shanghai’s health commission reported that it had identified 1,609 Covid cases the previous day, 1,580 of which were asymptomatic. China has recorded over 29,000 cases so far in March. That represents a significant spike for the country, which has kept cases low since quashing the world’s first outbreak, which began in the city of Wuhan, in 2020.
The current outbreak has strained Shanghai’s medical system as hospitals and isolation hotels are crowded with patients, residents have said on social media. The city government has started issuing a daily list of hospital clinics that have suspended outpatient and elective treatments and surgeries in order to cope with the Covid cases.
Zhang Wenhong, one of Shanghai’s leading infectious disease experts, told residents on Thursday to be patient while the authorities worked to curb the outbreak.
“All of a sudden medical resources are under strain” in Shanghai, Dr. Zhang wrote in a long post on Weibo. “If we don’t counter its speed with our own, we won’t have a chance to beat the Omicron race,” he wrote, adding that the government would need to ramp up its vaccination campaign.
Beneath his post, many commenters insisted that China rethink its approach to the virus.
“Exhausting social resources, degrading the quality of life and existence, dragging down economic development and urban vitality — where’s the sense in this pandemic prevention,” one commenter wrote. “The zero-infection strategy needs thinking over.”