- COVID lockdowns have had practical impacts on people in China for years.
- Even the biggest cities have not been immune to quarantines.
- Informal systems have helped people keep food on the table.
“Tomato, spinach, carrots.”
Ruby, who lives in the Puxi area of Shanghai, listed vegetables in one column and prices in another. She was helping neighbors calculate the cost of the vegetables they were hoping to buy from farmers nearby.
Ruby and her neighbors were living under a sudden and stringent lockdown through the worst COVID-19 outbreak mainland China had experienced since the start of the pandemic. Through March 2022, the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission recorded 36,572 cases.
Supermarkets were either empty or had been forced to close. Ruby and her neighbors struggled to get fresh vegetables. This was not anything like the normal state of affairs in the fourth most populous city in the world.
Shanghai, home to 24.8 million people, is more like two cities in one. The Huangpu River splits the city into two halves, Puxi and Pudong.
West of the Huangpu is Puxi, a densely packed city-within-a-city filled with commercial shopping malls, historical neighborhoods and tight tenenments. Puxi is old Shanghai.
East of the Huangpu is Pudong. Three decades ago, Pudong was a rural area filled with rice paddies but now it is one of the world’s most dynamic business centres with more than 6,000 financial institutions and 10 financial markets, including the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Pudong may be one of the most visible example of the changes and growth China has experienced since the 1990s.
At the beginning of the outbreak in March, Shanghai did not lock down the entire city. Rather, alternating lockdowns were imposed on Pudong or Puxi. At times, specific districts implemented different lockdown policies, moving up and down three different levels of control management. Different names were given to this often complicated system such as “management of levels” or “rolling lockdowns”.
On 28 March, for example, Pudong entered into a lockdown to run nucleic acid tests on its local population. Life was paused in half of Shanghai.
Living with uncertainty
For many, both people and businesses, it was the uncertain lockdowns rather than the virus that emerged as the real threat. Businesses that could take steps to adapt and continue operating. Financial companies like Topsperity Securities and Sinolink Securities asked traders to take turns essentially living in their offices and keep core trading systems running.
The lives of people like Ruby and her neighbours were tremendously affected, particularly those with chronic diseases. Ruby lives with her husband in a gated neighborhood. She quit her job earlier during the pandemic.
“It was a mess,” she recalled. Medical resources started running short.
To really understand how the lockdown system evolved in Chinese cities it is necessary to understand how cities are run.
The lowest level of administration system known as Xiaoqu covers residences or several residential buildings built by a single developer. These are usually managed by a resident committee or Juweihui. Above that is the community or Shequ and then a neighborhood or Jiedao made up of a few communities. Above those are district governments and then municipal governments. A city like Shanghai has its own health authorities. Managing a city with a population larger than many countries is no easy task, particularly when the goal is to stop the spread of a contagious virus.
“I don’t know how they decide the neighborhoods, but the lockdown is chaos,” Ruby said.
Her neighborhood was locked down after two infections were found in two different residences. Interestingly, a house built between the two residences where infections were found does not technically belong to the same neighborhood, so it was not covered by the lockdown.
She now thinks all these forced lockdowns were more a formality than a useful way to actually fight the virus.
At a practical level, Ruby had to adjust her diet. She has never been a fan of peppers “but now I eat every vegetable I can get,” she said on a WeChat conversation at the time. With few restaurants and supermarkets open, “we have to depend on ourselves.”
She took a lead to contact a farmer nearby and help her neighbors order. Luckily, she had stocked up a lot of meat before the lockdowns, so is OK on that front. But others were not so lucky.
She saw many people in Puxi rushing into supermarkets beforethe lockdowns started.
“How come the government was not preventing the crowds? Does the government only act when the lockdown begins?”
As the lockdowns kicked in, it fell on the residents commitees to organize nucleic acid tests, ask for help to respond to emergencies and help to source and distribute goods, like groceries and fresh vegetables. But a lot of complaints surfaced about the work of these committees due to improper conduct. During mandatory nucleic acid testing, she saw a lot of misconduct that could help the virus spread, but the committee did not notice. “I sympathize with the committee, they are not from the government, they do not have the managing power to arrange so many things. At this moment, the government is leaving us alone, we have to depend on them and ourselves,” Ruby said.
But she also thinks that, at this moment, primary management should involve government “because the committee is not professional.”
Still, for two years, lockdowns throughout mainland China may be working. The total number of new infections in Shanghai started to drop on 30 March, the first drop in two weeks. Numbers dropped for the next few days even as Puxi headed into yet another lockdown. Still, the lockdown continued for months and specific areas were locked down going into August and the situation remaining “severe”.
“What I wish for now is to make more friends after the pandemic, and maybe have hot pot,” Ruby said.
