Locked in, looking out: Shanghai’s endless zero-Covid nightmare
Shanghai’s near two-month lockdown has turned China’s most vibrant city into a dystopian ghost town, with many of its people saying they are suffering to save Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy
Shanghai - Every day my cat and I sat by our window watching a metropolis of 25 million people shrink into a single street corner. My camera has been permanently mounted next to this two-metre square opening, my only shot of the outside world.
Since March 30, I’ve been shut inside my home, reporting on Shanghai's draconian citywide lockdown. Outside my window, the eerie silence is broken by the occasional shriek of ambulances shuttling Covid patients to hospital, and the sound of birds we had forgotten existed amid the drone of a bustling megacity. A single police officer in a hazmat suit is on patrol, while a skeletal network of delivery drivers zip up and down the street on scooters
But on social media and over the phone, I have witnessed the most modern, international and economically important city in China spiral into chaos. People running out of food, non-Covid patients not getting urgent medical care and protests erupting. More than two years after the start of the Covid pandemic, China remains at war with a virus the rest of the world has largely learned to live with. And its people are the collateral.
These past two months, Shanghai experienced the biggest Covid wave in China since Wuhan in 2020. It was also the largest threat to Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy: a vast arsenal of measures to limit infections to a minimum, from tracking, testing and isolating positive cases to putting the general population in quarantine. According to official data, Shanghai cases hit 25,000 a day at the peak of the outbreak in April.
The world on my phone
Being stuck at home, I obviously didn’t see this all first hand. Instead, I watched it play out through the eyes of millions of others on social media. In China, online content is difficult to verify as official information is vague, and locals are discouraged from speaking with foreign media. My colleagues and I spent hundreds of hours scouring the internet to stay across all that was happening, doing no favours for our mental health.
Lockdown content has inundated WeChat and Weibo, China’s main social media platforms. People shared news, images, videos, memes and rumours among friends and in groups, all under the watchful eye of China's omnipresent internet censors. Often, things deemed “inappropriate” were deleted immediately.
But even on China’s surveilled internet, many things went viral. A mother bawling over her dead child’s body who she claimed was denied medical treatment; Covid-positive babies separated from parents if they were negative; a corgi dog clobbered to death after its owner was taken to a central quarantine facility; robot dogs with loudspeakers telling people to stay inside or get Covid tests; surveillance drones; cacophonies of residents banging pots and pans from balconies to protest against lockdowns restrictions. And that is just a few.
Some viral internet moments were memorialised in a video titled “Voices of April” released one night late last month. People both inside and outside the country shared the video over and over, faster than censors could scramble to delete them. It’s mostly scrubbed clean from the Chinese internet now, but still on YouTube with English subtitles
How did we get here?
Since 2020, China's central government has held grimly to “zero Covid”, limiting the official death toll to just over 5,000 people – a very small number compared to the one million plus who have died in the United States, which has less than a quarter of its population.
Chinese authorities clamp down hard and fast on any flare-up in cases. In many cities this means citywide lockdowns. But never in Shanghai, China’s finance and trade hub until this time. Instead, Shanghai authorities always took a “grid management” approach, localising at-risk areas for short, targeted shutdowns.
By mid-March, Shanghai cases were at 5,000 – very high by Chinese standards. Even then, the local government said: “Shanghai will not lockdown, and does not need to lockdown.”
As pressure mounted from the central government in Beijing to control the outbreak, Shanghai announced a two-phase partial lockdown starting March 28: four days in the east (Pudong), then four days in the west (Puxi). But on April 1, the first lockdown did not end even as the second started, and Shanghai entered a full-scale, citywide lockdown. Happy April Fool’s, we’d said. It is now been nearly two months.
Shanghai was not equipped to handle a lockdown of this scale. Over the phone, my colleagues and I spoke to some of the people who were caught on the wrong side of all this. A desperate son whose mother could not get life-saving chemo treatment for her lung cancer due to lack of hospital space. An exasperated resident who was sent to central quarantine to be housed with other people who had tested positive, despite already recovering from Covid. A disheartened office worker who had spent the entire lockdown in his office.
