Fences and food shortages: Inside Shanghai’s ‘draconian’ lockdown

At six o’clock in the morning there is a changing of the guard. Alarm clocks are ringing and citizens looking to feed their families are madly tapping on screens in hopes of getting a delivery location on a grocery store app. Meanwhile, netizens are battling government censors to tell the real story. In Shanghai today, resistance and survival are virtual.

What started as a four-day, two-stage lockdown in China’s biggest city is now in its fourth week as authorities battle to contain the city’s worst Covid surge yet, driven by the highly contagious variant of Omicron. There are currently more than 21,000 Covid cases among Shanghai’s 25 million people, and no clear timetable for lifting the lockdown, leaving rich and poor, locals and foreigners united in a quest for survival and information. ‘a way I haven’t seen in over a decade as a reporter in the city.

Public criticism of government policies is unusual in China, and much of it censored, but alarming stories over the past month are widely shared. There are food and medicine shortages, workers at companies such as Tesla are forced to sleep in their factories overnight to reduce transmission, and elderly people have died in the city’s cabin hospitals, described like Covid concentration camps for cramming thousands of positive cases into isolation wards with poor conditions. Officials say Omicron caused no deaths among infected Shanghai residents, but unofficial tallies show at least 172 residents died under the brutal quarantine measures, including vulnerable people whose treatments were delayed.

The measures were further tightened this weekend. In recent days, images have started to emerge of workers in white hazmat suits setting up two-metre green fences outside housing blocks designated as ‘sealed areas’ where at least one person has tested positive for Covid, to stop people leaving.

For residents like me, the announcement of this confinement came suddenly. After battling a rising wave of Omicron cases in March, the Shanghai government announced on the evening of March 27 that starting at 3 a.m. the next day, the Pudong area would be quarantined for four days. Shanghai is crossed by the Huangpu River into Pudong and Puxi, which translate to the east and west of the Huangpu. Those in Pudong had about an hour to get food before the shops closed.

April Fool’s Day marked the start of Puxi’s turn in a four-day lockdown. I had risen at 7am the night before, hunting for meager supplies and returning with a bag full of cauliflower, carrots and other vegetables, having spent nearly 100 RMB (£11) – more double the usual price, and enough to last me quite a bit over the four days. As we found out on April 1, the joke was on us – a few hours after Puxi went into lockdown at 3am, Pudong should have had its lockdown lifted, but that never happened.

For many Shanghai residents, their lockdowns began long before March 28 or April 1. Throughout March, most housing complexes were closed. I was one of the lucky ones with my resort only having a two day closure. A friend from Pudong, a retired civil servant, recently posted on WeChat (Chinese WhatsApp which also has a social feed) that he was on day 39 of his confinement and, after eleven PCR tests, still negative.

City-wide shutdowns have further increased restrictions. Suddenly, we were confined to our apartments, no longer free to roam our compounds. All transport was suspended and although delivery people were supposed to continue to operate, the confusion of the first few days meant that this did not really happen. More than ever, we have become dependent on the delivery of meals and groceries, but the system has burst under the restrictions.

AFP via Getty Images

Quickly, life under confinement became virtual. It’s very difficult to get a full picture of what’s going on in Shanghai other than snippets taken from messages shared on WeChat, Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and, for those with access to a VPN, Twitter itself. What emerges from these messages and conversations with friends is that there is growing anger, war weariness and discontent.

Shanghai, a municipality of more than 25 million people, is China’s most populous and wealthiest city, but for people today, the main concern is the hunt for food. From April 2, the government began delivering food to concessions, but the quality, quantity and frequency varied widely and the number of people in a household was not taken into account.

In three weeks, I received three documents from the government. The last one I received included rice and cooking oil, other households have recently received laundry detergent and soap – which makes us wonder how long this will all last. Government rations are not enough and largely consist of vegetables such as mooli, potatoes, cucumbers and – if you’re lucky – meat.

