Shanghai covid lockdown dilemma: Help neighbors or the government fail?

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Shanghai covid lockdown dilemma: Is it better to help your neighbors or let the government fail?

It is by far the world’s largest-scale pandemic lockdown. Some 26 million people, told initially they would be confined to their homes for four days, have now spent nearly two months in various degrees of isolation. In the latest chaos that has come with China’s initially successful “zero-covid” policy, residents of this thriving, cosmopolitan city have run short of food and medicine, tragic stories have surfaced of residents who have fallen ill or died after being denied medical care because the priority has been to care for covid patients, and police and medical workers have broken into homes of those who have tested positive and brought them to so-called quarantine camps without their consent.

Watching the posts and videos on social media, the frustration and anger of millions of Shanghai residents is clear. From a distance, one might think the city was on the verge of serious unrest or even societal breakdown.

The fact is — it isn’t. There have been a few public protests — beyond the online versions — but given the circumstances, it’s perhaps a minor miracle that a breakdown hasn’t materialized. In part, this is because it’s China. It would take much more to send large numbers of people into the streets. But it’s also thanks to a huge and diverse cohort of volunteers.

Across this sprawling city, hundreds of thousands of residents have chipped in to help neighbors order food and medicine, carry groceries from the gates of apartment complexes to individual apartments and ensure that mandatory daily covid testing goes off without a hitch. Many of the Shanghai volunteers have been working 18-hour days — and they aren’t just helping millions of the city’s residents; some told Grid their work and sacrifice are helping the local government as well. In other words, were it not for this “volunteer army,” Shanghai might be in serious trouble.

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Grid spoke by phone from the U.S. to three Shanghai residents with very different experiences in this new world of lockdown volunteering: one working under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); one volunteering outside the “system”; and a third who has opted out, believing that volunteering only enables a government policy that has been an unmitigated disaster for Shanghai.

The party asked for volunteers: 686,000 said yes

It started with a call to action.

On March 24, the Shanghai municipal government published an open letter asking that the city’s CCP members register as volunteers. (As of 2020, there were 1.95 million members of the party in Shanghai). As of April 7, according to China News, 686,000 party members had answered the call. They were to sign up and receive online assignments, depending on the needs in their respective parts of the city.

It’s worth noting that even in modern-day China, with all its trappings of capitalism, becoming a member of the Communist Party is often seen as a survival tactic; saying no to any CCP invitation can bring repercussions. On his or her first day of school, every Chinese child receives what’s known as the Students’ Conduct Guidebook, in which a core principle is stated up front: “Love the CCP, China and the people.” Party members still occupy leadership positions at all levels of government, state-owned companies and schools. The party recruits top students at universities and young workers in companies, and party members are far more likely to be assigned higher positions. The trade-off? CCP members are expected — if not obligated — to abide by and implement government policies.

So when the Shanghai party leadership came asking for volunteers, those 686,000 people were quick to sign up.

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Ying, a middle school teacher and a CCP member, did exactly that. She told Grid she was motivated less by pressure from the party and more by a desire to improve local policies, or at least increase transparency at a community level. When the lockdown came to her neighborhood of Putuo District on April 1, she wanted to know how many new covid cases had been reported in her apartment complex and which of the complex’s 98 buildings had been affected. She contacted the director of her neighborhood committee — the lowest rung of local government — in a WeChat group and asked that the information be released. The director never answered.

Later Ying learned there were only three people on the committee, each of them overworked and interested only in following official directives. “They were already overwhelmed with arranging the daily testing, filing the statistics and sterilizing the buildings that have covid cases. On the one hand, they don’t have time and energy to handle anything else. On the other hand, they are afraid of taking responsibility.” In other words, Ying said, these “committees” and other officials were comfortable only when carrying out government policies — even when a certain policy wasn’t working. “The lockdown,” Ying said, “exposes all the longtime systemic flaws in China.”

An example: The neighborhood committee director said he couldn’t share information about the location of covid cases because the party hadn’t approved it. “Privacy concerns” was the reason given; Ying sensed that was just another excuse. “They place seals on those building doors to prevent people from coming out,” she said. “Placing seals is an instruction from their superiors and releasing the information is not.”

