Shanghai is easing the two-week shutdown, releasing some residents

BEIJING (AP) — Some Shanghai residents were allowed out of their homes on Tuesday as the city of 25 million eased a two-week shutdown on Tuesday after videos posted online showed people allegedly running out of food broke into a supermarket and cries for help.

The number of people who were let out was not immediately clear. The government said some markets and pharmacies would also reopen.

The abrupt closure of most stores and stay-at-home orders left the public angry at the lack of access to food and medicine. People who have tested positive for the virus have been forced into extensive temporary quarantine facilities, which some have criticized as overcrowded and unsanitary.

Meanwhile, Washington was preparing for a possible new clash with Beijing by announcing that all “non-emergency US government employees” would be withdrawn from the consulate in Shanghai, while consular officers would remain. The Chinese government complained last week after the foreign ministry said diplomats and their families could leave if they wanted to.

The unusual severity of the shutdown in Shanghai from March 28 appeared to be driven by both politics and public health concerns.

The struggle in China’s wealthiest city is an embarrassment in a politically sensitive year when President Xi Jinping is expected to seek to break with tradition and give himself a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party.

China’s case numbers are relatively low, but the ruling party is enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy that has suspended access to major cities to isolate any infected person. Some local officers were fired after being accused of not acting aggressively enough.

The government reported 24,659 new cases as of midnight Monday, including 23,387 without symptoms. Among them were 23,346 in Shanghai, of whom only 998 had symptoms.

In Shanghai, more than 200,000 cases but no deaths were reported in the latest wave of infections.

The government eased restrictions by announcing that residents of Shanghai neighborhoods that have not had a case for at least two weeks will be allowed out of their homes starting Tuesday. It said they could go to any other area that also had no new cases during this period.

Shanghai has 7,565 such “prevention zones,” according to city officials, quoted by state media. They didn’t say how many people were affected.

People in 2,460 “control areas” that had had no new cases in the past week were allowed out but could not leave their neighborhoods, the government said. Residents are not allowed to leave their homes in “quarantine areas” where infections have emerged in the past week.

The abrupt closure caught Shanghai households by surprise, prompting complaints that they did not have access to food or medicine and were unable to care for elderly relatives living alone.

The government distributed packages of vegetables and other groceries to some households at least twice for a few days. Others said they received nothing.

A video circulated online on Saturday showed, as the caption said, people in Songjiang district broke into a supermarket and carried away boxes of groceries.

Another showed people raising their fists in the air in front of what appeared to be government employees in white hooded hazmat suits. A third reportedly showed apartment occupants being restricted from going outside and shouting calls for help from their windows.

The Associated Press has been unable to locate the source of the videos or verify when and where they were taken. The supermarket video was tagged with an account number from China’s popular social media service Sina Weibo, but the video does not appear on that account.

The ruling party is calling on Chinese social media operators to enforce censorship and remove videos and other posts on banned topics. Social media and online bulletin boards are filled with complaints about the Shanghai shutdown and appeals for food or medicine. It is unclear how many others may have been deleted.

Complaints about food shortages began after Shanghai shut down parts of the city on March 28.

Plans called for four-day borough closures while residents were tested. That changed to an indefinite citywide shutdown after case numbers skyrocketed. Little-warned shoppers stripped supermarket shelves.

City officials issued a public apology and pledged to improve food supplies. Despite this, local residents said online grocers often sold out early in the day or were unable to deliver. Online retailers said they hired hundreds of workers to ramp up shipments.

The State Department last week advised Americans against traveling to China over “arbitrary enforcement” of local laws and antivirus restrictions. It mentioned the risk of “separating parents and children”.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the announcement as a “baseless allegation against China’s response to the epidemic”.

On Tuesday, a State Department statement said the U.S. government had decided “due to changing local circumstances that it is best for our employees and their families to reduce the number.”

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