China megacity Chengdu eases lockdown as Covid-19 cases decline

Residents of a compound line up for nucleic acid testing amid citywide mass testing in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Sept 1, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - The Chinese megacity of Chengdu has allowed most residents to leave their homes from noon Thursday, largely dismantling a two-week lockdown as Covid-19 cases decline.

After easing restrictions in some parts of the city over the past week, the lockdown will now be lifted for residents in the seven remaining districts, the municipal government said late Wednesday.

People who have a negative Covid-19 test in the previous 24 hours will be allowed to return to work, while transport hubs and supermarkets will reopen.

Dine-in services at restaurants will also resume, but indoor entertainment venues and schools will stay closed.

The city of 21 million people, which was mostly locked down at the beginning of the month, recorded just 29 new cases for Wednesday, including seven previously reported asymptomatic cases.

Infections have held around or below 50 for four days in a row - compared with a peak of 200 at the end of August.

City authorities declared a preliminary victory in controlling the outbreak, but warned there is still a risk of sporadic cases given the high transmissibility of the omicron variant.

Indeed, some neighbourhoods where cases have been found will remain in lockdown and undergo another round of mass testing Thursday, the government said.

The lockdown in Chengdu was brief compared to Shanghai's punishing two-month shutdown earlier this year, showing the advantage of moving swiftly and decisively to stamp out flare-ups.

Controlling the outbreak could be seen as a win for China's strict Covid Zero policy, especially ahead of a crucial twice-a-decade political meeting in October when President Xi Jinping is expected to get a precedent-breaking third term in power.

Nationwide, 949 cases were reported Wednesday, the fourth day in a row the number has held below 1,000, having fallen steadily from the most recent peak of 3,424 on Aug 17.

Beijing, which has seen flareups in a number of colleges and a high school in recent days, recorded just two cases, both of whom were already in quarantine.

Covid zero

Nevertheless, officials have been tightening Covid containment measures around the capital ahead of a meeting of top leaders.

Areas near Beijing have been locked down, rules around virus testing tightened and domestic travel discouraged over the next month.

China watchers have been gradually downgrading expectations for the dismantling of the nation's strict Covid Zero policy, with Xi emphasising his commitment to the approach in recent months and officials enforcing more lockdowns this year than at any time during the pandemic.

While countries like Singapore and Australia used to pursue virus elimination, they've since shifted to living with it like the US and Europe, leaving China increasingly isolated as it continues to prioritise preventing deaths at any cost.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday the world is within reach of beating the pandemic, after fewer deaths were linked to Covid around the world last week than in any time since March 2020.

"We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic," he said in a briefing with journalists. "We are not there yet, but the end is in sight."

In Chengdu, residents cheered the lifting of stay-at-home orders. In the Longquanyi district, people gathered at the gate of their housing compound and counted down to midnight, when they could leave without needing a pass, videos posted to social media platform Douyin showed.

Elsewhere, the resort city of Sanya in the popular holiday destination Hainan province, is also easing restrictions from noon Thursday, ending a 40-day lockdown that at its height saw tens of thousands of tourists stranded on the island and disrupted what would usually be a peak season for the tourism-reliant province. BLOOMBERG

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