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Shanghai warns against 'panic' as Covid-19 cases mount

SHANGHAI — Shanghai authorities on Wednesday (March 23) called for calm as worried citizens swamped online grocery platforms to stock up on food over fears of impending lockdowns in a city struggling to halt a Covid-19 spike.

A worker wearing protective gear stands next to barriers placed to close off streets around a locked down neighbourhood after the detection of new cases of Covid-19 in the Huangpu district of Shanghai on March 21, 2022.

A worker wearing protective gear stands next to barriers placed to close off streets around a locked down neighbourhood after the detection of new cases of Covid-19 in the Huangpu district of Shanghai on March 21, 2022.

SHANGHAI — Shanghai authorities on Wednesday (March 23) called for calm as worried citizens swamped online grocery platforms to stock up on food over fears of impending lockdowns in a city struggling to halt a Covid-19 spike.

China is experiencing its worst Covid-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago, with Shanghai posting record-high case counts as the highly transmissible Omicron variant frustrates authorities.

China's biggest city on Wednesday reported 981 cases — all but four of them asymptomatic — a number that dwarfs any previous daily tally in the city and which is nearly one-fifth of the day's national total.

Shanghai has responded to the outbreak with targeted residential lockdowns in areas with confirmed cases or close contacts rather than a city-wide lockdown, aiming to minimise disruption.

But as case counts rise, so has public anxiety, with residents taking to social media to express fears of further lockdowns across the city of roughly 25 million people.

Citizens have complained of unclear government messaging and voiced anxiety over images of expanding test sites and the announcement this week that some indoor arenas had been converted into mass-quarantine sites.

"We hope that everyone will not believe or spread rumours, and especially do not maliciously spread rumours that cause panic in society," Dr Wu Jinglei, head of Shanghai's health commission said at a daily briefing.

Those spreading rumours would "bear legal responsibility," he added.

"Everyone is working hard to keep the city safe."

Stores have bustled as consumers stock up, and social media images circulated late Tuesday showed crowds of shoppers converging on outdoor vegetable markets. The images could not be independently verified.

‘DEMAND HAS SURGED’

Online shoppers on Wednesday posted complaints that platforms were crashing under the strain or that some goods were unavailable.

"Everyone who used to buy offline is now buying online, so demand has indeed surged," said Ms Chen Ying, spokeswoman for online grocery platform Dingdong Maicai.

“We now face some limits in terms of merchandise and manpower.”

The coronavirus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 but China has largely kept it under control through its tough zero-Covid strategy.

Authorities had recently suggested a lighter approach to minimise public and economic disruptions.

But Omicron is straining those plans, particularly as Beijing nervously watches a deadly Hong Kong Omicron surge that sparked panic buying and has claimed a high toll in the unvaccinated elderly.

Mainland health officials last week revealed that only around half of Chinese aged over 80 have been double-vaccinated.

Shanghai shut schools for nearly two weeks but has avoided the sort of citywide lockdown implemented in some northeastern cities hit by the current outbreak.

Still, its normally bustling streets are muted, with cars largely replaced by the zipping scooters of grocery and food-delivery riders and many restaurants closed or offering take-out only.

Citizens live daily with the risk of suddenly being confined at home for anything from two to 14 days and long lines for nucleic acid tests form daily at hospitals.

Chinese media reported that some financial traders in Shanghai and Shenzhen had been staying overnight in their offices to avoid being sequestered at home. AFP  

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Covid-19 coronavirus China Shanghai Omicron panic buying

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