Shanghai is now in its fourth week of lockdown. Millions of people remain confined to their homes, and the government has recently gone so far as to fence in apartment buildings to ensure people remain indoors. On Friday, “Voices of April,” a six-minute video recounting the lockdown through a compilation of audio clips from Shanghai residents went viral online, with people across China reposting the video again and again in defiance of censors.
I joined Reddit’s r/worldnews subreddit last week for an AMA to take your questions on the grim situation in Shanghai. We received hundreds of comments and questions. Below are excerpts from the conversation, updated to reflect the current situation. If you have any further questions or would like to suggest another AMA, please message them to our Grid Reddit account. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What I don’t understand is, what is their food distribution method that is so hard to the point where people are starving?
A: One issue is that the citywide lockdown was initially only supposed to last for five days, so many people didn’t stock up on enough food. The government has been distributing food throughout Shanghai since the lockdown began, but sources told me that the amount of food and the frequency of the deliveries hasn’t been sufficient. And some people haven’t received these government supplies. Migrant workers in particular have been overlooked during the lockdown, with many reporting they haven’t received government assistance. You can read more about their experience here.
Q: Is the situation improving?
A: Cases have continued falling from the peak last week, but they remain high by China’s standards: 19,455 cases were reported in Shanghai on Sunday. The good news is that most of those cases were detected within quarantine centers; just over 200 were outside, so that means Shanghai is nearing zero “community spread.” Starting the week of April 11, the government began allowing some residents to leave their homes if their neighborhood had no recent positive cases, but millions of people remain under lockdown.
Q: How is it that the older sections of the Shanghai population have such a low percentage of the fully vaccinated?
A: Thanks for raising this — this is a key issue. As you said, the vaccination rate among the elderly is quite low (only 38 percent of people over 60 in Shanghai have received a booster). I’ve heard a number of reasons from sources. One is that many felt that due to the low infection rate in China, getting vaccinated wasn’t a high priority. Some elderly people have also been worried about side effects. The vaccines were initially only rolled out for people under 60 while the government awaited further clinical trial data, so that may have deterred people even though the government later said the vaccines were safe.
Q: Hello! Living in Canada, we found that covid-19 was, in the end, rather “mild” as far as symptoms and death toll go. Why is China taking such drastic measures for a virus that is, in the end, not really threatening? Feels like I’m missing something.
A: China has taken this strict approach to covid for several reasons. 1) Public health: Until recently, when omicron became the predominant variant, the death rate for covid globally was far higher than even a severe flu season. For people who are unvaccinated, elderly, immunocompromised or who have other risk factors, the virus is significantly more dangerous. Also, because omicron in particular is so transmissible compared to earlier versions of covid, even a low hospitalization rate can swamp facilities if there is a large number of total cases. We saw that over the winter in much of the U.S. China has fewer ICU beds and doctors per capita compared to the U.S. and other developed countries, so officials have been concerned about the healthcare system collapsing if the virus were fully unleashed. That is particularly a concern in China’s poorer rural areas where the healthcare system is weaker. There is also still a large portion of the elderly population in China that isn’t fully vaccinated. As we saw recently in Hong Kong, that can lead to a high death rate even with omicron. 2) Political: Chinese leaders have been trumpeting their success in keeping covid under control and keeping deaths and cases low compared to Western countries. President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in November at the 20th Party Congress. If letting covid spread more widely caused significant issues in the healthcare system, that could tarnish Xi’s record, so the leadership has chosen to continue with their approach.
Q: How much do people in Shanghai know about the other vaccines and the covid situation in the rest of the world?
A: The case counts in the rest of the world are widely reported in Chinese media. The government has painted a picture of China controlling the virus much better than other countries like the U.S. that have had a higher death rate. There has also been reporting on the other vaccines, but China hasn’t allowed the use of outside vaccines (although Hong Kong uses Pfizer) and has stood by its own vaccines even though a recent study out of Hong Kong showed that Sinovac, one of the vaccines used in China, offered less protection than Pfizer, particularly at lower doses.
