For several weeks, China’s most populous city, Shanghai, has been under strict lockdown orders in an attempt to control a coronavirus outbreak. Its 25 million inhabitants have been trapped in the home and they have struggled to feed themselves or get medical care for sick family members. Others have been locked up in temporary quarantine centers and temporary hospitals, unsure of when they will be allowed to leave.
Li Moyin, 34, was among those confined to their homes. She lives with her parents, both in their 70s, in the Putuo district of Shanghai, where she has been incarcerated since March 27, where she has worked as a part-time translator and tried to secure enough groceries for their household. For Li, who grew up in Shanghai, it has been disturbing to see the once bustling economic hub – which residents previously thought was a model for balancing covid-prevention measures with normal life – turn into a ghost town.
Empty roads in Shanghai on April 5 during a gradual closure due to covid-19. A worker wearing personal protective equipment is cycling on a street during a covid-19 lockdown in the Jing’an district of Shanghai on April 8. (Qilai Shen / Bloomberg & Hector Retamal / Getty Images)
As she talked about texting and video calling with her boyfriend during lockdown elsewhere in the city, Li has spent hours discussing whether such drastic measures are necessary, especially when the majority of Shanghai cases are patients without severe symptoms. Li’s girlfriend – who is from Wuhan, where covid was first discovered and 11 million people experienced an unprecedented 76-day lockdown – argued for the quick and harsh shutdowns.
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The prospect of a long shutdown is beginning to take an emotional toll. A video shared widely shows residents of a large apartment complex in Putuo screaming from their balconies. In the video, a spectator can be heard saying, “That whole building is screaming. … What’s the root problem? People do not know how long this situation will last.”
According to government regulations, the nearly 300,000 residents who have been tested positive for coronavirus since early March, and their close contacts, must be sent to mass quarantine centers or to hospitals, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Many residents fear this more than getting the virus, and they are reluctant to be locked up in the fast-built temporary field hospitals, some of them recycled schools or construction sites. They often do not have doctors and nurses on hand or private facilities to sleep or bathe.
Videos have shown people fighting for stretched thin supplies, trying to close leaks, and in some cases trying to escape centers. On Thursday, residents of an apartment complex in Zhangjiang High-tech Park in Pudong clashed with police after authorities said the area would be turned into an isolation site. Footage posted on the Web showed police dragging residents away while a woman asks them to stop, and spectators shout, “Why are you beating old people? Let them go!”
In this photo released by the Xinhua News Agency, workers are caring for the site of a temporary hospital being built at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai on April 8. Medical workers in protective suits round out a temporary hospital on April 9th. Video of Shanghai residents opposing being abducted by police in hazmat suits circulated on Chinese social media on April 14. (Ding Ting / AP, China Daily / Reuters, UGC / AP)
The rest of the city must stay home by orders enforced by community workers and police. Drones fly overhead, communicate with the public or sometimes deliver medicine to the elderly – which increases the eerie emptiness of a city on pause.
Healthcare professionals, courier drivers and volunteers only can move freely. Robots patrolling the streets urge residents to disinfect their homes, avoid gatherings and “remain civilized.”
The measures, which began in phases in late March before being expanded across the city in early April, gave residents and officials some time to prepare. Food shortages are widespread throughout the city. Restrictions have caused bottlenecks in the supply chain and strained the neighborhood committees responsible for caring for the incarcerated residents. Many like Li have had to rely entirely on themselves to figure out how to survive.
“We were in limbo and many including my parents felt betrayed. It was painful for them to wake up to the fact that we were left on their own,” Li said.
A volunteer wearing personal protective equipment on April 12 is checking out vegetables to be distributed to residents in an area of Shanghai. A volunteer in Shanghai is transporting bags of vegetables supplied by the government during a city-wide shutdown. Volunteers deliver food in Shanghai on April 9th. (Liu Jin / AFP and Qilai Shen / Bloomberg)
Reality does not agree with the official narrative of abundant food and medical supplies. Wu Peiying, 27, who works in business development, noticed an article on WeChat last week that showed her neighborhood as a success story. Local party propaganda praised the neighboring committee in Changfeng Xincun, where Wu lives, for sending 25,000 packages of food a day to the 100,000 residents of her area in western Shanghai.
But in the last two weeks, Wu said, she’s only received one package: a plastic bag of a carrot, a cabbage, a yams, and a pair of chicken wings that had already gone bad.
Residents have tried to bring their complaints to officials. When Shanghai Communist Party leader Li Qiang visited residents this week, videos on social media showed elderly women confront the senior official about lack of food.
Others showed residents shouting from their windows: “Save us. We do not have enough to eat.”
Wu, like many Shanghai residents, has to rely on “group purchases” that go hand in hand with neighbors to procure supplies and order in bulk. As the leader of this effort for more than 350 people in her residential complex, Wu must confirm sellers, negotiate prices and ensure that delivery staff have the right access cards to travel to the property and deliver the goods.
“Every day I have to ask around for connections to buy rice or hazmat suits,” she said. “Why are we to bear this responsibility?” she said. Wu shared screenshots of her recent efforts to secure packages of rice, purchased a week ago, to the group.
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Ashley Chi, a 28-year-old product manager at a technology company in Shanghai, said her neighbors leave supplies outside their doors to each other – she left extra sanitary napkins outside hers – and swapped with each other. Chi recently swapped around a cup of soy sauce for five gallons of bottled water.
“At first he would pay me, but who needs money now? I need water!” she said.
On Monday, Shanghai officials said areas without a case of coronavirus in the previous 14 days could start allowing people to leave their connections. But the message was mixed on the ground: Some residents were still asked to stay seated while others could go out for just an hour.
Some of those who left their homes were discouraged by what they saw.
Tam, a 35-year-old in the financial sector, left his apartment on Tuesday for the first time in 11 days to find all the shops and stores around him closed. On the way, he saw several dead cats, street pets previously fed by neighbors who left food out.
“When I saw the starving animals, I felt depressed,” Tam said, giving only his last name for privacy.
Across the city, people express frustration over the local government’s lack of preparation and the deviation from targeted controls that once limited disruptions in life. On Thursday, two hashtags, one of which is not related to covid, on the microblog Weibo were flooded with angry post before they were censored. Critics say the government’s insistence on its zero-covid policy is sacrificing ordinary citizens to strengthen the decisions of China’s top leaders.
For many, the chaos has cost their families too much. Fu Dinghua, 55, saw his mother, who suffers from kidney disease, die Monday night after being forced to move from a hospital that had been requisitioned for covid patients.
Fu said her mother was forced into an ambulance, squeezed inside between equipment and luggage, unable to lie down. The next day, she fell unconscious and could not be resuscitated. She would have turned 91 next Thursday.
“I know she did not have that much time left, but for her ailments in this way, I feel an incredible regret,” Fu said.