Ying said she has seen the collision of a stubborn, unbending policy and the needs of the Shanghai population — and chaos and confusion have been the result. A resident in her neighborhood suffered a heart attack, but because his covid antigen test came back positive, he had to take another test, and no hospital would accept him until he received a negative result. (Ying doesn’t know what happened to him). There were diabetes patients in her neighborhood who needed insulin injections, but medical centers only provided volunteers with one type of insulin, often unusable with the syringes patients had at home. Online grocery stores delivered only fixed grocery packages, meaning people often had to choose between purchasing items they didn’t want or going with nothing at all. And many stores wouldn’t deliver until and unless orders in the neighborhood reached 50 or more.

Ying told Grid she decided to be a problem solver.

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“It’s no use complaining,” she said. Beyond her role as the apartment building leader, she set up a specific WeChat group for the entire neighborhood. The group functioned as a kind of customer service portal for the neighborhood committee, and almost immediately it filled with expressions of anger and frustration. More than 100 furious residents came to Ying with complaints. She gathered their questions and feedback and reported them to the neighborhood committee. This time, because she was now an official party volunteer representing the entire community, the committee had to address her concerns.

“I tried to restore some rationality,” Ying told Grid. “For example, at one point a Shanghai district had required residents to pour disinfectant into the sewers.” The order was explained as a way to eradicate the virus in the sewers; in fact, Ying and others learned the practice was both unscientific and dangerous. She drew a chart to make her point. “My chart was soon forwarded by the volunteers in other neighborhoods. I consider myself a fixer of institutional errors.”

Ying said she’s been working 17 hours a day — and she has her own family to worry about. She’s the mother of a 10-year-old boy.

“My husband and son are both understanding,” she told Grid. “My son even wrote an essay about me for his school assignment. He knew his grandparents also relied on people like me to survive the lockdown. I am proud of teaching him a valuable lesson.”

“If I don’t do anything, they might starve”

There are many other Shanghai residents with no Communist Party affiliation who have volunteered outside the official channels. These are people who’ve simply felt the tug to do the right thing. No nudge from the government required.


Zhongren is in his 30s. He lives in a rundown neighborhood in Shanghai’s Hongkou District. “The 32 apartment buildings here were built in the 1980s and have never been renovated,” he told Grid. Young couples like Zhongren and his wife are rare in the neighborhood; most of its denizens are native Shanghainese, 60 and older. Having spent their entire lives in the city, many of these elderly residents never imagined the local government would abandon them. But as the lockdown wore on, days into weeks, they were still waiting at home for the government to deliver food to their doors.

“I was deeply concerned,” Zhongren told Grid. “I thought, if I don’t do anything, they might really starve to death. Tragedies like that did happen in Shanghai.”

Indeed, in a two-week period from late April to early May, three people — a Fudan University graduate, a 58-year-old man who had difficulty walking and an English teacher from South Africa — were reported to have starved to death in their Shanghai homes. Social media reports of their deaths were taken down within hours. No state media reported the stories.

Zhongren joined a cohort of 10 other young volunteers in the apartment complex, all dedicated in one way or another to making sure every elderly resident was cared for. They borrowed a bicycle rickshaw from a local garbage collector to deliver groceries over the “last mile” — from the gates of the apartment complex to their buildings. Zhongren said he had heard horror stories about the way other neighborhood committees were operating — in some cases invoking bogus science (the belief that the coronavirus could be transmitted through in packaged foods) to impose limits on what people ordered.

“Other neighborhood committees put extra restrictions on the residents’ orders and became an authoritarian presence in the community,” he told Grid. Some committees in Shanghai have taken to ruling on which grocery stores are safe and how much a particular community can order. “But it didn’t happen to us,” Zhongren said, with a hint of pride. “Our neighborhood committee knew they needed our help.”