For the first time in Shanghai, it was phone and Zoom interviews only. I felt a frustrating sense of déjà vu after covering the pandemic from other countries in 2020 and 2021, a time when Shanghai was totally open and Covid-free. There were no limits on social gatherings, public venues were open, and no masks mandates in most places.
But not this time. Cracks were forming in China’s iron-clad “zero Covid” creed, and people were falling through.
‘Big Whites’: the nameless authority
Most of the time the view outside my window was of nothing much. But if I was lucky, I captured some “Big Whites” in the streets below disinfecting, Covid testing and patrolling.
The “Big Whites” wear distinctive head-to-toe white and blue hazmat suits for Covid protection. They are medical staff, volunteers, migrant workers and even police. Dressed in this homogeneous garb, masks and face shields, “Big Whites” effectively run the lockdown as a single nameless authoritative entity. There are hundreds of thousands of them and they have become a symbol of the pandemic in Shanghai, both respected and feared.
“Big Whites” face personal risk when doing Covid-related work, and are lauded by residents and propaganda alike for being on the front line: distributing food, doing Covid tests and transporting the sick. But as the lockdown drags on, we have started to see another side of them. Online videos showed “Big Whites” violently shoving residents who refused to comply with orders, kicking through locked doors to forcibly take people to quarantine, and hauling screaming people by the arms and legs onto buses to be transported away.
I have been yelled at by a “Big White” for wearing a valved N-95 mask instead of a closed one, a genuine mistake that I didn’t feel warranted such a response. In some cases, it seems the “Big White” persona has emboldened some people to do things they wouldn’t if their identity were known. For some, being part of the fight against Covid gives rise to an overstated sense of righteousness, as well as a lack of responsibility for their actions because they are “just following orders”.
According to official policy, the gated residential communities known as compounds in which most people in Shanghai live, must stay in lockdown for 14 days if it has any positive cases. After that, it is technically downgraded to a lower risk level and eventually people will be allowed out. Realistically, very few people actually get to leave. Despite loosening official restrictions, many people remain stuck in China’s bureaucratic pincers. And the literal gatekeepers of our freedom to walk outside are a grassroots tier of that bureaucracy called the “neighbourhood committee”.
Let me explain. The lockdowns are enforced by neighbourhood committees, a quasi-authority who administer city and district laws locally for individual compounds and communities. Official government policies are usually strict, detailed and very clear. But further down the bureaucratic ladder, enforcement gets murky.
Neighbourhood committees almost always administer regulations more conservatively and heavy-handedly than the official line because it keeps them safe. If Covid cases were to emerge from their patch, they are the ones who carry the can. And no one wants to be responsible for undermining “zero Covid”.
At the end of April, when Shanghai announced that people in low-risk, “precautionary” compounds could go out, some neighbourhood committees started handing out exit passes granting passage out the front gate. In some communities, one person per household is given a pass to leave the compound just once a day. Neighbourhood committees don’t have real legal power like the police or government, but they now control whether I can go for a walk, or if I get my vegetables. Which leads to my next question.
No one had prepared for a month-long lockdown – most people thought it would be just four days. So food soon became an issue. Going to the supermarket is not an option, so two ways of obtaining food quickly emerged: government handouts and group buys.
Throughout the lockdown, the government distributed handouts of food and supplies to residents. But this was inconsistent too. Some people claimed they were given more than 10 deliveries of fresh vegetables, meat, noodles, cooking oil, toilet paper, detergent and more; some got a few packages of vegetables only; others received just eggs and biscuits. Some people even said they got sick from handouts of expired food.
Nevertheless, appearances were kept up. Propaganda videos showed generous handouts, grocery packages were delivered especially to foreign journalists.
The other way is the group-buy system: bulk-purchasing supplies with neighbours. You can group-buy anything now in Shanghai if you hit the minimum order, even whole pig carcasses and refrigerators. Although no one is supposed to leave their rooms, group-buys seem to be a grey area. Group-buy “leaders” need only apply to their neighbourhood committees for permission to collect and distribute anything, including the 100 bottles of wine my neighbours and I bought.
