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Barriers like these sprang up around Shanghai residential areas during a two-month lockdown that ended on June 1. The government's attempt to contain a COVID-19 outbreak cost many residents their mental and physical health.    © Reuters
The Big Story

Inside Shanghai's COVID lockdown nightmare

China's zero-COVID policy devastated the commercial capital

CISSY ZHOU, LAULY LI, CHENG TING-FANG and CK TAN, Nikkei staff writers | China

HONG KONG/ TAIPEI/SHANGHAI -- In late April, a few days into the quarantine of her dormitory in Shanghai, Jenny Zhang began to feel dehydrated. A senior at one of the city's top universities, she and other students on her floor had just been told they could only use communal toilets and showers on a strict rotation, and their drinking water would be severely rationed.

No matter how thirsty she became, Zhang, who spoke to Nikkei Asia under a pseudonym, could only allow herself tiny sips of water from her 500 ml bottle.

She tried to complain about her supervisor (an instructor who aids in managing students at Chinese colleges) not offering more water. However, her protest was opposed by her roommates, some of whom had larger water bottles and were less desperate, who argued that the supervisor was not obligated to offer Zhang special treatment. After two days, she began to experience overpowering thirst -- there was no access to even tap water in the dormitory.

Students on Zhang's floor fell apart emotionally under the strain. One student said she would take a knife with her into the bathroom, threatening members of a WeChat group that she would stab anyone who tried to stop her from showering at midnight, when no one else was there.

The same student also threatened to set the building on fire, saying that arson was the only way to get everyone out of the dormitory. "If anyone sets fire to the dormitory, we could die because the school would not allow us to leave the building," Zhang said. "I didn't even feel very upset at that time because, in that state, I did not want to live either.

"I could feel that I was not in a healthy mental state."

Residents pinned in by barriers had limited access to water during the lockdown. Couriers would bring water rations to those unable to leave their apartment blocks.   © AFP/Jiji

Throughout Shanghai, China's economic capital, similar stories are emerging following the official end of a strict, two-month lockdown. It was an ordeal for the inhabitants of the city that grabbed headlines around the world for its severity, perhaps the most draconian control measure recorded anywhere during the pandemic.

During the lockdown, children who tested positive for COVID-19 were separated from their parents; fences were installed to restrict people's movement; pets whose owners tested positive were reportedly slaughtered by authorities; white-clad workers entered residents' apartments to spray disinfectant without consent; and at least 200 individuals are believed to have died, not due to COVID, but due to lack of access to hospitals.

The outbreak was contained, if just barely. From Feb. 26 to June 15, Shanghai logged 58,098 positive cases and 588 COVID-related deaths, according to the city's Health Commission. But while the lockdown officially ended on June 1, the psychological scars have yet to heal.

Wang Qing, an artist from Shanghai, told Nikkei she believes she is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has started to experience insomnia and compulsively hoard food. "I asked my therapist if it is PTSD, but he told me it is too early to conclude ... as we are still suffering from strict control[s]," she said.

Some of those who were forcibly transferred to city-run makeshift quarantine camps, known as fang cang hospitals across China -- a requirement for anyone who tested positive during the lockdown -- remain terrified every time they hear a tap on the door.

Workers disinfect a locked-down residential area in Shanghai, China, on April 15.   © Reuters

"I've become quite sensitive after being isolated in a quarantine facility," said Mr. Xia, a college student from Shanghai who was sent to a quarantine camp during the lockdown and only gave his surname. "I am scared of a knock at the door. I dare not read news on the internet. Sometimes, I cannot help talking to myself, and my messages are full of typos when I type."

Incoming storm

Before the outbreak, Shanghai authorities had been proud of their COVID prevention strategy. The city had been emblematic of the success of Chinese President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach, which used a huge testing apparatus, along with tracking and tracing contacts and, when that failed, targeted lockdowns, to eradicate the virus within China's borders.

