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COVID lockdown: Drones, robot dogs patrol ‘ghost town’ Shanghai

Published on April 6, 2022

The recent surge in Coronavirus cases in China, although small compared to some other countries, is a significant challenge to China’s zero-Covid strategy.

N Ahmad

China’s commercial capital, Shanghai, is now a ghost town. The city is one of the worst-hit regions in the country facing a resurgence of the Covid-19 virus. Robot dogs and drones patrol Shanghai’s streets and the skies, respectively, enforcing a strict lockdown on the city’s 26 million residents. Robot dogs ask residents to stay indoors. Drones fly around. They come close to those they spot outside asking them to return to their homes.

The authorities had so far resisted locking down the city to avoid destabilising the economy.

Covid restrictions which started as a phased lockdown in March, have now been expanded to confine practically all residents to their homes.

“Day 13 in hotel quarantine. Never saw Shanghai, a city of 25 million, so quiet. Hear the church bells reverberate,” Tings Chak, an artist from the region, tweeted.

On April 2, the authorities ordered the city’s residents to undergo two more rounds of tests for COVID-19 using antigen kits. During an inspection visit to the city on April 2 Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan urged resolute and swift moves to control the COVID-19 outbreak in the shortest possible time. Sun insisted Shanghai must implement the decisions on pandemic prevention and control.

More than 20,000 medics from across China were rushed to Shanghai to assist the city’s first-ever citywide nucleic acid testing on April 4.

From February 9 to December 15 last year, the average daily number of cases in Shanghai was less than five. Cases began to rise afterward. Up to mid-January, the city recorded on average 30 cases per day. Thereafter, cases fell to an average of 9 per day up to February 16 rising again to 36 a day on March 26.

On April 4, the city reported 425 locally transmitted Covid 19 cases and 8,581 local asymptomatic infections, said the Shanghai Health Commission. The Chinese mainland reported 13,146 local COVID-19 cases on April 3, including 1,455 confirmed and 11,691 asymptomatic ones, the highest number of daily increase since the latest outbreak, which has already infected over 100,000 people.

Challenge to zero-Covid strategy

The recent surge in cases in China, although small compared to some other countries, is a significant challenge to China’s “zero-Covid” strategy.

The policy aims at using swift lockdowns and aggressive restrictions to contain any outbreak. The policy makes China distinct from most other countries which are trying to live with the virus.

Experts have praised the Chinese government’s determination and ability to implement lockdowns and large-scale testing at the beginning of the pandemic but they have urged the government to revisit its strategy.

In an essay Zuo-Feng Zhang, a professor of epidemiology of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), suggested China put mild COVID cases into home isolation rather than centralized quarantine at a government facility.

“According to Shanghai data on March 26, among all 2,676 nucleic acid-positive cases, asymptomatic infections accounted for 2,631 (98.32%), and 45 (1.68%) were confirmed cases,” Prof Zuo-Feng Zhang writes in a widely circulated essay titled “Thinking and Suggestions on the Current New Crown Epidemic in Shanghai. “If most asymptomatic infections are kept at home, and if the number of cases in the outbreak period is 150-200 times the current number, Shanghai’s current number of beds and ICU beds can still cope with it calmly,”

Prof Zhang suggested that close contacts, asymptomatic and mild patients should be isolated at home instead of centralized isolation in order to reduce the burden on the medical system and avoid the collapse of medical system.  “Moderate and severe patients should be hospitalized and treated in isolation,” he added.

According to Chinese-run state media, Shanghai has not seen a single severe Covid case, not even a fatality, which was regarded as one of the most obvious successes in comparison with the outbreak in Wuhan which recorded 3,869 COVID-19 deaths as of mid-April 2020.

“The infectivity of the current strain is at its highest over the past two years, several times higher than that of the Wuhan outbreak, creating more infection. But with vaccination rates over 80 percent, the severity of the disease is much milder than it was,” Zhuang Shilihe, a Guangzhou-based medical expert, told the Global Times.