Not having fresh vegetables for a little while may not be ideal but it is hardly tragic. Actual tragedy may have befallen on people suffering from chronic diseases, many of whom got far to close to the line between life and death. Some died.
Because of the lockdowns, 27 hospitals were forced to pause some operation to get ready to admitCOVID patients on 1 April. As the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission put it: “some of the city’s medical institutions have suspended some medical services due to cooperation with the pandemic coordinating work.”
Zhou Shengni, a nurse in the maternity department of Shanghai East Hospital of Tongji University, suffered an asthma attack at home on 23 March. Her family drove her to Shanghai East, but the emergency department was closed for pandemic prevention and control. Doctors and nurses were disinfecting the area and did not accept her. Her family drove around until they found a hospital that did accept her, but it was too late. She died around 11 pm.
In another case, an old man suffered an asthma attack at home on 30 March. His daughter asked for an automated external defibrillator (AED) from an ambulance that had stopped in the neighborhood. Her request was rejected because a doctor in control of the ambulance expected to need to use the AED with another patient. The old man died. The Shanghai government apologized and suspended the doctor.
Few people bought into the apology, at least judging by the deluge of Weibo and WeChat discussions that followed, with some people saying the doctor was a scapegoat and others calling him “evil”. Many simply blamed poor communication and the unwillingness of people to take responsibility for the death.
During a press conference, Shanghai officials said the government would open a “green channel for emergency medical treatment” but reports of people who could not get treatment multiplied.
Many, many people asked for help on Weibo. Diabetes patients said they were in desperate need of insulin. Others could not access hemodialysis to deal with kidney failures.
“It is absurd that they can give way to the possible but not yet admitted (COVID-19 patients), while patients who are alive and critically ill are in front of them,” one doctor posted on Sina Weibo under the handle in_situ_Q.
Another problem with the lockdowns had to do with work, or the lack of it. Many people were exited sidelined from their jobs temporarily or lost them outright because of the strict lockdowns.
On 1 April 2022, a recent graduate that had just settled in Shanghai committed suicide. Her landlord posted that she had complained on 23 March about being broke.
She was hardly the suicide throughout the lockdowns. While extreme, the lockdowns have put a lot of financial pressure on a lot of people and families.
Two cities, two approaches
In the south of China, just over the border from Hong Kong, the city of Shenzhen took an even more stringent approach.
Shenzhen is home to 12 million people, all of whom were locked down on 14 March at 8 pm in response to surging case of COVID-19.
This city had confirmed dozens of cases every day since the beginning of March and went into full epidemic control, even if the numbers seemed minor compared to neighbouring Hong Kong. The full lockdown lasted for seven days. During this period, buses and subways were shut down, residential communities did not allow people to get in and every resident was required to take three nucleic acid tests.
All companies were asked to keep their staff working from home and all factories suspended production. Supermarkets, pharmacies, medical institutions and takeout restaurants remained open but everything else was closed. The strict rules appeared to help control the number of cases.
On the other hand, the lockdown also caused a lot of problems and exhaustion among medical practitioners. One nurse even died from working too much overtime.
People questioned why Shanghai could not take similarly clear measures.
Since the current wave of the pandemic started, Shanghai officials have repeatedly stressed that “the city will not be closed.”
Wu Fan, vice president of Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University, said on 26 March that Shanghai’s rolling lockdown approach, large-scale nucleic acid testing and antigen self-testing were “an exploration of Shanghai”.
He pointed out that Shanghai is “not only the Shanghai people’s Shanghai,” but also “plays an important function” in the national and global economic and social development, so the city cannot be easily closed.
If Shanghai stops, he said, there would be many more international cargo ships floating on the East China Sea, which would affect the global supply chain.
Or to live with COVID?
Shanghai’s semi-lockdown was something of a pilot trial to shift China’s strict approach to COVID-19.
The “zero-COVID” approach in place since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 helped keep cases and deaths down but came at a heavy cost in terms of unemployment, lost income, and the impact on people’s lives.
“Not having an income is as bad as having COVID, and I don’t think Omicron is that severe,” said Qiqi, who was forced to lock down in Shenzhen. Qiqi stayed at her apartment for 14 days and was forced to ask neighbors for food.
Zhen is a 24-year man who dropped out of high school and learned to cook. He chose to open a restaurant in Shenzhen in the middle of 2019, right before the pandemic. The restaurant was near an industrial park where many factories concentrate.
With a focus on spicy Sichuan cuisine, he thought he might do well. But then everything changed. Zhen tried different things to keep the restaurant open, from selling bubble tea to sending out vouchers but nothing worked. The industrial park that provided most of his customers became something of a ghost town.
To earn money, he become a server at a quarantine hotel.
“So, COVID shut my restaurant down, but also gave me a job. I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry,” Zhen said.
Zhen did not complain about the strict measures from the government, “they must have a reason” to make the decisions.