China’s zero-Covid policy and lockdown are letting Shanghai down

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Shanghai, the bustling Chinese city of 26 million people, has been under lockdown since late March under the country’s strict “Dynamic Zero Covid” protocols, a system so poorly managed that residents often do not manage to get basic necessities such as Food, medicine and medical care, prompting fairly widespread spontaneous protests both online and in real life.

While the government has promoted the Zero Covid strategy, the government’s containment system using extensive testing and tracing, along with partial or complete lockdowns when a case is detected, has kept the number of cases and deaths low over the past two years, according to reports from Shanghai that the local government has not been ready for an outbreak in the country’s economic hub and cast doubt on the feasibility of Zero Covid at this point in the pandemic. This translates into serious suffering for the population, including hours for ambulance wait times, dwindling savings, and insufficient or spoiled food supplies, among others. Despite reports that the central government is stepping up efforts to get supplies into the city, public policy is leading many residents to criticize government policy – and Shanghai’s implementation of it – despite the serious potential risks to their safety and freedom by doing so.

“Even authoritarian governments, they still have to take this mass reaction into account, otherwise they will lose the cooperation of society. We will expect that [the central government] It will improve policy implementation, although the policy itself will not change,” Yanchong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox on Friday.

The outbreak in Shanghai is by far the most serious in China since the beginning of the epidemic; A staggering 200,000 cases have been reported since the outbreak began in March, although it is likely that fewer will be reported, according to the New York times. What started as a set of temporary lockdowns to curb the spread of the disease quickly turned into an endless citywide lockdown with people only allowed out for PCR tests, New York Magazine The piece was explained earlier this week. The Shanghai lockdown, two years after the epidemic, is rivaled only by those in Wuhan in 2020 and Xi’an at the end of last year in terms of rigor.

Shanghai residents The anger – which they have expressed through singing and chanting from their balconies and wooing the anti-American hashtags that government officials use to criticize the United States – stems from the fact that the government is not providing the stability it promises in return. Personal liberties, according to Roy Zhong, associate programs at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “I think what makes people angry in Shanghai, what makes people angry in Xi’an is that Covid has been a problem for years,” she told Vox. “I think they were really surprised by the degree to which local officials didn’t necessarily prepare, including for non-supply chain issues,” such as hospital admissions.

However, the government is asking citizens to sacrifice, without yet having the ability to guarantee access to food and medical care. On Thursday, people in the city’s Pudong district protest The building was taken over by the local government for the purposes of quarantining those who tested positive. Video footage of the incident spread to Chinese social media before it was censored, showing health authorities squabbling protesters on the ground and transporting them to a white truck, while others yelled, “Bring them back!” the video too Captured residents saying “the police are beating people”, as they tried to prevent the authorities from taking control of their building, According to NBC.

There has been a fundamental breakdown in Zero Covid policy

The Shanghai local government enjoys a degree of relative autonomy In the context of China President Xi Jinping; Technically Under the direct control of the central governmentAs a county-level city, it has a special place as the country’s financial center and a masterpiece for the rest of the world. Until March, the local government had handled the epidemic well, with no major outbreaks. But the rapid emergence of the Omicron variant and the corresponding strict government measures are pushing some citizens over the edge.

“I don’t have more money… What should I do? I don’t care anymore,” a man across his entire building shouted in a viral video on Weibo, China responded on Twitter. “Just let the Communist Party take me.”

Chung told Vox she had heard similar stories of desperation coming from Shanghai. “I was listening to a recording of an old man asking for his heart medicine for a local cadre, a local official of the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. “He was basically saying, ‘We have hundreds of these kinds of cases a day, and I understand, but I can’t do anything.’” A lot of the immediate pressure goes on at local levels — a lot of emotional conversations, like ‘I’m starving’ or ‘I’ve I just got food but the food is all spoiled’ or ‘I need medicine.’ So these are all very basic physical needs. So people are so emotional that they can’t buy them, they don’t have a schedule when they will get these necessities again.”

Wednesday’s New York Magazine from Shanghai describes neighborhoods and apartment complexes linked together via WeChat (essentially, as Zhong put it, an “operating system” that functions as a messaging platform, payment system, etc., and is ubiquitous in China) with volunteers applying as The government has failed — regulating bulk grocery orders for their premises, helping with Covid-19 tests, regulating medical care for those in need. Shanghai’s Covid-19 response system relied on volunteer efforts throughout the epidemic, to support data collection, contact tracing, and elderly care; Successful in the days before the disease’s incredibly deadly strain emerged, it began ripping through densely populated areas. This, along with Less effective vaccines And Low overall vaccination rates Because of government policy on Covid-19, in particular among the elderlyto protect against the virus, was more than Zero Covid could handle.

