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PERSPECTIVE: “People are just like pawns for the government to show off their seemingly excellent (Covid-19) strategy. And people are suffering.”
Since March 2022, the Chinese city of Shanghai has been progressively locked down in a bid to contain an outbreak of the Omicron variant.
In the days since, images have emerged online about the toll of the lockdown’s severity on the residents, which has included a shortage of food and medical supplies, and fears of being forcibly taken away to an isolation facility despite testing negative.
We spoke to three Chinese residents in Shanghai about their situation and how they have been affected by the measures.
For 29-year-old retail worker Luisa, who did not wish to share her last name, the lockdown for her residential compound in Shanghai’s luxurious financial district of Lujiazui started on Mar. 19.
At that time, residents, which make up over 200 households, were notified by authorities that the lockdown would last for two days.
However, the supposed end date came and passed, and they found themselves still stuck at home.
Luisa also doubts that she will be able to leave her home in two weeks as there are always “one or two” positive cases.
This means that her apartment block likely falls within the most severe category, she said, under what the authorities have described as a move to ease the lockdown by classifying residential units into three levels of risk.
However, there has been no update so far on the specific status of her block from her residential committee, resulting in uncertainty among the residents.
According to Reuters, even for residents in the lowest risk category, confusion still remains about the activities they are allowed to do.
Fear and chaos mark the authorities’ strict response to the city’s Omicron outbreak
Lagging communication and sealing residents in their homes
Such inefficiency appears to be a mark of the severe response by the Chinese authorities to the city’s Omicron outbreak, with Shanghai’s residents, prior to the announcement of the risk categories, banned from leaving their homes even to buy necessities.
Luisa was echoed by Lily (not her real name) Wu, 27, who works part-time in education and lives in a residential compound within Jing’an district.
In her case, Wu said that two expats who live in houses opposite her compound tested positive for Covid-19 on Apr. 1, the day the lockdown began for her neighbourhood. However, these two cases were quarantined at home and were not transferred to a quarantine facility until Apr. 6.
In addition, the trash from their homes were simply placed in yellow plastic bags and left outside their house until Apr. 11 before it was finally collected, making it a potential health risk to surrounding residents, Wu said.
Apr. 11 was also the same day the rest of the neighbourhood found out about the infection, following the announcement of the three-tier risk level system.
According to Wu, information about the two cases came from the volunteer responsible for deliveries in her WeChat group for community shopping, and it came only after residents began asking why their neighbourhood was not within the lowest-risk category.
Meanwhile, her father’s residential compound, which was located north of the Bund and has about 500 residents, was suddenly sealed up on Apr. 4, at 8pm, by disease control officials, Wu added, after “severe” Covid-19 cases were found.
Pictures of the moment in which her father’s compound was sealed up were subsequently circulated on WeChat groups.
Her father is currently healthy, she said, although new cases continue to be detected at his compound, as of Apr. 13.
Luisa also related an “upsetting” account which she heard from her residential community, about a 60-year-old man who allegedly died from a stroke because he was unable to get access to medical resources at the “most critical moment.”
This incident supposedly happened during the same night in which residents took to their balconies to sing and protest about the lack of food and other essential supplies.
Reuters reported that the lockdown has also restricted residents’ access to healthcare, with many unable to leave their compounds for treatment due to a lack of transport and permission from the authorities.
Accurate information on the type of services each hospital offered was also hard to come by.
Many of them have since turned to informal channels such as online mutual help groups for assistance in obtaining treatment and supplies.
Fear of being forcibly taken away to isolation facility despite testing negative
Testing and communication with the authorities also appears to be haphazard, with 24-year-old Julie Geng, who works in finance, highlighting how she has been receiving calls insisting that she tested positive despite official records indicating otherwise.
According to Geng, she has to leave her home to get tested at another building as there are only 30 households in her neighbourhood.
This building also serves as a testing site for people from other neighbourhoods of similar size.
Geng added that on Apr. 7, she was in a group of 10 who were tested using antigen rapid tests (ART), with one of the group’s members subsequently testing positive.
This resulted in all 10 people within the group being recalled back to the building for another round of testing on Apr. 8. This time, they underwent a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
No official record of positive test
Afterwards, Geng said that she received calls from private phone numbers, with the callers claiming that they were from the disease control centre and that she had tested positive.
However, Geng could not find any official record of her having tested positive test.
Geng added that she subsequently began displaying Covid symptoms, but her ART result at the centre was still negative.
She is now concerned that she might be taken away by the police to an isolation facility.
Geng said, “I would rather die in this place (my home) than go the isolation facility.”
This is because she has early-stage bipolar, which causes her to be “really anxious when there are a lot of people” living with her.
According to CNBC News, everyone who tests positive must be quarantined at an isolation facility, regardless of whether they show symptoms.
Public accounts of elderly patients supposedly dying at such sites have emerged, as well as videos of people fighting for resources, according to Reuters.
— 方舟子 (@fangshimin) April 13, 2022
Videos surfacing on Chinese social media today show chaotic scenes from the Nanhui covid19 quarantine location, where people were fighting over resources. pic.twitter.com/BZTDMBmb7F
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) April 4, 2022
There are also videos that appear to show people being forcibly taken away to such facilities, despite testing negative.
— 方舟子 (@fangshimin) April 13, 2022
The South China Morning Post reported that in one incident, a couple and their daughter were forcibly taken to an isolation facility by the police despite having negative tests listed on the government’s official platform.