Q: Thanks for doing an AMA! I’ve read there’s a lot of anger amongst the population about the lockdowns. Would you say people blame local government or the central government for what’s happening?
A: Good question. Yes, a lot of people have been angry and disappointed as you can see through Weibo, WeChat and other Chinese social media sites — including the montage “Voices of April” — although many of these posts have now been censored. People I’ve spoken to told me they are frustrated with issues particular to the Shanghai government, such as the lack of communication around the length of the lockdown and the failures with the food delivery system. But people also told me they are frustrated with the trajectory of the pandemic; they feel like lockdowns are getting stricter and stricter even as the government has better tools to fight the virus (vaccines and antivirals), and there is no end in sight. So that is a frustration with the broader nationwide zero-covid policy.
Q: How has the lockdown affected work? Does all corporate continue to function [working from home], and all blue collar get laid off?
A: Like in the U.S., many white-collar workers have been able to work from home, although some, such as people in the finance industry, have actually been given extra pay to camp out at the office and go through lockdown there. Some factories have also transitioned into a “closed-loop” system, like was used for the Beijing Olympics, in which workers have to test in and then sleep at the factory. This is the case at Tesla’s Shanghai factory right now, for instance. For people working in restaurants and other service sector jobs, the impact of the lockdown is more severe as those businesses have been mostly shutdown. Many migrant workers haven’t been able to work due to the lockdown — they have been the most affected.
Q: What sort of food are they delivering to people’s home during lockdown? Also, what is the rationale that the government is providing residents?
A: It’s been a mix. I’ve seen eggs, meat, vegetables, cooking oil and Chinese medicine delivered, but it can vary district by district. As for the rationale, the government has said that it is critical for national public health for Shanghai and other cities to lock down.
Q: Are any citizens outwardly speaking out or protesting the culling of pets if the owner is positive?
A: Yes, videos of pets being killed because their owners were taken into quarantine have gotten a lot of attention on Chinese social media, so people have expressed their outrage there. I’m not aware of any protests though.
Q: Have you talked to anyone who actually expresses disdain for their government? What is the media messaging?
A: People have definitely expressed their frustration and disappointment to me over the way this lockdown has been handled. Because Shanghai is a very international city, I think people have been more willing to speak out there compared to other parts of China that have faced lockdowns.
Q: Do you believe this zero-tolerance policy can be sustained for weeks longer or more?
A: That’s a great question and one that is certainly on many people’s minds. As I mentioned, cases in Shanghai have been falling, so it appears that the government is close to eliminating community spread there. It has obviously come at a high cost, but the government has reiterated its commitment to the strategy despite those costs. Many other cities across China have announced restrictions in recent weeks. The national government has announced policies to make the lockdowns more targeted and to minimize disruptions (by shortening the number of days after a positive case before a community can exit lockdown from 14 days to 10, for instance). But the reality is that its difficult to fight omicron and maintain zero-covid without a more concerted effort. Shanghai started with a targeted lockdown and then had to extend it citywide as cases rose. So it seems that barring major unrest, the zero-covid strategy will continue for some time to come.
Q: What are the long, 12-24 month consequences of this for the CCP’s stability?
A: That’s a tough question to answer. The Shanghai lockdown has caused a lot of unrest and outrage on social media, particularly around the issues of food access and medical negligence (people not receiving treatment for non-covid issues). Other recent lockdowns, such as the January lockdown in Xi’an, also stirred a lot of debate online. It’s hard to say how and whether this translates into any long-term opposition to the policy or to the government, though. The CCP is very effective in its control of public opinion (as we’ve seen in the censorship of complaints during this lockdown) and many people have expressed support for the zero-covid policy despite the costs because they are afraid of the fallout from letting the virus spread.
Q: Have there been any foreigners in the quarantine camps? How have they been treated compared to the locals?
A: Yes, foreigners have also been taken to the same fangcang quarantine centers. From what I’ve heard, they’ve had to go through the same process as Chinese people re: quarantining.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.