My friend Lu and I were both confined to our apartments to be quarantined on 18 March 2022. I had been infected with coronavirus. Lu hadn’t. I was allowed to leave my apartment in Cheonan, South Korea, after seven days. But even now, more than two months later, Lu still hasn’t been allowed out of his home in the Pudong district of Shanghai.Lu—who has requested to remain pseudonymous—is just one of the more than 20 million people in Shanghai and reportedly more than 50 million nationwide to be imprisoned in their own homes as China faces its largest reported coronavirus outbreak in two years.
The authorities have employed brutal tactics to enforce the quarantine. Both Chinese and foreign residents in quarantined cities have faced difficulties accessing food. Some—like the Shanghai nurse who suffered a severe asthma attack—have died after being denied medical care. Parents unfortunate enough to test positive for Covid-19 have been taken by white-suited men and shuttled off to isolation facilities—warehouses with beds—where they have had to spend weeks separated from their children. Elderly patients at understaffed long-term care facilities have been denied timely meals. One resident of a nursing home was even stuffed inside a body bag and taken to a morgue while still alive
In early April, when the central government locked down the entire city, even food industry staff and delivery drivers were unable to work, leading to widespread food shortages. Without staff to prepare and deliver the food, the local food delivery apps like Meitun and Eleme were rendered useless.
These initial food shortages have mostly been resolved. The government has now taken over food deliveries, offering meagre provisions, consisting mostly of vegetables and eggs. To get meats, grains and any produce not offered in these shipments, residents initially banded together to make group purchases using the chat app Weixin. Now, however, the committees overseeing the lockdown have blocked these deliveries. Shelf-stable items are reportedly being held indefinitely at the gates of the residential compounds, while perishables are destroyed.
This is the situation at this time of writing (in late May 2022). The rules differ between compounds and are constantly changing. They may have changed by the time this article is published. But already the consequences for the Chinese economy and infrastructure, as well as for the mental health and everyday lives of millions of people have been devastating.
China’s manufacturing and service economies have suffered major losses. Factory shutdowns have also hurt global manufacturers who trade with China. Meanwhile, Chinese blue-collar workers—who cannot work from home—have received no income for at least a month.
Even if China were to end its zero Covid policy tomorrow, the consequences would still be felt for years to come. Many Chinese citizens have begun to question the government openly in ways that most of them have never done before. Foreign companies will think twice before opening new offices and factories that could be arbitrarily shut down indefinitely. Foreign workers will shy away from jobs in China. Many foreigners have already left or are planning to leave.
The people locked up in Shanghai are not just concerned about their immediate survival. Most residents now have access to food and many white-collar workers can work from home. But, among the Chinese residents I have spoken to, there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and distress at being subjected to an authoritarian government willing to restrict people’s lives and freedoms on a political whim.
And, make no mistake, this is about politics, not about preventing the spread of coronavirus. Many of the measures being taken—such as the spraying of empty streets with lime—are ludicrously unscientific.
The blockade of commercial food deliveries is motivated by the now debunked idea that coronavirus can be easily spread by contact with physical objects. China has blamed many local outbreaks of the virus on international shipments of food and mail. They have wasted resources testing surfaces and shutting down grocery stores. Meanwhile, we have known for at least a year that coronavirus spreads mostly through airborne particles, rather than physical contact, that the risk from surface transmission is low and that there have been no known cases of anyone contracting Covid-19 from food or its packaging. The Chinese government’s heavy-handed performances of hygiene theatre only serve to provide content for domestic audiences watching the CCTV nightly news and international audiences on YouTube and Twitter (which is blocked in China), whom the government hopes will laud China’s supposed vigilance.
The Communist Party-affiliated volunteers in charge of each residential neighbourhood have often introduced further pointless measures, such as putting up additional gates outside already gated residential compounds and banning the purchase of supposedly “non-essential” items like wine, beer and steak. (How non-essential is alcohol when you’ve been locked up for months on end?)
Lockdown Day 44: More gates. That’ll stop that pesky virus. pic.twitter.com/auvwu855Y6
— Sarah Peel (@sarahplusone) May 11, 2022
The endless stream of daily frustrations has taken an immense psychological toll on those living through this. On 18 March, my friend Lu was told that the lockdown would only last for a few days. At that time, the Shanghai municipal government was still in charge of things. Lu was confident that he would be out soon, and he thought the lockdown a reasonable measure given the ongoing increase in cases. However, as the lockdown kept being extended, becoming citywide in April, Lu began to express more scepticism and even outrage.
The Voices of April protest video, which has continued to circulate despite government efforts to suppress it, suggests that he is not alone in these views.
Shanghai has often been regarded as superior to the rest of China. It has been a favourite spot for tourists and the preferred residence of rising politicians and national officials. Shanghai Mayor Li Qiang was a favourite for ascension to the Politburo Standing Committee. Initially, while the Qiang was still handling the situation, he implemented what he called a “dynamic zero” approach, which involved shutting down individual neighbourhoods, rather than the entire city. But, on 2 April, as case counts continued to increase, the central government sent officials to visit Shanghai, after which they took control of the lockdown.
Foreigners have been permitted to leave the country if they test negative, can obtain an exit permit and agree not to return to China in the immediate future. How easy such permits are to obtain depends on the whims of the officials in charge in both the government and the neighbourhood committees. An online survey of foreign residents conducted in April found that 48% of respondents were planning to leave China within a year, while an additional 37% have considered doing so if the unstable situation continues.
These are the fortunate ones: they can leave. Lu and the 20 million Shanghainese still locked inside their homes cannot, nor can the residents of central Beijing who have been locked in for 20 days, nor those across the country who fear that their city might be next. Shanghai’s lockdown might end this month, but it almost certainly won’t be the last.