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Before the lockdown, Zhongren ran an independent bookstore in Jing’an District. “I’m fully aware of a paradoxical situation here,” he said. “On the one hand, the extreme covid policy of restricting people to their homes is inconsiderate and absurd. It cannot and should not last. But because we volunteers have helped people survive, the policy continues.”

Zhongren said he has no regrets about his decision to volunteer — and would do so again. “The old residents are the victims of the policy,” he told Grid. “There are extreme voices saying that only their suffering, or even deaths, will force the government to take responsibility and change the policy. But if those residents are suffering next to you, how can you stand to see them struggle?”

Then he answered his own question: “I can’t.”

After our interview, Zhongren did what he does every day now: He changed into his blue protective scrubs, put on a face mask and plastic shield cover, and carried groceries from the gate of the complex to each apartment, one delivery at a time.

The other view: Shanghai’s volunteers are “naive and foolish”

Sheng is a senior salesperson in a foreign investment company in Pudong District on the east side of Shanghai. His sprawling apartment complex includes some 1,000 units and 180 active lockdown volunteers.

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Sheng isn’t one of them.

“I refuse to be a volunteer,” he told Grid. “With much respect for their good intentions and hard labor, I think they are naive and foolish.”

It may seem harsh, but Sheng’s is hardly an uncommon view. Sheng is among those Shanghai residents who believe the good work of volunteers is masking the failings of government officials and government policy — in Shanghai and at the national level as well.

To listen to Sheng is to grasp the extent of those failings. The sheer size of Sheng’s neighborhood led to restrictions on the volume and nature of groceries that residents are allowed to order. For a time, bottled water, soft drinks and dairy products were all considered unnecessary. All of which has infuriated Sheng.

“Who gives them the power to decide what is necessary and what is not?” he asked. “Volunteers should not have any power. And once we start quibbling on these specifics with the volunteers, we forgot the root cause of the situation. It’s the government policy that deprived us of individual freedoms and forced us to accept the service of the volunteers. We were pleased to win the battle of dairy products which were now considered ‘necessary,’ and we forgot we should have the rights to buy whatever we want in a modern society.”

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Sheng and others in Shanghai are angry enough that they say they would rather see neighbors struggle than step in to clean up the mess. In this view, the volunteers — for all the good they are doing — are simply enabling a terrible response to the pandemic, and in turn, allowing the lockdowns to persist.

“Our volunteers during the lockdown were enlisted by the government without realizing the broader situation,” Sheng told Grid. “They made possible the inhumane policy which should never have been carried out in the first place.”

He has quarreled openly with his neighborhood committee. One week into the lockdown, fearing that the virus might be carried in grocery deliveries, the committee required all orders be approved by the committee. That fear had no basis in science, and Sheng asked about it in the neighborhood WeChat group: “Does anyone in the neighborhood committee have professional knowledge to examine what kind of orders are more likely to be contaminated with omicron?”

His query was met with a brief silence. Then a resident posted a reply that sided with the neighborhood committee, saying the risk was real, and they should consider the safety of the volunteers. The message was echoed with a slew of similar responses. “No room is allowed for criticism,” Sheng told Grid.

What struck him later was that those residents who had firmly supported the neighborhood committee in the WeChat group were also violating committee rules by ordering far more groceries than the committee limits allowed. “China is full of those hypocrites,” Sheng said. “They want to stay politically safe and protect their self-interest.”

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In one small way, Sheng has actually become a volunteer. He has an elderly neighbor who lives alone. Sheng said he brings food to that neighbor’s door on a regular basis and shares his own food with other neighbors who have less. “Helping each other out has been a common practice in Shanghai since the first outbreak of the pandemic,” Sheng told Grid.

But he won’t join the larger, more official volunteer effort. And in the meantime, he said he has learned to remain silent in his neighborhood WeChat group. “In China, people like me — instead of those ‘yes men’ — look selfish, stupid and bad. So here we are with the help of those self-serving volunteers, and we’re stuck at home forever.”

(Author’s note: The names and jobs of the interviewees have been changed to ensure their safety.)

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Jianan  Qian
    Jianan Qian

    Freelance Reporter

    Jianan Qian is a writer from Shanghai.