Inside the disastrous Shanghai COVID lockdown: Fear and hunger

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Hungry and scared: Inside Shanghai’s disastrous zero-covid lockdown

What does life look like for a city of 25 million people in China’s largest-scale urban lockdown?


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“Every morning when I wake up, what I worry about is no longer work, it’s what we are going to eat today. Almost all of my time is spent on this.”

That’s what Liu Jie, a university professor in Shanghai, told Grid on the 15th day he’d spent confined to his small apartment with his wife and toddler.

“I thought it would be two weeks at most,” said Liu, who requested Grid use a pseudonym because of the political sensitivity of the topic. “But I’ve already been here for two weeks, and the city clearly isn’t going to reopen. In fact, I don’t even know if it’s going to open up in another two weeks.”

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The Shanghai lockdown has sowed chaos in one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities, a place long known as a hub for culture and high finance. At the moment, it’s a hub for stress and worries about the basic supply of food, medicine and other necessities.

The measures also have yet to stop the virus. On Wednesday, cases hit a new high of 27,719.

Since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020, China has used draconian measures to control infections, in a sweeping zero-covid policy. In recent months, tens of millions of people beyond Shanghai have endured lockdowns — from Xi’an in the west to the northeastern Jilin province — to keep the virus in check.

But Shanghai is different — given its size and its importance — and so the consequences of the lockdown have been harder to ignore. A broken food delivery system has left people desperate for basic groceries. Non-covid medical emergencies have gone unheeded. Parents have been separated from their children in quarantine. Residents have faced conditions they never imagined possible in such an affluent and politically important city.

“What has happened in Shanghai has really made people realize there’s no exception in China in terms of control,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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How did it come to this in Shanghai? And how exactly have people been able to survive under a lockdown of this scale and stringency? Grid spoke to Shanghai’s holed-up residents about what happens when a city of 25 million shuts down — indefinitely.

Shanghai’s frenzied search for food

After the lockdown orders were sent down, Shanghai’s residents flew into panic-buying with their remaining hours of freedom. But because they were initially told the lockdown would last only four days, many still weren’t fully prepared.

For most residents, the rules are clear: No one can leave their home. Only essential workers are exempted. Whatever you need must be brought to you.

Stuck at home, people have turned to food delivery companies to buy groceries — a delivery person is considered an “essential worker” — but the apps have struggled to keep up with a torrent of traffic. Ordering meals online is common in Shanghai, but companies short of staff due to the lockdowns and covid outbreak have been overwhelmed.

To secure coveted groceries, people across Shanghai have been waking up in the early hours of the morning to place online orders when the supplies are restocked, clicking again and again on the checkout button to try to get their transactions through.

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A woman with the surname Zhao, who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity because of the topic’s political sensitivity, told Grid she stocked up before the lockdown but wound up joining the online fight for food when it was extended. “Everybody is competing and trying to see who has faster hand speed and Wi-Fi speed,” she said. Realizing that the system was crashing under the weight of the orders, she enlisted a friend in Beijing (more than 700 miles away) to try to place an order for her. That worked — but only once over four days.

Shanghai residents have had some help. The government has been distributing food throughout the city, and sources Grid spoke to have received packages containing vegetables, fish and other food items. These packages are delivered through each community’s neighborhood committee, the lowest rung of government in China.

But those supplies alone don’t suffice, said Zhao. “You can’t really rely on the city giving you food because I only got two packages in 12 days. I live with my boyfriend, and so it’s two people in our household. That food won’t last long,” she said. She estimated the two government packages would cover only two to three days of meals.

With the lockdown dragging on, the food delivery service faltering and provisions from the government running short, Shanghai residents have felt a rising anxiety. “After the first week, everyone had a feeling of panic because if delivery services and the supply of goods didn’t recover, eating would become a problem,” said Liu.

Facing this systemic failure, Shanghai residents have gotten creative. People in apartment buildings have self-organized through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, to place bulk orders of bread, vegetables, fruits and other goods. Rather than going through an intermediary, residents have used their networks to find wholesale suppliers who can deliver large-scale orders directly. The prices are higher than normal, and incoming trucks can get delayed, but sources told Grid that group ordering has quickly become a backbone of the lockdown food system.


Image of vegetables on tray

Some communities have started running like small businesses. David Fishman, an American energy consultant in Shanghai, described how his building of 160 units has organized its operation: rolling out a building-wide survey to make sure everyone’s food needs are met, tracking those needs on a spreadsheet and even creating a procurement schedule for their group orders.

Meanwhile, people have taken to bartering their goods, facilitated by the same compound- or building-wide WeChat groups. Zhao said she had exchanged different types of cat food with a neighbor and received rice from another.

As much as these creative solutions have helped people to put food on the table, they are no panacea for the city’s food woes. For some people who aren’t as dexterous on their phones — or those who don’t use phones at all — the lockdown has been particularly dire. Liu described the ordeal of a retired colleague who lives alone. The elderly man’s former employees discovered he had been subsisting on one steamed bun a day and was at risk of starvation when they found out. They were able to deliver additional food to him, but other elderly people in Shanghai are certainly still suffering under the radar.

