BEIJING — June would be a time of triumph for Shanghai. After two months of strict lockdown, authorities had brought the recent coronavirus outbreak in the city under control. Businesses and restaurants finally reopened. State media trumpeted a return to normalcy, and on the first night of the release, people ran through the streets shouting, “Freedom!”
Julie Geng, a 25-year-old investment analyst in the city, couldn’t bring herself to get involved. “I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate,” she said. She had been locked up in a centralized quarantine facility for part of April after testing positive and the feeling of helplessness was still fresh.
“I feel like there’s no basic guarantee in life and so much can change overnight,” she said. “It makes me very vulnerable.”
The lockdown had plunged Shanghai into chaos and suffering. The residents were sealed in their homes, unable to buy food, receive medical care, or were separated from their children. Social media was overflowing with their anger and despair. Now the worst is apparently over. But in this city of 25 million, many are beginning to take stock of what they’ve endured, what they’ve lost, and what they expect from the future.
Some residents are faced with the precarious rights they once took for granted: buying food and expecting privacy in their own homes. Some are grieving relationships broken under the stress of the lockdown. Many people worry about the weeks when they are not paid or their business will survive.
Hanging above all else is a broader inability to put the ordeal behind completely, as China still clings to its goal of eradicating the virus. Authorities recently announced that every district in the city would close for a short time each weekend until the end of July for mass testing.
“We see many symptoms of post-traumatic stress, although many people may not recognize them,” said Chen Jiejun, a psychologist from Shanghai. Some people felt chest pain or couldn’t concentrate at work, she said.
“How do you get rid of this trust that has been broken and restore it in a way that makes you feel stable and safe again?”
Health officials around the world have warned of the pandemic’s toll on mental wellbeing. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent worldwide in the first year of the outbreak.
But China’s epidemic controls are extremely restrictive, with incarcerated residents sometimes physically locked in their homes, unable to receive emergency medical care. Prescriptions, including for mental illness, remained unfulfilled. People infected with the virus were sent to hastily built makeshift hospitals, some of which had no showers or were always brightly lit.
The seeming arbitrariness of admission or dismissal policies fueled feelings of helplessness; some people were sent to the facilities in the middle of the night or were unable to leave despite testing negative. Others said officials entered their homes with disinfectant while they were out and damaged their property.
Ms. Geng, the investment analyst, was sent to a makeshift hospital after testing positive. She declined, citing her diagnosis of a mood disorder, she said; eventually officials sent her to a quarantine hotel instead. Still, she was shocked by her lack of control.
“People who test positive are being dehumanized and treated like animals,” she said.
During the lockdown, calls to mental health hotlines in Shanghai skyrocketed. Questions from the city for psychological counseling, on the search engine Baidu, more than tripled from a year ago. A survey of city dwellers found a 40 percent risk of depression. As restrictions eased slightly in some neighborhoods in late April, more than 1,000 people lined up in front of the Shanghai Mental Health Center one morning.
At a government news conference in May, Chen Jun, the chief physician of the Shanghai Mental Health Center, said anxiety, fear and depression were inevitable under a prolonged lockdown. For most people, the feelings would be temporary, he said.
But other experts have warned that the effects will be long-lasting. An editorial this month in the medical journal The Lancet said the “shadow of mental health problems” would linger over China’s culture and economy “for years to come.” It continued: “The Chinese government must act immediately if it is to heal the wound inflicted by its extreme policies.”
The long-term consequences of the containment policy have already become clear in the questions that psychologist Xu Xinyue received in recent weeks.
When the pandemic started two years ago, Ms. Xu, who volunteers for a national counseling helpline, said many callers feared the virus itself. But recent callers from Shanghai were more concerned about the secondary effects of China’s controls — parents concerned about the fallout from prolonged online education, or young professionals concerned about paying their mortgages after the lockdown devastated the Shanghai job market. tormented.
Others wondered why they had worked so hard in the first place, seeing how money could not guarantee their comfort or safety during the lockdown. They now saved less and spent more on food and other tangible items that could provide a sense of security, Ms. Xu said.
“Money has lost its original value,” she said. “This has turned the way they always thought upside down, leaving them a little bit lost.”
The lockdown also changed interpersonal relationships. Under Shanghai’s policy, just one confirmed case can lead to tighter controls on an entire building or neighborhood. Some sick residents said they felt ashamed in their residential complex’s group chats.
Before the lockdown, Sandy Bai, a 48-year-old resident, considered her neighbor a friend. They exchanged eggs when the other was little and asked about each other’s parents. But a day after the city was closed, Ms. Bai returned from walking her dog — not technically allowed, but she’d slipped out because her dog was sick — and found that her neighbor had reported her to the police, said they.
“She really broke the trust I had in her,” said Ms. Bai. “You can’t do anything, you’ll never convince the other person and you just learn to distance yourself.”
Interactions between strangers also seem to indicate a frayed social fabric. After officials at a testing site told residents they couldn’t be tested — and therefore couldn’t move freely around the city — a resident smashed a table and injured an employee.
Li Houchen, a blogger and podcaster, likened the people of Shanghai to easily startled birds, tense because they had exhausted their ability to cope with stress.
“There is also a tense feeling in the newly reopened streets and in people’s behavior that you can be watched, disturbed, disturbed or driven away at any time,” he wrote in an essay widely shared on WeChat.
There are few opportunities to release that tension. In addition to limited mental health resources — national health insurance doesn’t cover counseling — censors have cleared many critical social media posts from the lockdown. State media has covered up the residents’ remaining anger and fear, encouraged “positive energy” and put forward Shanghai as yet another example of the success of the zero Covid strategy.
The absence of any collective reckoning or mourning has stung even those who have largely felt able to return to their pre-lockdown lives.
Anna Qin, an education consultant in her twenties, returns to the office and to the gym. She walks and cycles through the city and loves to feel her feet on the sidewalk.
But the fact that such mundane things now feel so special is just a reminder of how much the city had to sacrifice.
“We’re happy it’s reopening, but there’s also no acknowledgment of what we’ve been through,” she said.
“Now it’s closed, now it’s open, and we have no control. And now we should be happy.”
Li You and Liu Yi research contributed.