In a purported recording of their confrontation with the police officer who arrived at their home, the officer could be heard saying, “You are [positive] if I say so.”
Public confidence in the local authorities’ management of the situation was so low that both Wu and Geng had no qualms in referring to the isolation facilities as “concentration camps”.
Geng also alleged that healthcare officials sealed her house on the morning of Apr. 12, and that she has been unable to leave her home even to dispose of trash.
The situation has since made Geng question her decision in 2019 to return to China from the U.S., where she was studying. Until the lockdown happened, she had never regretted her move back.
“People are just like pawns for the government to show off their seemingly excellent (Covid-19) strategy,” she said. “And people are suffering.”
Ordering food is a challenge
All three interviewees are now part of multiple WeChat groups for community shopping.
Highlighting the importance of such groups, Luisa said that prior to joining the WeChat group for her compound, she had limited herself to one meal a day in order to make her food supply last longer.
Luisa also acknowledged that she is rather fortunate as her neighbours have helped deliver fresh fruits and seafood to her home, amid a shortage of supplies from the government.
This, however, does not mean ordering food is easy.
According to Wu, ordering food from supermarkets, such as DingDong Maicai — one of the biggest supermarket chains in China — involves waiting for the release of online slots.
The administrators for these WeChat groups will then place the residents’ orders once the slots are open.
However, the delivery system is often overwhelmed due to a shortage of staff.
Troubles with food delivery
Wu cites one instance in which a supermarket chain opened up slots for 2,000 orders between 6am and 8:30am.
However, a shortage of delivery staff meant that even by 10pm, orders were not yet completed.
The difficulty in securing food supplies have also led to tensions between neighbours.
For Geng, who volunteered to coordinate orders for her neighbours over WeChat, she said her neighbours have blamed her for not informing them in time that their orders have arrived, and for not ensuring that their orders were delivered from her place to theirs.
Such logistical problems were commonly experienced during the lockdown, with Bloomberg reporting that even Shanghai’s elite have joined such groups as the struggle to buy food becomes more widespread.
Lack of delivery workers, alleged corruption
Part of this problem has been driven by the lack of delivery workers, who are also under lockdown.
In addition, the shift towards WeChat groups to place orders has disadvantaged the elderly who are unable to keep up with the frenzied pace of messages.
On top of that, the distribution of food to citizens has also allegedly been dogged by corruption, with some local officials supposedly selling the food instead to richer residents.
Wu alleged that several neighbourhoods within Shanghai Pudong’s district did not receive government-issued vegetables as even though they received vegetables from other provinces, the officials responsible for these neighbourhoods sold them at a rate of RMB50 (S$10.65) per package instead.
Cognisant of the Chinese government’s capacity for extreme measures but still surprised it would happen in Shanghai
Such a perception of the local authorities’ poor management of the pandemic has coloured Luisa’s opinion of the government “a little bit”.
While she is cognisant that the government is capable of executing such measures, she had not expected the implementation of such harsh policies in a major city like Shanghai.
Luisa also noted that her grandparents, who live in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province, underwent a similar lockdown two years ago, during which they could not leave their homes under any circumstance.
CNN reported that in July 2020, following the detection of almost 100 cases, residents in Urumqi were banned from leaving their residential compounds, with the government declaring that the city had gone into “wartime” mode.
The New York Times reported that during the city’s lockdown, residents took to social media to highlight how people who were critically ill with diseases besides Covid had been unable to obtain treatment.
A video that appeared to show people in Urumqi yelling from their homes out of despair was also circulated among social media users.
“I didn’t expect that the same situation would also happen in Shanghai,” she added.
‘We need these uplifting activities, especially now’
As for how she is coping, Luisa said that she has been hosting online drinking and karaoke parties.
“We need these uplifting activities, especially now,” she added.
In Wu’s case, she shared her father’s perspective of the situation. A Shanghainese local, he believes that if they could get through this, then “all is going to be well”.
Such a viewpoint stems from her father’s childhood trauma of experiencing the Cultural Revolution. When he was eight years old, he had witnessed his father being “punished”, in that he was left on the street and beaten, she said.
The experience left him thinking that “life can be so fragile”.
“Now his coping system is just endurance, enduring the hardship,” she added.
As for Wu herself, she has taken to reading as a means of coping, adding that she is currently reading “Give and Take” by Adam Grant — with the title reflecting her outlook on life in the wake of the pandemic.
Wu admitted that she is now exhausted from sinking so much time into what she described as the “excruciating” process of shopping for groceries.
“I’m getting some energy from the books. That’s what I try to turn to,” she said.
Considering other options
The harshest words came from Geng, however, who said that the situation has made her consider migrating from the country. She said, “I used to have confidence in my country. But now I remember why I wanted to leave in the first place.”
Although Geng wanted to migrate to another country in the past, she decided in 2021 to settle down in China, and was even thinking of buying a house.
“And now, f**k no,” she said. “I’m just gonna find another way to get out. Now the situation has become so desperate. It wasn’t like this before the (current) crisis.”
She said she was trying to get into law school with a view towards eventually leaving the country.
As for how she is coping with the lockdown, which appears to be going on indefinitely until the spread of the virus is successfully contained by the authorities’ standards under the country’s “zero Covid strategy”, Geng said she does so with support from her friends.
“They are pretty nice, and will check in with me every day,” she said.
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Top photos courtesy of Lily Wu