Shanghai authorities combed the city on Thursday for its last COVID-19 cases in the hope of clearing the way for escape from a painful six-week lockdown, while Beijing curbed taxi services to keep a lid on its smaller outbreak.

The Chinese commercial hub of 25 million people has in recent days been tightening its lockdown for a final push to eradicate the virus by the end of the month after making some significant progress, according to data this week.

Shanghai's mass testing detected just two new cases outside areas facing the strictest curbs on May 11, officials said on Thursday, but that was two more than none the previous day.

Significantly, the cases were found in two of the city's 16 districts, Xuhui and Fengxian, that authorities said this week were among eight that had achieved "zero COVID" status, having had no community cases for three consecutive days.

The latest cases show the difficulty in finishing off the highly transmissible Omicron variant despite ruthless enforcement of some of China's harshest restrictions since the virus emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The new infections also raise concern about how long a return to normal life might last under China's uncompromising "zero COVID" policy after the lockdown is finally lifted.

Yu Linwei, vice-governor of Xuhui, told a news conference his district would not relax anti-epidemic efforts, making sure everyone is tested and that new cases and their close contacts are isolated in quarantine as quickly as possible.

"We dare not slack off," he said.

Overall, Shanghai reported more than 1,000 cases, but these were in areas already under the tightest controls and significantly below peak.

The cases found in the relatively freer communities are the ones most closely watched for clues as to where Shanghai's outbreak is heading. Other Chinese cities under similar lockdowns began easing curbs after a period of zero cases in such areas.

 

TAXIS FACING CURBS

Daily cases in Beijing remained relatively steady, in the dozens.

Late on Wednesday, Beijing announced the suspension of taxis and ride hailing services in parts of Chaoyang district, Beijing's largest and the epicentre of its outbreak, and two other districts.

Authorities there have banned dine-in services at restaurants, closed some malls, entertainment and tourist venues, suspended sections of its bus and subway systems and imposed lockdowns on some residential buildings.

China's caseloads are tiny fractions of what major cities around the world have come to shrug off, as most countries lift restrictions to "live with the virus" even though infections are still spreading.

China has doubled down on its global trend-bucking policy, putting hundreds of millions of people in dozens of cities under movement curbs, causing significant economic damage and disruption to international trade and supply chains.

With factory workers and consumers stuck at home and many businesses forced to suspend operations, China's export growth is at two-year lows, unemployment near two-year highs. Youth joblessness is at 16%, the highest since July 2021.

Fiscal and monetary policy will prioritise employment, state media quoted the cabinet as saying on Wednesday.

The yuan hit a new 19-month low on Thursday, having dropped almost 6% in under a month.

Authorities say their COVID policy is saving lives and point to the millions of deaths caused by the virus elsewhere to justify the strategy.

 

'DYSTOPIAN NIGHTMARE'

In an apartment building in Shanghai's central Jing'an district, residents were told once again they cannot leave their flats after being allowed out last week to walk around the compound.

"As restrictive as it was, those 10 minutes of freedom, being able to get some fresh air outside my building and walk my dog, kept my sanity," building resident Stephanie Sam, 27, said on the WeChat social media site.

The re-tightening of curbs has "taken away the last slither of hope I had about this dystopian nightmare ending anytime soon", she said.

The district has reported zero community cases and, like other areas in the city, has entered what authorities call "silent management mode".

That usually means boards or fences around buildings, deliveries forbidden, and residents once again confined to their homes.

A video that circulated briefly on social media, the authenticity of which Reuters could not verify, showed police in safety suits at someone's door with quarantine orders.

One officer told a man he would face punishment that would affect his family for three generations if he did not comply.

"We are the last generation," the man said.

His words quickly spread on social media, with users inserting them into posts on unrelated topics, from K-pop to the economy, to evade censorship for as long as possible with a small show of discontent.

A search for the words brought up no results after a few hours.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Wang Yifan in Shanghai; Martin Quin Pollard, Ellen Zhang, Albee Zhang, Eduardo Baptista and Ryan Woo in Beijing, and the Beijing and Shanghai bureaus; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel)