Even before Shanghai imposed a lockdown to contain a rapidly spreading Covid outbreak, the lives of many in China’s wealthiest city had been turned upside down by the virus — and the government’s response.
Residents ran to hoard groceries in case they were ordered to stay at home. Some protested at the gates of residential complexes that were locked up with little attention. Others, who were sent to government isolation facilities, had to sleep on the floor because of a shortage of beds.
For still others, the city’s Covid-19 restrictions have had life-threatening consequences. Some residents are confined to their homes, unable to receive kidney dialysis or other urgent treatment. A nurse who suffered an asthma attack died after her care was denied by a hospital citing Covid prevention protocols.
Officials had tried to limit disruptions by curtailing buildings or neighborhoods, arguing that a complete lockdown in the city of 26 million people was untenable. Officials said their more surgical approach would curb the outbreak while preserving economic life in Shanghai, a center for international affairs.
Then, on Sunday night, city officials indicated that it might no longer be feasible to do both at once. The city announced a staggered lockdown that shut down non-essential businesses, cut public transportation and confined the majority of the population to their homes.
The measures split the city in two, first closing the eastern part for a five-day quarantine from Monday, before moving on to a similar closure in the western part. Shanghai’s 3,500 caseload on Monday was small compared to much of the world, but was powered by the highly portable Omicron variant. Officials said the lockdown would allow authorities to conduct massive testing.
China is grappling with the country’s biggest outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan more than two years ago. The government fears that an uncontrolled spread could overwhelm hospitals and cause catastrophic loss of life. Large numbers of Chinese adults aged 80 and over have not been vaccinated and there is little immunity to previous infections. Hong Kong’s struggle to contain a Covid outbreak has provided a glimpse of what that could look like: Deaths there have soared in recent weeks, especially among unvaccinated older adults.
“The challenge is that lockdowns and nucleic acid testing require manpower and medical resources, in addition to their impact on the economy and life in general,” said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
“The management is doing its best to continue current practices, but is also evaluating. But Omicron may well be forcing the leadership’s hand “to give up its unsustainable reliance on lockdowns, he said. The government has been working to administer vaccine boosters to the elderly and buy antiviral drugs to counter such a scenario.” prepare, he said.
The central government is still urging officials across the country to eradicate the virus, with measures that are among the strictest in the world, including isolating anyone who tests positive and imposing quarantines on those deemed be at risk of infection. Servants, shoppers and diners have been forced to isolate offices, shops and restaurants if they were considered close contacts. People who test positive are either sent to hospitals or to government isolation facilities set up in schools, exhibition centers and other spaces.
In Shanghai, however, there are plenty of signs that policies and populations are being stretched thin.
Ivy Sun, a 32-year-old counselor, had longed for freedom after being held in her home for five days in her neighborhood. On Sunday, after the announcement of the citywide closure, she was suddenly allowed to get some fresh air, but only for seven hours. She and her neighbors ran outside to get groceries and other supplies for yet another incarceration.
“It felt like an apocalyptic scene. Everyone walked out. There were a lot of people on the streets near the neighborhood and all the shops were filled with people,” Ms Sun said.
Ms Sun said she was unable to shop for groceries online during her first lockdown as they sold out quickly. She and her neighbors got together and began buying supplies in bulk. She also wondered if Sunday’s panic buying, with people crammed into closed stores, could have exacerbated the spread of the virus.
In other cases, the unpredictability of the restrictions and the seemingly indefinite incarceration led to protests. In downtown Shanghai, about two dozen residents of Jinghua Xinyuan, an apartment complex, stood in front of a marble and metal security gate that was locked to prevent them from leaving.
“We want out,” several residents yelled at police officers posted outside Sunday afternoon, according to a video posted on Weibo that day and verified by DailyExpertNews.
Authorities had detained residents in the compound for three days but did not conduct Covid testing, even though some people had the virus, according to residents’ accounts posted online. They had given conflicting reports about how long this would take, residents complained.
“The day before yesterday they told us that the 14-day lockdown had started. Yesterday they said the 14 days started yesterday and today they said it started today,” shouted a man wearing a black cap and sweatshirt. “Am I on a sea cruise or something?”
Calls to the district committee and the management of the complex went unanswered on Tuesday. An officer on duty who answered the phone at the Xuhui District Police Station denied that there had been a protest.
Although authorities have been quick to impose isolation and home quarantine on residents, they have stayed behind to ensure that all inmates can receive help for serious medical conditions. Many residents have resorted to going online to beg for access to treatments such as dialysis.
Luker Dong, a resident of Pudong, said his 73-year-old father suffered from uremia – a build-up of toxins in the blood – that required him to undergo hemodialysis in a hospital three times a week. But he has been forced to go four days without treatment since his building was locked, Mr. dong.
Hospitals would also not accept his father, citing concerns about the outbreak, and health authorities have not helped, he said. His father’s feet were swollen without the dialysis, which helps filter waste and water from his blood.
“If his organs fail, it will be too late,” said Mr. Dong in a telephone interview. Mr Dong posted a call for help on his Weibo page, saying on Monday, “I can’t just watch my father at home waiting for his death.”
Shanghai’s top health authorities have said hospitals should ensure that people who need treatments such as dialysis and chemotherapy can get help while in lockdown. But cases like Mr. Dong’s father exposed gaps in the system.
Such scenes and complaints were common in Wuhan and Hubei province when the outbreak first emerged, as the health care system there was quickly overwhelmed. In Shanghai, where hospitals are among the best in the country, reports of residents being denied treatment due to Covid measures have sparked widespread anger and grief.
Last week, a nurse had an asthma attack but was unable to get help from the emergency department of the hospital she worked at because it was closed for Covid disinfection. Her family rushed her to another hospital, but she died, according to a statement from Shanghai East Hospital, her employer.
On Friday, officials of the Shanghai health commission expressed their condolences to the nurse’s family. They urged hospitals to accelerate infection screening, contact tracing and disinfection protocols to minimize disruptions to normal medical services.
Still, Feng Wenliang, a reporter with the state-run China Food Security Newspaper, described the nurse’s death as shameful. “This blow was extremely loud,” he wrote on his social media account.
“It has been three years since the pandemic that something like this happened in Shanghai, which is at the forefront of national prevention and control,” he added. “Their own nurse was sick and the hospital where she worked refused to admit her.”
“She was a nurse, but above all a patient.”
Li You research contributed.