The zero-COVID strategy appeared to be effective against the delta variant: China's reported case numbers and mortality rate were far lower than the rest of the world, while its economic growth rate had been one of the highest among the world's major economies for the past two years. From late 2019, when the virus was first detected in Wuhan, until the worst outbreak began in March this year, Shanghai recorded only 392 local cases and seven deaths.

But the omicron variant, which emerged in late 2021, turned out to be much more transmissible and a far greater match for zero-COVID than the delta variant. Xi's political reputation is tightly bound to the success of his zero-COVID policy, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of China's Central Party School's official newspaper, Study Times, who now lives in the U.S. Under omicron, Deng said, the policy has become a liability for China's paramount leader.

"Having fewer fatalities is a top priority for Xi, and if the epidemic results in many deaths in China, Xi may come under fire from his adversaries," Deng told Nikkei. "Xi is caught in his own trap now, as he has politicized his anti-epidemic policy. He is too proud of the achievement in combating the delta variant and thinks it demonstrates the superiority of the Chinese system over the U.S., so he is biting the bullet to stick to his zero-COVID policy."

On March 2, however, a new outbreak began in the town of Meilong, 20 km south of downtown Shanghai, which reported its first positive case: a fully-vaccinated, 46-year-old woman. At around 2 a.m. on March 3, a Shanghai doctor who only gave his English name as Young was among those sent to take samples of every stair handrail and door handle along the woman's path through the residential complex.

Until March, Shanghai had avoided lockdown measures due to a rigorous testing and track-and-trace policy.    © AP

"All the samples came back positive the next day," he told Nikkei in a recent interview. "We doctors all got the impression at the time that the area was essentially a toxic reservoir, and that we were simply waiting for the virus to break out, because there were clearly far more than one or two people infected in that complex."

It was the start of a brutal three-month treadmill of work for Young and other medical workers in the city. Two days later, more than 10 people in the complex had tested positive, leaving the authorities unable to trace all their activities. And within the following week, a smattering of positive cases started to emerge across other residential complexes in Meilong.

"Local authorities were obviously caught off guard, and they could only send us to test as many people as we could," Young said.

Temporary testing booths were set up in areas where large numbers of people conglomerate -- industrial parks, shopping malls and wet markets. Even delivery drivers passing by would be required to take a test.

As testing surged, manpower ran short and safety standards suffered. Doctors ordinarily could not be sent to take samples or do other front-line work without already having three vaccine shots themselves. But that requirement was quietly thrown out, Young said.

"There is no doubt that many people got infected during the regional mass testing," Young said. "The queues were so long and people were so close to one another, and some didn't even wear a mask."

When testing was done in a wet market, Young added, nearly all samples came back positive.

Draconian measures

After the local government's botched attempt to contain the initial spread of the virus, the central government in Beijing took over by dispatching Sun Chunlan, a vice premier who was credited for isolating the first outbreak in Wuhan in 2020.

Arriving in Shanghai in early April, Sun immediately ordered local officials, including the city's top official, party Secretary Li Qiang, to "adhere unswervingly" to the zero-COVID policy.

Sun went on to introduce sweeping measures that called for mass PCR tests every few days. Those testing positive -- some of them children -- were separated by force from their families, while neighbors who shared the same residential building were often hauled to makeshift quarantine centers, even if they were COVID-negative.

Initially, over 25 million Shanghai residents were told to stay home for a maximum of eight days, but when daily case numbers did not recede, the government extended the quarantine order without offering an exit strategy.

Food stocks run low at a supermarket in Shanghai, China, on March 17. Many residents struggled to replenish food as lockdown restrictions became stricter and shops were forced to close in the city.    © AP

Households soon faced diminishing food stocks, the replenishing of which was infeasible as nearly all businesses, from supermarkets to online marketplaces, ceased to function, along with crucial delivery services.

Escape from Shanghai

As positive cases started to climb, college students, packed into dormitories with communal showers and toilets, were bearing the brunt of the lockdown.

At most Chinese universities, four students share one room with bunk beds, with one or two shared bathrooms on each floor. At the beginning of March, Zhang had heard from friends at other colleges that they had been confined to their dorms for more than a week without being permitted to take showers.

It took a few weeks for these restrictions to catch up with Zhang, who had still been allowed to walk freely within her dormitory, get cafeteria takeout downstairs, shower in the public bathroom and use the communal toilets.

On April 22, however, just after Zhang had completed an online job interview, she was ordered to return to her dormitory immediately and remain indoors as a student in her building had tested positive.

Residents line up for compulsory COVID-19 tests during Shanghai's lockdown on May 19.    © Reuters

"We were actually shocked," Zhang told Nikkei, "because none of us had been allowed out of the building for the past few weeks. Where did the virus come from?"

For three weeks after that, Zhang and her dorm mates were stuck inside their building, with strictly rationed amenities and limited access to food and water.

Zhang started to consider leaving Shanghai in early May as she felt increasingly traumatized.

Getting a train ticket home was easy; leaving was not. To even board a train, Zhang had to submit an application to her university along with a copy of her train ticket. She also had to present the university with a letter from her hometown's local government confirming she was permitted to return home. Further, she had to present a copy of the most challenging document to get hold of: a government-issued pass certificate for the cab she intended to take.

After completing the painstaking process, Zhang was set to head off by train in mid-May. Flying was out of the question as most flights out of Shanghai were canceled during the lockdown. In April, 1,735 flights departed from Pudong International Airport, down from 6,017 in March, according to Flightradar24.

The night before her departure, Zhang was wracked with nerves. She heard news that the rule in her district was only empty cars could traverse roads; no passengers were allowed in vehicles, even if the driver had a city-issued pass certificate. Some of her classmates aboard a bus had to duck out of sight at a police-monitored checkpoint.

"I was so scared that I had an emotional breakdown," Zhang said. "After all these painstaking preparations, I am still not allowed to leave?"

At midnight, a few hours before Zhang's scheduled departure, one student in a WeChat group was cycling to the train station -- 28 km away from his college -- on a shared bike. The student was stopped halfway by police, and he was asked to return to his university as he failed to show the police approval from his hometown permitting his return. As a result, he tried a path suggested by other students but again came across a police officer stationed at an intersection. Thankfully, the officer was dozing, so the student could quietly sneak by.

Despite all the horror stories, Zhang's departure was "surprisingly smooth." She was collected by a taxi in the morning and, apart from being stopped at one checkpoint, made it to the train station. After so many complications, Zhang felt lucky she had made it out.

Zhang, who had hoped to find a job in Shanghai after growing deeply fond of the metropolis, has started a new life in Guangzhou. "I feel like a scumbag," she said, "who finally had the strength to exit my relationship with my abusive partner, who had repeatedly beaten me."

Supply chain torment

Shanghai and its surrounding areas are key to the world's tech supply chain. Taking Apple suppliers alone, more than half of the world's top 200 have manufacturing facilities in the region, according to a Nikkei Asia analysis. Shanghai not only hosts the most important production site for MacBooks but also a significant iPhone manufacturing base.

The city holds a Tesla Gigafactory and has evolved into an ecosystem for a range of vital electronic components used by global tech giants such as Dell and HP, from chip manufacturing and assembly to printed circuit boards, acoustic parts and power components.

An aerial view of the Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory. Tesla is one of many tech companies that rely on Greater Shanghai as a base for key parts.   © Getty Images

"The supply chain is obviously also impacted [by the lockdown]," Jensen Huang, CEO and founder of U.S.-based tech company Nvidia, told Nikkei and other media outlets in a recent interview. "In the case of China, the lockdowns affect people's ability to manufacture, and so that affects the supply chain, which overlaid on top of an existing supply chain disruption is quite extraordinary."

China's status as a supply chain hub is being severely tested by Beijing's zero-COVID policy. The management and well-being of tens of thousands of workers isolated in one place became a great challenge for many suppliers during the strict lockdowns in the Greater Shanghai area, which includes the nearby cities of Kunshan and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and is one of the world's biggest electronics manufacturing hubs.