Many Shanghai residents blame local government officials for mishandling the crisis, coordination problems, and a lack of contingency planning, these issues. “That may be true,” Huang said. “But it is interesting how, within a month, Shanghai has deteriorated from the image of a child of epidemic control to a pariah from the Covid response.”


Health workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) cross a checkpoint during the coronavirus lockdown in the Jing’an District of Shanghai on April 16, 2022.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Although local bureaucrats have borne the brunt of people’s frustration, Zhong and Huang told Vox, they may not necessarily be responsible for the current crisis. “I think in Shanghai, if you measure the country’s capacity in terms of financial capacity, in terms of the quality of bureaucratic officials, and the capabilities of local government officials, I think it is still relatively high,” Huang said. “I think the core issue remains the Zero Covid strategy itself.”

It’s easy, to some extent, and logically, to blame supply chain stress – a global problem throughout the pandemic – for lack of access to food and medicine, but it doesn’t work the same way when the problem is getting an ambulance to come to address an emergency, Or get a hospital bed. “The problem is not a lack of capacity, but the aggressive pursuit of Zero Covid,” Huang told Vox.

According to Zhong, “I think what makes some of the protests in Shanghai special is that grievances are not new.” She told Vox that previous lockdowns in Wuhan and Xi’an have produced some of the same effects, albeit on a smaller scale. “You had these gaps in the care, the services for people, so make sure everyone gets their prescribed medication, make sure the food supply lines are okay, make sure people who need to go to the hospital in a non-Covid emergency have options. Some of these problems date back to Wuhan in 2020.”

The protests are getting attention – but will they make a difference?

Both Zhong and Huang told Vox that the protests against Shanghai’s lockdown – in person and online – were spontaneous rather than an organized effort. “In terms of protests, anything that is really organized, centralized, or has some kind of clear leader or group, is really difficult to organize in China because anyone who appears to be a protest leader, basically maps out a target in terms of what is known implied in mainland China,” Zhong said. That something, even to the point of the 2014 or 2019 Hong Kong protests, is really difficult to achieve because of the swift law enforcement responses.”

As the authorities’ response to Thursday’s protest shows, law enforcement and the government’s response to dissent is already swift; Whether it’s mixing screaming protesters in white trucks, banning hashtags, or censoring videos, the Chinese government has little appetite for dissent.

“When people use social media, it is not the first resort that people want, because social media is easy to identify and people don’t want their accounts closed,” Zhong noted. However, there are efforts online to use the government’s own online tools against them, she told Vox: “People are doing really unconventional things, like using the hashtags that state government usually uses to express how bad America is — except to complain about Shanghai.”

Social media also serves as an important form of record keeping, which is important in a country known for repressive censorship. Zhong said so-called online “lockdown notes” have been part of the Chinese public’s response to Covid-19 and the government’s containment policy from the start. It’s a form of record keeping for people to say, “This is what happened. This is what happened to my mom and my grandmother. Or, ‘This official was so stressed and so pressured that he committed suicide,'” she said.

As for whether this outbreak of despair and dissatisfaction could foreshadow further ongoing protests, Zhong is cautious; It’s too soon to know what impact the Shanghai protests will have on the future of the city, Zero Covid policy, or the nation. But it does open a window for criticism of politics, Huang noted.

“There are already more than 44 cities that have been under full or partial lockdown, and many others have started mass PCR testing that is imposing restrictions on people’s movements. It is fair to say that a large percentage of the population has been affected by this policy. That criticism is prompting,” Huang said. The government at least to improve the delivery of basic goods and services, even if to ensure stability and quiet opposition.

But in the end, although experts inside and outside the government – as well as the citizens of China – say Zero Covid policy no longer works in a very different pandemic landscape, adjustments and concessions from the government will not change the underlying policy. It is very linked to the “superiority of the Chinese model,” Huang said. “It’s certainly a strong incentive to continue that success, because failure will mean that you basically give up halfway, and all that legacy will be gone. But in the meantime, I think it’s less about legacy and politics and more about not allowing perceived failure to undermine personal leadership or the legitimacy of the system” .

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