Before the lockdown, Shanghai was vibrant, diverse, cosmopolitan and vast. Now, your only community is your compound, for better or worse. While some people became friends, helping each other with food and supplies, others became hostile and harass or publicly-shaming their neighbours for not following lockdown rules.
In a compound where thousands of people live, just one Covid case could lock everyone in for another 14 days. And what is community when the weakest link becomes your enemy? As each person’s lockdown is defined by everyone elses behaviour, it became easy for neighbours to blame others for their circumstances, especially as the lockdown wore on.
One person who tested positive in my building became the target of verbal attacks for trading food with another neighbour. A barrage of criticism flooded the building group chat, with some condemning the Covid-positive neighbour for being “reckless and selfish” and some warning against a witch-hunt. A few tried to find out the person’s identity and “dox” them – humiliating them online – encouraging everyone else to post their negative Covid results. I never heard the full story.
To many the scariest thing about Covid here is not the illness itself, but rather the prospect of being shipped to a grim mass quarantine camp. Videos show people in cramped sleeping spaces with clogged and overflowing toilets, leaking roofs and more. Fortunate people were given private rooms and showers, but most had it rough.
During the lockdown, many makeshift quarantine camps were built – at stadiums, construction sites and even the Shanghai Formula 1 Grand Prix venue. Hundreds of thousands of infected people have passed through them, often living in abysmal conditions, under poor management and even being given used blankets left behind by the last lot of inmates.
That’s not even the worst. Recently, a mind-blowing new policy called “reverse quarantining” has emerged. It means taking Covid-negative people to quarantine instead of people who are positive. One woman I interviewed lived in a compound that had too many positive cases, so authorities forcibly relocated everyone who didn’t have Covid. Before leaving, the woman was told she would be moved to a hotel but ended up being taken to a quarantine facility instead.
The good ol’ Covid test
Regular PCR tests quickly became a constant in our new lockdown norm. It was probably the only time most people left their apartments and saw other humans. Residents line up inside their compounds to be swabbed by an army of nurses who travel across the city testing the entire population, in compliance with government orders. With the city in lockdown for over a month, people questioned whether this was how cases were still being spread.
For local authorities, failure to stop an outbreak could mean the end of one’s political career. But they have limited tools at their disposal under the rigid "zero Covid” policy. Therefore, it is in their interests to be heavy-handed and defensive in policy implementation, regardless of effectiveness. For some people, tests have been once a week. For others, every day. I even know people who were Covid tested twice a day on several occasions.
People found levity in the brief minutes they had downstairs in our compounds during testing. Online, people showed off their fancy dress get-ups for Covid tests, wearing gowns, tuxedos and other flamboyant outfits. In my compound, one friend wore a pair of Speedos to our Covid test. The photo I took of him quickly went viral.
The way out
More than a month into Shanghai's lockdown, many are eyeing an exit – or have already left. Some foreigners will leave China permanently. For many, the lockdown will have been the straw that broke the camel’s back after over two years of strict travel restrictions in and out of the country.
On day 25 of my lockdown, with daily cases hovering at around 15,000, I also left Shanghai to wait out the lockdown in another city. I booked a private car with a road permit, arranged an emergency Covid test and got official approval to leave my compound. Finally, I signed a letter saying that I would not come back to Shanghai until the lockdown was over.
Back in my compound, things are starting to improve. Recently, it was classed into the "freest" tier, which should mean residents being allowed to leave the compound. But it was in name only. A new government order announced the compound would remain locked down, and people wouldn’t be permitted to walk freely through the front gate as they please.
Still, everyone is now allowed down into the shared garden again and some celebrated with a few beers. A pair of friends got married inside our compound with our neighbours as their witnesses. It’s nice to see some positivity. A total end to the lockdown seems far away, but enjoying the small victories and trying to keep some sense of normal life together seems to be the only way out for now.