Tony Tseng, an Apple supply executive who asked to speak under a pseudonym, told Nikkei: "The most terrifying thing about this omicron wave isn't the virus but the fearsome atmosphere spreading among our employees and workers." Tseng's factory in Shanghai, which houses more than 25,000 workers, went under lockdown in early April. More than 40 employees showed signs of mental disorder. He added that one of his workers even started to claim he was Xi Jinping, breaking equipment in the factory and becoming aggressive toward nurses.

The mandatory COVID tests arranged by local authorities were another mental and physical challenge. "We had more than 50% of employees being sent to [city-run quarantine camps] during the lockdown," Tseng said. "Some of them even entered the facility twice. It was an extremely traumatic experience."

The supply executive added that since Shanghai reopened several of his colleagues have requested therapy.

Maintaining food supplies for tens of thousands of people was another headache. "There were times it was so close that our daily hot meals were almost being cut off due to the delayed delivery," Tseng said. "We arranged big packs of snacks like bread, cakes, long-life milk, instant noodles and canned food to make sure everyone did not starve.

Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district became a ghost town during the lockdown imposed in April and May. Only government workers in protective suits were seen in the district's usually busy streets.    © Reuters

"Restart[ing] production is not our No. 1 priority now, the mental health of our employees is. ... We have to take care of them, and the bottom line is that we can't have anyone die because of this pressure.

"The costs of employee meals are three times higher than before the lockdown, and every day we have an average of 300 workers resigning since the lockdown was lifted, which I could totally relate to. In terms of production output, the entire April-to-June quarter was basically in vain."

An executive from another Apple supplier, whose facility in Shanghai employs around 10,000 workers, told Nikkei that about 10% of their staff who did not live in on-site dorms were prohibited from leaving the factory grounds when the lockdown was announced without warning; they were not allowed to go home to prepare or collect personal belongings.

According to the executive, many believed the surprise lockdown would only last a few days. Workers who were not allowed to go home were forced to stay overnight in the factory: "[Employees] had to sleep on the hard floor of the plant ... That's really not something normal people could take," he said, adding that supplies such as towels and blankets were severely limited.

Shanghai's lockdown was part of President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy, which aims to keep case numbers in China low by imposing harsh, concentrated lockdowns on areas with high numbers of infections.   © Getty Images

"If you complain about all the inconvenience to the authorities, things could become even worse," the executive told Nikkei. "You have to be careful or the officials might roll out even tougher rules and reviews against your plant."

The suppliers that Nikkei talked to all said they have geared up their production diversification plans under requests from their clients because of recent lockdowns in Greater Shanghai.

Said Tseng: "Diversification is a long-term solution but it cannot solve the problems we are facing at the moment. We are pretty sure the lockdowns will happen again somewhere. ... It's a supply chain disruption that the entire industry has to face together."

Documenting the devastation

Given the restrictions on water, food, mobility and medical attention, not to mention the overzealous implementation by local officials, it was not surprising that the policies led to many preventable deaths. Judging by social media posts that could not be verified, the two most common causes were being denied needed medical attention and suicide.

On April 14, after seeing news that a local nurse, Zhou Shengni, had died after being refused treatment for asthma at her own hospital, a Shanghai startup executive began to compile a list of deaths due to restrictions since the lockdown. He gave his name as Mr. Wang and said he was shocked into action by Zhou's story.

Many hospitals in Shanghai would only allow patients to enter if they could show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.    © AP

Wang's list was mainly based on social media reports. Although he didn't verify each post himself, Wang marked all the key information in each post, including ages and addresses.

The list spread like wildfire after Wang posted it on his WeChat account. Within five hours, the post had gained nearly 3 million views. About 10 people messaged Wang, saying their relatives or friends had also died due to the coronavirus restrictions in Shanghai.

Like many viral posts on Chinese social media, the list was censored by WeChat after five hours. Wang estimates that the post would have received more than 10 million views had it not been censored, as people were reposting it and noting their strong dissatisfaction with the inhumane restrictions.

After the list was censored, some unknown social media user uploaded the list to a cloud spreadsheet collaboration platform so that anyone with the link could contribute. The list is incomplete but so far contains evidence of more than 200 non-COVID deaths in Shanghai, mostly due to the draconian controls.

The names on Wang's list are not included in Shanghai's official number of 588 COVID-related deaths since the lockdown.

In the list Wang started, names include Qian Wenxiong, a health official who died by suicide, Chen Shunping, a musician who killed himself after being refused admission by two hospitals over acute abdominal pain and an unnamed 67-year-old man who died over no access to hemodialysis after being locked in at home for days.

One day after the non-COVID death list was censored, Wang received two calls from someone claiming to be a police officer. The man asked Wang if the list was compiled by him and whether he had started the cloud spreadsheet, too.

Makeshift barricades were erected throughout Shanghai to control movements in and out of residential areas.    © Getty Images

Wang admitted to making the initial list on WeChat but denied having anything to do with the cloud spreadsheet. "I don't know who made that spreadsheet," he told Nikkei, "but I am happy that somebody did it and took the torch from me."

As of publication, Wang remains safe, but he says the true death toll from the lockdown may never be known. "It is really hard for civil society to get an accurate death toll due to COVID restrictions, unless the authorities release it, or we have to check with each hospital, which is very difficult too," he said.

Pointing the finger

The apparent failures of the lockdown have made China's zero-COVID policy the target of unprecedented public anger. There was a smattering of short-lived protests: Residents took to banging pans and shouting from the windows of their homes to protest the government's inadequate food allocations. Someone also produced banners printed with the list initiated by Wang, along with slogans such as "Oppose Infinite Lockdown" and "People Are Dying." The banners were swiftly taken down.

Powerful decision-makers so far have avoided blame. Instead, lower-level officials have been scapegoated. At least 50 low-ranking officials at the district and county levels have been relieved of their duties, according to the website of the city's Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party's internal police. They were punished for various offences, including delivering expired food, for local virus outbreaks, and even one case where five officials in Putuo District were fired following a blunder at a state-run nursing home where a conscious resident was mistakenly sent to a funeral parlor.

Shanghai residents said that they blame excesses on the overzealous interpretation of rules by local officials. "At the end of the day people are not afraid of the virus, people are afraid of these strange policies, authorities and government. People are afraid of being caught with the virus, but not because the virus will kill them. If you contract Covid, that means your family, your neighbors and even the whole building need to be quarantined again," Keith Yao, a longtime Shanghai resident and a director of an exhibition business, said.

Neither vice premier Sun nor Secretary Li, the city's top official who was widely seen as a contender for higher office in Beijing, have accepted any responsibility for the outbreak, or the chaos caused by the lockdown. Far from it, Li claimed victory. "Our city is fast recovering," Li told grassroot leaders on June 1, the day when the lockdown ended. "This achievement was not easy, and impossible without the continuous struggle of the grassroot comrades and the support of the city's residents at large."

Residents wearing protective masks stand behind a makeshift fence in Shanghai on June 6. There were a few protests against the restrictions, but those speaking out faced stricter restrictions or even detention.   © Reuters

However, analysts of Chinese politics say that Li and the rest of the Shanghai leadership have suffered politically from the chaos of the lockdown.

"By extension, Li's reputation as a leader has been dented," said Dali L. Yang, a professor who studies the politics of China's development and governance at the University of Chicago. "The question is by how much." Yang said the matter may affect promotion prospects for Li at the upcoming 20th Communist Party Congress later this year.

But few hold out much hope for change. "In China, if you resist, you are basically an individual against the entire regime and will likely be detained," said Deng, the former editor of the Central Party School's newspaper now living in the U.S. "And organizing others to resist can be even more costly. Especially during an epidemic, any protest needs to be organized online, which is impossible as internet surveillance is ubiquitous in China."

The closest thing to a public apology came on April 9 when the deputy mayor acknowledged the government's constraints but steered clear of blaming the zero-tolerance policy.

"A lot of our work has not been enough, and there's still a big gap from everyone's expectations," Zong Ming, deputy mayor of Shanghai, said. "We will do our best to improve."

Additional reporting by Marrian Zhou in New York.

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