Silently Suffering: The Cost of Shanghai’s COVID-19 Lockdown on Residents

On April 1st, 2022, Shanghai issued its second lockdown declaration in the pandemic, claiming it would be a four-day campaign. Nearly two months later, the city was still locked down.


Jida Li / Unsplash

A government worker sanitizes a shut down airport in China.

“Serve the people! Serve the people!”

Residents of a locked down community in Shanghai protest from behind the chain-link fence that encircles their block. Days after Shanghai’s 2-month long lockdown was lifted on June 1st, 2022, their neighborhood had experienced a sudden surge in COVID-29 cases and was once again put into isolation. These residents are clamoring to be released. Padlocked and towering at six feet tall, the bright green fence in front of them indicated that their neighborhood was a high-risk area and ensured that no one could get in or out without documentation. 

When China reported a record high of 1,000 cases on March 11th, 2022 – the most the country had seen since the initial outbreak in 2020 – citizens were not particularly concerned. While they were not looking forward to the possibility of a second lockdown, most believed that the government this time was prepared to handle the surge. On March 28th, 2022, a notice was issued that Shanghai, a city of 26 million people, would be under lockdown effective starting April 1st, 2022. Residents hunkered down, comforted by the promise that it would only be four days. 

The lockdown lasted for two months. 

After several weeks and just as many failed attempts to reopen the city, it was clear that the lockdown had been ill-conceived. The city had implemented a ‘Zero-COVID’ strategy with the idea that all people who tested positive would be taken to designated ‘isolation sites’ to be closely monitored, unlike in countries like the U.S.A. where people may self-quarantine. This also meant that all neighborhoods with recent cases of coronavirus would be considered ‘lockdown zones’ and residents would be forced to remain indoors, to prevent potential spread to the rest of the city. 

Citizens almost immediately began to see fault with this strategy. Residents of ‘lockdown zones’ were not permitted to go out to buy groceries (not that any supermarkets were open to the public to begin with.) They were further alarmed to find out that online delivery was almost impossible to order. How were they going to eat? 

Arguably just as terrible was the depression that was seeping through the city. Trapped at home with nothing to do but think about their mortality and the helplessness of the situation, people were being driven to their limits mentally. Online, footage of a man being forced to quarantine at a COVID isolation site screaming and pleading to go home, and videos of Shanghai residents screaming from their balconies to relieve stress left many viewers disturbed. 

Elderly people were even more isolated than their younger neighbors. Millions of elderly people in China still do not own a smartphone; out of the 260 million who own one, most struggle to operate the complicated apps without the direction of the younger generation. Without their neighbors to help them, they were unable to receive COVID-19 updates in their area, order groceries, or even contact staff in their apartment building regarding medicine or their special needs. 

Meanwhile, the city’s human resources (nurses and COVID-19 volunteers alike) were being stretched thin. Personnel was needed to manage hospitals, guard high-risk neighborhoods, perform COVID-19 testing, deliver groceries, conduct welfare checks on elderly residents — the tasks were limitless. Volunteers were not. The severe understaffing of the COVID-19 task force took a grave toll on tens of thousands of people, volunteers and citizens alike. 

These are only a few examples of the harsh reality Shanghai residents have been facing these past few months. On June 1st, 2022, millions were thrilled that the lockdown was at last lifted, yet dozens of neighborhoods were still trapped, kept under lock and key because of sudden surges in cases in their area. Only a few days after the city’s reopening there was talk of shutting down the city again. As Shanghai residents accept that a third lockdown leers on the horizon, it is essential that foreigners understand the helplessness that Shanghai residents face in what has become their new reality. 

Uprooting Citizens: China’s Disastrous Zero-COVID Strategy 

The ‘Zero-COVID’ strategy is cumbersome, to say the least. The end goal of a ‘Zero-COVID’ strategy is to eliminate every single coronavirus case so that the public can return to its pre-pandemic way of life. To achieve their goal, a country’s government will apply aggressive public health policies such as mandated mass testing, lockdown of cities with new outbreaks, and restriction of movement between infection zones. 

To illustrate how ‘Zero-COVID’ differs from America’s “Live with COVID” method, consider New York’s COVID-19 safety measures. The CDC has been continuously loosening countermeasures for the infected so we can coexist with the virus. When the pandemic first started, a person who tested positive would be required to self-quarantine for two weeks with no exceptions – even longer if they had recurring symptoms. As of the summer of 2022, people only need to quarantine for five days to return to school or work, regardless of their symptoms. Close contacts are suggested to self-test but are otherwise left alone. Americans infected with COVID-19 are given a choice about their care and may admit themselves to a hospital of their own volition.

Meanwhile, all Chinese citizens who test positive are forcibly carted off to “isolation sites” where they are supposedly treated and monitored for their symptoms until they test negative. While a free COVID-29 recovery program sounds excellent in theory, a lack of management and the forced relocation has ended up making the experience traumatic for the millions of admitted patients. Many people online compared the isolation sites to detention centers. Hundreds of these sites have sprung up across the country wherever there is space – school gyms, concert halls, greenhouses, even temporary buildings constructed overnight. 