Medical nightmares — covid and beyond

As difficult as being trapped at home has been for all these millions of people, testing positive for covid is even worse.

During lockdown, apartment residents have been frequently called downstairs for mass PCR testing. Since April 1, nearly 250,000 people have tested positive, and even though the vast majority have no symptoms, they are still required to decamp from their homes to isolation facilities — which are not exactly welcoming. The National Exhibition and Convention Center has been converted to hold 50,000 beds, and thousands more have been erected throughout the city. Patients have reported rough conditions — no showers, portable bathrooms overflowing with feces and fights for food.

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Perhaps the most devastating quarantine experience, though, has been the separation of families. At the beginning of the outbreak, young children were taken from their parents if either parent or the child was infected. Lucy Zhu told the New York Times that her 2-year-old daughter was taken from her when she had to go into isolation. She called the separation “totally inhumane.” After photos of a children’s quarantine ward went viral, the Shanghai government reversed the policy and has since allowed families to stay together.

As with prior lockdowns in China, the undivided attention given to covid has also stripped resources from other pressing medical needs. Harrowing stories have surfaced of the absence of timely care leading to life-threatening illness and even death. In late March, a nurse suffered an asthma attack and was turned away from her hospital’s emergency room because it was undergoing disinfection as an anti-covid measure. Her family raced to get her to another hospital, but it was too late. She died soon after she got there.

Fear of these kinds of delays has left many on edge. “We feel that we definitely can’t get sick in this period, especially our kid,” said Liu. “If you get sick and go to the hospital to see a doctor, it is a very difficult thing because most of the medical resources are being spent on covid.” Liu said that upon arrival at a hospital, you must get a PCR test and wait four hours for the results before being admitted.

The lockdown has also imperiled critical long-term care. A son was unable to find a dialysis appointment for his father whose kidneys were failing; a leukemia patient struggled to find a hospital to attend to her fever, the Washington Post reported. The outbreak has also caused chaos at nursing homes. Sources told the Wall Street Journal that covid deaths have gone unreported and medical care for elderly residents has been overlooked.

Just as devastating — if unsurprising, perhaps — is the psychological toll. “Mentally you have to suffer from not knowing what happened or not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Zhao. “And also, you can’t do anything about it. You’re just like, ‘This thing is totally out of my control.’”

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Living at work

Across Shanghai, work and school routines have been upended. Schools have gone entirely virtual. At some universities, lockdowns began even before the citywide mandate. Liu described how students at his university have been stuck in their dorms, three to four students packed into a room, trying to attend online classes. For a while, the students were even told they weren’t allowed to shower because that could spread the virus.

For professionals in the city, the lockdown has meant not only working from home but living at work. Workers in the white-collar industries, including banking and tech, have been camping out in their offices to ensure their work can continue. Some factories have also created a “closed-loop” system as was used for the Beijing Winter Olympics — requiring employees to live on site to ensure the machines keep running.

For Zhao, whose teaching job was interrupted by the pandemic, the lockdown has set her job search back. And for Liu, his academic research has been set aside. Previously, he and his wife got child care support from her parents and a maid, but now that they are isolated, he spends most of his day cooking or trying to procure food.

People who already lived on the margins of society before the pandemic, such as migrant workers, have taken the greatest hit. The lockdown has made it next to impossible to go out to find work, and migrants often don’t have access to the same government aid. “There is discrimination by the authorities; there is also discrimination by other people, as everybody is extremely stressed,” said Wang, citing examples of a community officer denying migrant workers access to food because they didn’t have official Shanghai registration cards.

When will it end?

Early this week, the Shanghai government announced a plan to begin loosening the lockdown. If no cases have been detected in someone’s community within the past two weeks, they’re supposed to be allowed to exit the lockdown. But the majority of the city remains under lockdown because their communities have had more recent cases.

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Shanghai residents have taken to social media to suggest ways the situation could be improved. Being able to isolate at home once infected, rather than in a cavernous quarantine center, would be a change many would welcome. Liu suggested that instead of locking down a whole community if one case is detected, only the building where the case is found could be cordoned off.

But as for the larger “one-size-fits-all” covid strategy, China appears to be standing firm. Since the beginning of the pandemic, government officials have promoted the success of China’s zero-covid approach in limiting infections and keeping deaths far lower than the U.S. and many other countries. Now that the message has been so widely broadcast, it’s hard to change course.

“The government feels it cannot back down from that policy, because they made that policy a political issue … ’Our system is better,’” said Wang. “So it makes turning around harder.”

The drumbeat of harsh lockdowns in recent months has left many with the feeling that things are trending in the wrong direction. And the nightmarish stories from Shanghai haven’t helped. “We are already in the third year,” said Liu. “Based on logic, things should be getting better and better, but things don’t seem to be getting better. In fact, they seem to have become increasingly bad.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin and Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.