More than 26 million people have been banned from leaving their homes in Shanghai since Friday. Mass incarceration reminiscent of the one organized in Wuhan at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic. A French expat present on the spot testified against France 24.
The streets are almost deserted. “There are only a few police cars and vans left,” says France 24 Éric*, a French expatriate in Shanghai, who has been in his apartment since Friday 1.er April.
This weekend, Shanghai, one of China’s most important economic lungs, extended the ban on leaving their homes to all of its 26 million residents. This includes the Xuhui district, which is west of the Huangpu River and where Eric lives. Previously, only half of the city east of this stream was affectedsince March 28, these measures prevent the spread of the Omicron strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
First containment in Shanghai
Since the first attempt in spring 2020 to eradicate Covid-19 in Wuhan, the city where the virus was first diagnosed, China had not had to take such drastic containment measures.
The images of soldiers called in as reinforcements to enforce containment measures, of hundreds of volunteers dressed in medical suits passing PCR tests on the chain, also evoke these early days of the fight against Covid-19 in China.
Viewed from the West, where the impression of an end to the pandemic as countries begin to sink in release the sanitary pressure one by onethese shots are mainly a reminder that the virus continues to circulate.
More than 13,000 new cases of infection were registered in China on Sunday, April 3. An incidence that may seem ridiculous compared to certain European countries such as France, experiencing nearly 130,000 new cases per day† But for Beijing, boasting that it has successfully implemented a ‘zero Covid’ policy – eradicating the virus rather than controlling its spread – this is far too much.
Of the total infections in China, more than 8,000 have been registered in Shanghai. Another bad news for the Chinese government, because until now “the city has been an exception after going through the pandemic without being affected by specific traffic restriction measures,” recalls Éric.
The authorities had succeeded in implementing a policy to eradicate centers of infection, which had so far proved highly effective. Once a case of contamination was identified, authorities quarantined the entire home where the patient lived. And in Shanghai, “a home can be the size of a small city in France,” says Éric, who lives in a home of about 4,000 people.
Group purchases on the internet
But the Omicron variant got the upper hand of this device. Health authorities admitted on Sunday, March 27, that they had been overwhelmed by this mutation of the virus, much more contagious than the original strain of Sars-CoV-2.
The first solution had been to first restrict the eastern part of the city and then, five days later, lift the restrictions there and impose them on the western part. It was a way for local authorities to try to minimize the economic impact of this strict incarceration. Shanghai is not only the financial center of China – the stock exchange is the second largest after Hong Kong – but its port is also the largest in the world. Himself, it accounts for nearly 20% of all China’s imports and exports†
But this plan did not go smoothly. The spread of the virus could not be stopped east of the Huangpu River late last week, forcing authorities to opt for a costly total closure of the city.
For the population, “the feeling of uncertainty about the evolution of the situation predominates”, confirms Éric. Shanghai residents have robbed shop shelves just in case… and “some food delivery applications have stopped working due to a lack of produce,” admits the French expat.
At his home, “we’ve made group purchases on applications that still work,” he says. A team of volunteers then goes downstairs to collect the food and is responsible for distributing the food to all residents.
This mutual assistance for group purchases is not unique to Éric’s home. It has also led to abuses in certain neighborhoods, especially the most upscale, where residents have literally robbed the stocks of food delivery services, emphasizes the Financial Times†
Solidarity is not limited to races. Some applications, such as the WeChat messaging service, have enabled city dwellers to remedy some of the shortcomings of the authorities.
This has happened in particular for the medical services. “We have failed to provide sufficient guarantees for the well-being of everyone,” said Ma Chunlei, secretary general of Shanghai local government, on Thursday, March 31. For example, a way of acknowledging that the population did not know which hospitals or clinics continued to receive patients during this period of incarceration, tells the South China Morning Post†
Very quickly, a group of medical students compiled lists, updated in near real time, of availability in the various institutions for those who have health problems that require them to travel to a hospital despite incarceration. “WeChat has become an essential tool, if only to stay well informed,” admits Éric.
But these private initiatives cannot solve all the problems caused by this incarceration of 26 million people and the multiplication of infections. So the government had to convert public buildings into emergency shelters. This is how the city’s two gigantic exhibition centers are now being used to house some people who tested positive†
The city’s health authorities have also been heavily criticized for deciding to separate children who test positive from their parents, Reuters points out. Photos of crying children in medical centers — the authenticity of which is disputed by authorities in Shanghai — have circulated widely on Chinese social networks such as Weibo.
These photos were quickly censored. But health authorities have confirmed that a family segregation policy exists. “If one of the parents is also infected, he can accompany the child and take care of him” in a special place “where they will be treated,” said Wu Qianyu, a municipal health service official. But “if the family members do not meet the conditions for support”, ie are not infected themselves, the children will be separated from their parents, she emphasized to the press.
The existence of these controversial measures and the reaction of internet users show that the price to be paid for the “zero Covid” policy is high. Especially to deal with a variant as contagious as Omicron.
† The first name has been changed.