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WHO chief says China’s zero-COVID policy not ‘sustainable’

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a face mask crosses a road at the Central Business District (CBD), amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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By Jennifer Rigby and Josephine Mason

LONDON (Reuters) -The head of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday China’s zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy is not sustainable given what is now known of the virus, in rare public comments by the U.N. agency on a government’s handling of the pandemic.

“We don’t think that it is sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus and what we now anticipate in the future,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing.

“We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts. And we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable… I think a shift would be very important.”

He said increased knowledge about the virus and better tools to combat it also suggested it was time for a change of strategy.

The comments come after China’s leaders have repeated their resolve to battle the virus with tough measures and threatened action against critics at home even as strict and prolonged lockdowns exact a heavy toll on the world’s second-largest economy.

Speaking after Tedros, WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said the impact of a “zero-COVID” policy on human rights also needs to be taken into consideration.

“We have always said as WHO that we need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” said Ryan.

He also noted that China has registered 15,000 deaths since the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 – a relatively low number compared with nearly 1 million in the United States, more than 664,000 in Brazil and over 524,000 in India.

With that in mind, it is understandable, Ryan said, that the world’s most populous country would want to take tough measures to curb coronavirus contagion.

Still, China’s zero-COVID policy has drawn criticism ranging from scientists to its own citizens, leading to a cycle of lockdowns of many millions of people, anguish and anger. Most other nations that shared its approach initially have now at least begun a transition to strategies to live with the virus.

The continued outbreaks also underscore how difficult it is to stop the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Under zero-COVID, authorities lock down large population areas to stamp out viral spread in response to any coronavirus outbreak, even if just a small number of people test positive.

Shanghai’s measures have been particularly strict, with residents allowed out of compounds only for exceptional reasons, such as a medical emergency. Many are not even allowed out of their front doors to mingle with neighbours.

Its quarantine policy has also been criticised for separating children from parents and putting asymptomatic cases among those with symptoms.

Highlighting the far-reaching impact of prolonged lockdowns on global manufacturing and supplies of critical goods, General Electric (NYSE:GE)’s healthcare unit outlined on Tuesday the drastic measures it has taken to deal with shortages of dye used for medical scans and tests in the United States caused by the suspension of its Shanghai factory.

Coronavirus

U.S. births rise for the first time in seven years in 2021

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell//File Photo

(Reuters) – The number of births in the United States grew 1% in 2021 from a pandemic-related low in 2020, marking the first increase since 2014, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report said that 3,659,289 babies were born last year, with the increase driven by women between 25 and 49 years. Women aged 35 to 39 accounted for the biggest rise, while the birth rate among teenagers hit a record low.

Americans had the lowest of babies in more than four decades in 2020.

The CDC analyzed birth records which it received for the twelve months of 2021 as of February 10, 2022. The records represent nearly all of registered births occurring in the country last year, the agency said.

For the 35-39 age group, there were 54.2 births per 1,000 women last year, compared to 51.8 per 1000 women in 2020.

Among teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years, there were 146,756 births, down 7% from 2020. The birth rate in that group has fallen each year since 2007.

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Coronavirus

At Quad summit, Australia’s new PM scolds China over trade tariffs

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, addresses supporters after incumbent Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison conceded defeat in the country’s general election, in Sydney, Australia May 21, 2022. REUTERS/Ja

By Byron Kaye and Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese rebuked China on Tuesday for imposing hefty tariffs on Australian exports two years ago, in remarks made while attending a regional security conference in Tokyo a day after being sworn in.

Albanese confirmed that he had received a letter of congratulations from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after winning an election on Saturday, but said he had still to reply to the leader of Australia’s biggest trading partner.

“We will respond appropriately in time, when I return to Australia,” Albanese told journalists in Tokyo, where he was attending a summit of the Quad group along with U.S. President Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan and India.

Albanese said he was more concerned about wide-ranging tariffs on Australian goods from coal to lobster, imposed by China just a few years after the two countries implemented a free trade agreement.

“It’s not Australia that has changed, it’s China,” Albanese said.

“It’s China that has applied sanctions on Australia. There is no justification for doing that. And that’s why they should be removed”.

There had been speculation in Australian media that the congratulatory message from Xi might signal a diplomatic thaw.