But as numbers swelled in Shanghai, new premises for isolation sites were needed. With no prior warning, residents of an apartment complex were forcibly evicted by police in mid-April 2022 so that their private homes could be converted into an isolation site. Predictably, most residents refused. Disturbing videos surfaced online of gangs of police officers wrestling elderly residents to the ground and forcefully dragging them into a waiting van as residents screamed, “They’re beating us! The police are beating us!” Local authorities did not respond to complaints about disorderly police conduct. 

Zero Sanitation, No Liberation

With severe understaffing and nurses doubling as the sanitation team, more patients have streamed through the isolation sites than nurses can keep up with. Shanghai resident Kumi Wu vlogged her experience being transferred to two transit facilities and finally a makeshift COVID hospital in mid-April. The first transit facility was filthy. In a huge, warehouse-like room that she shared with dozens of others, cots lined the concrete walls.  She showed used masks, tissues and testing kits from patients who had tested positive strewn about the floor. She also noted a severe lack of management, with patients being expected to handle nearly everything on their own. “I asked a man where he got his quilt and he told me to go to another room to find a bunch of used quilts that had been moved elsewhere. He said, ‘you can go and see which quilt is clean but for now there’s nothing we can do. No one cares about us.’” 

A day later, she was moved into a second transit facility. This time with a room to herself, Wu noted the bars on her windows that were supposed to prevent restless patients from escaping. “I didn’t even open the door, because once you open it, someone would immediately order you back inside and close the door.” 

When Wu finally reached the makeshift COVID-19 hospital after three days in transit facilities, she had lost all former hope that the government was handling the situation rationally. “I used to feel frustrated, like I couldn’t stand the current situation any longer. But what I’m sensing now is that I have no choice.” Before she was ordered to go to an isolation site, Wu had been well on her way to recovery as she treated her sore throat at home. But the stress of the situation left her exhausted, prolonging her stay. What Wu recorded was just one instance of millions of COVID-19 patients who are sweeping through the isolation sites daily. 

Outside of the quarantine facilities, those self-quarantining were hardly faring any better. They faced a different problem, one that should have been anticipated when the government forcibly shut down all the supermarkets in a city. 

Starving Slowly

When residents received the April 1st, 2022 lockdown notice on March 28th, 2022, they had less than 48 hours to tie up loose ends before they were shoved and locked within their homes. Naturally, millions scrambled to the supermarket and cleared the shelves of everything. Those who were unable to get to the store in time were reassured by local authorities with the promise that every household would receive a government care package regularly with fresh meat, vegetables, and foodstuffs. Satisfied with the response, folks settled in for a brief four-day lockdown, confident that the government would come through. 

In retrospect, someone should have anticipated the difficulty of delivering groceries for 5.6 million households with a task force of a few thousand. The days crept by. For many residents, no crate loaded generously with goods arrived. The lucky few who did receive a government package certainly did not receive them regularly. One woman in the Hongqiao District in Shanghai whom I interviewed said that over the course of four weeks, she received three boxes of semi-wilted vegetables, some pork, dried noodles and a few salted duck eggs. “I could cook for just a few days with each box but the meals were stretched. And what about baby formula? I had to barter with another woman and gave away a box of diapers for half a jar. It’s insane,” she said.  

Defeated, people turned to delivery apps to get groceries delivered to them. When everyone in the city with a smartphone logged onto delivery apps like Taobao and Fantuan, the sites crashed and refused to load, overwhelmed by the millions of users attempting to buy several weeks’ worth of groceries at the same time. People were left at the digital checkout for hours until eventually their orders either went through or (more often) were canceled. Some compared the experience to waiting in line for hours to buy concert tickets. One woman managed to snag six potatoes and a carton of milk over the course of a month. 

With the threat of hunger being more imminent than the dangers of COVID-19, people banded together and formed a solution: group buying.

Group Buying: Also Known as DIY Costco

The concept of group buying is not foreign to Chinese residents – in fact, many housewives have participated in organizing group orders for years, attracted by the steep discount that wholesale meat and cooking oil offered. 

Group buying is a tactic where one person purchases food in bulk from a wholesaler and distributes it to and collects payment from members of the group. Where individual purchases failed on sites that were the equivalent of Amazon or FreshDirect, wholesalers were able to ship enough groceries for a hundred households in one delivery, making bulk orders a speedy and cost-effective alternative. 

However, coordinating a group buy can be difficult. Cui Lili (professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics) estimated that 95% of group buy organizers were women who already had full-time jobs, based on her personal account and testimony from multiple sources. A group buy leader gets no profit from organizing and often has to unload, divide and deliver all the produce by her lonesome. It’s exhausting, but it’s been keeping most of the city fed this spring. 

Still, group buying did not solve everyone’s food security. Most group buys exclude items like fruit or dairy because they are not considered hard necessities. This poses a problem for those with dietary restrictions; for example, a neighbor said that an elderly man in Hongkou District could only eat bread soaked in milk because he had no teeth. In a country where rice and noodles are the dominant carb in addition to being nonperishable, he couldn’t find a group willing to supply him with bread. In the end, the man got by with rice porridge that his neighbor had to boil and bring to him several times a week. 

As Shanghai residents accept that a third lockdown leers on the horizon, it is essential that foreigners understand the helplessness that Shanghai residents face in what has become their new reality.