Shanghai lockdown: ‘There are people who are really suffering. Not an ex-pat paying over the odds for Coca Cola’

Shanghai resident Rodrigo Zeidan is delighted that his wife has been successful in her relentless attempts to find some food.

"She got two loaves of bread, some chicken breasts and two bottles of Coke Zero,” he says, proudly.

The haul is the result of a full day’s work, constantly refreshing food delivery apps and networking through neighbourhood social media groups to jump on any possibility of bulk purchases from individual suppliers.

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Still striving for a the zero-Covid policy which the Chinese government has aimed for since the outbreak began in the city of Wuhan, places like Shanghai, which have seen cases of the virus spiral out of control in recent weeks, have recently been subjected to some of the most draconian lockdown rules in the world.

A resident walks in front of the food and daily necessities which be bartered by neighbours at an apartment lobby in a compound during lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai.A resident walks in front of the food and daily necessities which be bartered by neighbours at an apartment lobby in a compound during lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai.
A resident walks in front of the food and daily necessities which be bartered by neighbours at an apartment lobby in a compound during lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai.

Residents in most areas have been banned from leaving their homes, while others, in sections of the city where the virus was deemed to be more under control, small groups of people were allowed outside. However, all shops, including supermarkets and stores which would usually be deemed essential, have been closed. In Shanghai, the rules are now lifting but shutdowns are spreading to other parts of the country.

Initial plans to isolate Covid-positive children in isolation facilities without their parents were recently “relaxed” to allow some parents to stay with their offspring, but only if their children were under seven years old. Locals report parents kissing their children on their mouths multiple times a day to ensure that if they tested positive for Covid, they would too and could be isolated with them.

At a time where cases are at an all-time high in the city, which is home to 26 million people, some residents confined to their homes have run short of food. Videos circulated on social media have shown people screaming out of the windows of high rise apartment blocks, warning that they are starving.

The slick, automated, hi-tech services which kept China going in the early days of the pandemic all but collapsed as the food supply chains buckled under the pressure of mass isolation and restrictions on who is allowed to leave home to work. The government has mandated that food prices cannot be raised in response to the demand, however, it is often those who can pay extra to delivery drivers who are able to access what little goods are on offer.

Last weekend, Professor Zeidan, a Brazilian professor of finance at New York University Shanghai - along with neighbours in his apartment compound - ate almost exclusively mangoes and strawberries. The goods were sourced by tracking down suppliers who have been given authorisation to enter Shanghai from the countryside outside –allowing neighbours to club together through a WeChat group to bulk buy a delivery.

Occasional, state-supplied food parcels - of a few vegetables and a packet of noodles - also appear, although they are unreliable.

"You can’t rely on them, they are welcome, but you never know when they are going to come,” Prof Zeidan explains. He lives in a district of Shanghai where the lockdown was announced earlier than other parts of the city, on 24 March. A city-wide lockdown was put in place four days later.

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"When the lockdown was announced, nobody expected that restaurants and grocery stores were going to be closed or that we would lose access to the delivery apps," he says. “So people didn't build the type of stock of food that one would do in a situation like that. So, the situation for people who didn't prepare very well was different from the situation of people who were able to get access to a supermarket before the lockdown. We are unfortunately in the situation of people who couldn't [do that].”

In his compound, he has occasional access to the outdoors through a shared garden. But he says that his neighbours, who are mostly Chinese, rather than ex-pats, are staying away. If the compound does not have a positive test for twelve days, they will be allowed to move around locally – however, interaction between households will still be banned and no local shops or amenities will be open.

He has been allowed outside twice to pick up essential medicine from a clinic. However, his dispensation had to be granted by his compound “administrator”, employed to ensure that residents do as they are asked.

"I have to ask my compound manager and because I own a bike, so I don't need to take public transportation and I don't need to be indoors – and because I have a reputation as a responsible neighbour - I get a special dispensation to allow me to cycle to the clinic and back.

"I've done that twice, the first time a police car saw me and looked at me like ‘what the hell are you doing’? I pointed at the medical clinic, because I was close by and they didn’t stop me.”

Although looking forward to the day when normality fully returns, Prof Zeidan is stoic about the situation.

"The idea is we bring Covid back to zero. So, if that requires shutting down supply chain chains for a while, we will do that,” he says. “But I can’t complain about my situation. There are people with real predicaments in Shanghai. There are poor people who are sharing one bathroom with eight people. They are the ones that are really suffering. Not an ex-pat paying over the odds for Coca Cola.”

In some local authority districts, extreme measures have been taken to keep people in their homes.

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In one video circulated on social media, in a truly bizarre twist in the Chinese government’s response to the Covid pandemic, a state drone with a female voice is seen, winding its way between towering Shanghai apartment blocks.

“Please comply with Covid rules. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open window to sing,” it instructs.

The footage has not been verified, but was posted by Shanghai-born epidemiologist and health economist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, co-founder of the World Health Network.

In a separate video, showing a different set of high rise apartments, residents subject to a strict seven day lockdown are heard screaming from their apartment windows.

“[They are shouting] yao ming le” and “yao si” — both expressions meaning “life and death” but they also more literally means “asking for death”, explains Mr Feigl-Ding.

Shanghai reported over 27,000 people had tested positive for the virus on Thursday amid mass testing of the city’s residents, however, it is believed many were asymptomatic. Makeshift hospitals, reportedly enough to hold 160,000 people, have been set up – with anyone who tests positive for Covid sent to a facility, whether they are symptomatic or not.

Yet, despite protests at the continued policy, China's official news agency Xinhua said last weekend that to ease the policy would be "disastrous".

Residents in Beijing are reportedly already stockpiling food in preparation after seeing the scenes in Shanghai.

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"China's medical system would risk a collapse leading to enormous loss of life if it gives up on epidemic prevention and control," the agency said.

In China, just 20 per cent of over 80s – those most vulnerable to Covid – have had two doses of a Covid vaccine, plus a booster. Only 59 per cent of that age group have had one dose or more, according to figures from the Chinese National Health Commission.

Yet although people in China are generally wary of the virus, there have been protests and scuffles as individuals come up against extreme regulations such as the isolation of children. Measures were also changed in some areas of Shanghai following an outcry when the pets of people who tested positive for Covid were put down.

Mark Clifford, president of The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, warns that the situation “has the potential to spin out of control”.

He says: “I think what we're seeing is zero-Covid policy running against the running up against the reality of a particularly contagious variant of the virus. And it's fascinating to watch totalitarianism try to go after a virus that just won't be contained.

“The most likely scenario is that the authorities get a handle on the logistics issues in particular: you cannot have people in your second city, your major commercial city - some of the wealthiest, or at least most affluent, best educated and most vocal people in the country - in a situation where they don't have food, or being treated essentially like animals, or where parents are being separated from their children. This has the potential to really spin out of control. I think it's a challenge of a sort that [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping has not faced before.”

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