Relations have been at their lowest ebb for the past couple of years following clashes over issues ranging from trade to the origins of COVID-19, and accusations of China using the internet to meddle with Australia’s democracy.

National security, specifically in relation to China, was among the main election issues in Australia, and only weeks before polling day the Solomon Islands and China announced a security pact, sparking fears of a Chinese military build-up less than 2,000 (1,200 miles) away.

The stance Australia’s new premier adopts at the Quad summit could be closely watched by China, which regards the informal security grouping as an attempt to counter its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

With votes still being counted, Albanese’s Labor Party is leading on 75 seats – one short of the 76 required for a majority in the 151-seat lower house. Some analysts predict Labor will get enough seats to govern on its own.

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Shanghai reopens some public transport, still on high COVID alert

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© Reuters. A staff member in a protective suit stands on a platform of a subway station, on the first day of parts of city’s subway services resumed, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China May 22, 2022. REUTERS/Brenda Goh

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By Brenda Goh and Martin Quin Pollard

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Shanghai reopened a small part of the world’s longest subway system on Sunday after some lines had been closed for almost two months, as the city paves the way for a more complete lifting of its painful COVID-19 lockdown next week.

With most residents not allowed to leave their homes and restrictions tightening in parts of China’s most populous city, commuters early on Sunday needed strong reasons to travel.

Shanghai’s lockdown and curbs in other cities have battered consumption, industrial output and other sectors of the Chinese economy in recent months, prompting pledges of support from policymakers.

Many who ventured out in the commercial hub wore blue protective gowns and face shields. Inside the carriages, passengers were seen keeping some empty seats between themselves. Crowds were small.

Xu Jihua, a migrant construction worker, arrived at a subway stop before it opened at 7 a.m., hoping to get to a rail station, then home to the eastern province of Anhui.

“Work stopped on March 16,” said Xu, adding he had not been able to earn his monthly 7,000-8,000 yuan ($1,000-$1,100) salary since then and would only return to Shanghai once he was sure he could find work.

“Is the lockdown really lifting or not? It’s not very clear.”

A woman who asked only to be identified by her surname Li said she needed to visit her father in a hospital 8 km (5 miles) from her final stop.

“I’m going to the heart hospital, but I don’t know whether there will be any cars or transport once I get to the railway station,” Li said. “I might have to walk there.”

Four of the 20 lines reopened, and 273 bus routes. Some had closed in late March, others later, although sporadic service continued with a limited number of stops.

The city of 25 million expects to lift its city-wide lockdown and return to more normal life from June 1. Most restrictions on movement will remain in place this month.

Shanghai’s 800-km metro system averaged 7.7 million rides a day in 2020, according to the latest data, with an annual passenger throughput of 2.8 billion.

Trains will run 20 minutes apart for limited hours. Commuters must scan their body temperature at the entrance and show negative results of PCR tests taken within 48 hours.

UNEXPLAINED CURBS

Shanghai has gradually reopened convenience stores and wholesale markets and allowed more people to walk out of their homes, with community transmissions largely eliminated.

Still, parts of the city have recently tightened curbs, underlying the difficulty of resuming normal life under China’s zero-COVID policy, which is increasingly at odds with the rest of the world.

Jingan, a key commercial district, said on Saturday it will require all shops to shut and residents to stay home until at least Tuesday, as it carries out mass testing.

The use of exit permits, previously given to residents that allowed them to leave their homes for short walks will be suspended, authorities said without giving a reason.

Similar actions were announced on Friday in the Hongkou district as well as on Saturday by Qingpu district’s Zhaoxiang town, which said they wanted to “consolidate” the results of their epidemic prevention efforts so far.

Shanghai reported fewer than 700 daily cases on Sunday. Significantly, none was outside quarantined areas, as they have been the case for much of the past week. The capital Beijing reported 61 cases, down from 70.

Beijing has been gradually tightening restrictions since April 22, with many shops closed, public transport curtailed and residents asked to work from home. But it still struggles to eliminate an outbreak of dozens of new infections a day.

Tianjin, a key northeastern port, found 36 new cases on Saturday, CCTV reported.

Regulators said on Friday they will streamline the process of equity and bond issuance by companies hit by the pandemic, and urged brokerages and fund managers to channel more money into virus-hit sectors.

($1 = 6.6921 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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