In the first two weeks, it was almost impossible to get a delivery slot on grocery shopping apps due to the shortage of delivery people and the demand. Getting it right required booking around 6am and quick reflexes, which meant people were dependent on government paperwork and what they managed to stock up on before the lockdown.


Compounds later found more success through bulk ordering of supplies. Over the past week, my building has secured meat, vegetables, bananas, cakes, Coke, milk tea, and Starbucks. Still, cooking a meal is like getting a mystery bag on Ready Steady Cook – everyone shares recipes and tips on what to do with the limited supplies available. That said, the food situation is much better than in the first two weeks, probably thanks to group purchases. It also looks like companies like Jingdong are now getting more delivery people and are able to handle more personal orders.

While food remains an underlying concern, the real fear lies in testing positive and being taken to a fangcang yiyuan: a square hospital with no medical treatment – merely a place to concentrate positive Covid cases in camps and isolate them from the rest of the population. Even conditions in the top quality camps are mediocre at best, with thousands of people crammed in. Elderly people are said to have died indoors after admission, although they are not counted as Covid deaths. Most of the more than 300,000 cases reported since March have ended up in such camps. A Corgi was beaten to death after following its owner on a bus taking them to a camp. Fortunately, this seems to be an isolated case, but people are worried about what will happen to their pets if they are taken away.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to visit crisis-hit Shanghai, but CCTV reports of comments he made during his military visit to Hainan said: “Perseverance is victory. . Adhere to people first, life first, adhere to imported case prevention, domestic case rebound, adhere to scientific precision, zero-COVID momentum.


People in Shanghai are quickly coming to the conclusion that zero-Covid equals zero-plan. Dissidents engage in a continual game of cat and mouse with censors winning overnight victories only to see posts deleted during the day. One of the most recently banned hashtags was the first line of the national anthem “Get Up! Those who refuse to be slaves. On Saturday, a sea of ​​content in WeChat feeds was removed and the censorship of Voices of April, a moving video featuring snippets of conversations recorded in Shanghai over the month. The video went viral on Friday and its deletion created even more anger.

Many don’t care about government threats and share posts such as a recording with Zhu Weiping, an epidemiologist working in Pudong, who said Omicron’s response was politicized rather than based on medical need. Another widely shared essay is an essay simply titled “Help” by blogger Storm Zhang, who is desperate about the food situation. WeChat streams for the past few days have been filled with the Les Miserables song “Do you hear people singing? which is quickly becoming an anthem for the situation in Shanghai.

State propaganda hit back with scenes of shoppers in a well-stocked supermarket, with netizens joking that he deserves an Oscar. Later it emerged that it had been filmed in Jinshan, a relatively spare area – the equivalent of filming in Croydon and pretending it was central London.


There are, however, some glimmers of hope. Since April 11, compounds have been classified into three categories: precaution, control and containment. Those in the precautionary category are allowed to go outside in their neighborhood and those like my complex under the controlled category allow residents to walk around the complex. While many financial companies forced their employees to sleep in their offices to stay open, 666 factories have now been given the green light to resume production using a closed-loop system. This notably includes Tesla, where the workers will have to sleep in the factory.

There’s still no definite timeline for when it will end, and people feel like they’ve been Shanghaied. On Sunday, workers began erecting fences in parts of the city, often barricading people in their homes in what is described as a hard lockdown. The internet responded with the Chinese characters for Shanghai written with a fence.

A recent survey showed that 85% of foreigners were rethinking their future in the city, with nearly half planning to leave within the next year. But it’s not just expatriates. In the past week, a well-connected and educated businessman in the UK told me about his plans to go to Singapore and a single mother who has never left China also talks about emigrating .

A woman walks past a cinema that has closed following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai

/ Reuters

Whenever (if) it ever reaches Covid-zero, Shanghai will be a changed city. We will never forget that the doors of our enclosures, while preventing others from entering, can just as easily make us prisoners.

*Ed Tucker writes under a pseudonym for security reasons

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