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China is stuck in a cycle of COVID lockdowns. Is there a path forward?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The city of Shanghai, China, is going through a staggered lockdown this week. And the challenges for many of its nearly 26 million residents is reviving questions about whether China can keep out COVID forever. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Grace Wang's (ph) story in Shanghai is tragically familiar to anyone who covered the Wuhan city lockdown more than two years ago. Wang's mother, a cancer patient, just had surgery and began running a fever. Unfortunately, they live in Shanghai's Pudong district that was put under lockdown on Monday, making it impossible to reach their hospital on the other side of town.

GRACE WANG: (Through interpreter) Protocol says that the hospital has to give us special permission to enter. They also arranged transport if we tested negative for COVID. But we could not guarantee that we could get a test in time.

FENG: The sudden shelter-in-place orders can also be impossible for the city's service and migrant worker staff, who live in packed worker dormitories. Some of them have been kicked out.

JIMMY MCWHINNEY: Homeless people are just kind of ignored.

FENG: Jimmy McWhinney helps run the Renewal Center in Shanghai, a charity that trains, houses and feeds Shanghai's homeless.

MCWHINNEY: Just providing essentials, like masks and meals. And that's really all we can do.

FENG: Stories like these are why Shanghai's citywide lockdown is raising eyebrows. People are willing to comply with COVID prevention measures. But they're also frustrated at the fact that China is stuck in a cycle of lockdowns with no clear path forward to easing up.

ENG EONG OOI: Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

FENG: This is Eng Eong Ooi, an infectious diseases professor and research director at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. He believes Shanghai will be able to get its outbreak under control. But for China to open up, that would require much higher levels of vaccination and more effective mRNA vaccines. Look at Hong Kong, he says, which now has the world's highest COVID fatality rate because of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly.

OOI: The vaccine coverage in especially the vulnerable population - so those 60 years and above, and particularly worrying, those 80 and above - are low. And so that presents a problem. And this is just talking in terms of getting two doses of the vaccine.

FENG: Prominent health experts in China are calling for a clear blueprint for eventually easing restrictions and living with an endemic COVID. And in an unexpected way, the ongoing outbreaks in Shanghai, as well as far larger outbreaks in Hong Kong and China's northern province of Jilin, are giving experts the richest source of China-specific COVID data so far in the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIEL LEUNG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Here's Gabriel Leung, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong and a public health adviser to the Hong Kong government at a recent press conference. There, he presented data gleaned from China's worst outbreak so far. About 10% of Hong Kong has contracted the omicron variant in the last month. He advised those gathered that Hong Kong could try to go back to zero COVID. But no one had done so successfully after such a large outbreak. Instead, living with the virus will be the most common eventual path for the entire world, he said. Two people with direct knowledge told NPR that Chinese health officials are closely paying attention to Shanghai and Hong Kong's outbreaks. They're providing valuable data about how well vaccines work, how fast infections have spread and, perhaps, could shape a gradual opening up strategy someday in China.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.