People in Shanghai are protesting the city’s long COVID lockdowns that have trapped some at work and caused avoidable deaths

April 1, 2022, 11:14 AM UTC

Frustrations in Shanghai may be boiling over as the city battles one of China’s worst COVID outbreaks to date, leaving millions of residents on indefinite lockdown, with some people trapped inside since early March.

Shanghai reported 6,000 COVID cases on Wednesday, making up most of the 8,655 cases recorded across the country, and the city has recorded over 20,000 COVID cases since March 1—more than the city had reported in the two years prior.

The financial hub originally tried to use targeted lockdowns to control its outbreak, forcing individual building compounds into lockdown if a resident tested positive, but allowing the rest of the city to roam free. As late as March 26, Shanghai officials said they were not going to close the city completely, owing to its importance to China’s economy.

But, last Sunday, officials U-turned and announced a 10-day citywide lockdown. For some city residents, that latest lockdown has proved too much.

Videos circulated on China’s WeChat messaging platform this week showed residents of one Shanghai housing compound staging a public protest against the city’s lockdown measures, chanting slogans like  “We want to eat” and “We want freedom” in the building’s courtyard.

The residents have reportedly been locked down since March 10 and have undergone at least 10 rounds of COVID testing. Bloomberg reports WeChat removed two of the protest videos but left one where residents aren’t chanting. Yet the censored videos are just one example of the frustration and harm caused by Shanghai’s disruptive lockdown scheme.

The South China Morning Post reports that a cleaner at a residential compound slept in the compound’s public toilets for four days after the building where she worked was locked down on March 17 and she was unable to return home.

Chinese social media users also expressed outcry over a March 29 Weibo post claiming a 77-year-old Shanghai man with kidney failure died after hospital staff refused to perform dialysis because the man had COVID. The same week a Shanghai woman reportedly died from an asthma attack after rushing to a hospital only to find the emergency room had been closed for disinfection, in accordance with the city’s COVID policies.

Shanghai’s outbreak—and the city’s management of it—is one of the biggest tests of China’s COVID-zero approach, which uses tough controls like lockdowns and mass testing to aggressively control budding outbreaks. While China had successfully suppressed COVID outbreaks in early 2022 through this approach, surging cases in Shanghai and elsewhere may finally be the “tipping point” for a change in strategy.

China’s current COVID outbreak may put a damper on the country’s economic growth, with French investment bank Natixis predicting that lockdowns and other restrictions may shave 1.8 percentage points off national GDP growth in the first quarter of 2022.

Shanghai’s lockdown could severely dent one of China’s most important financial and manufacturing centers, too, as factories and offices close down. Tesla, for example, announced Thursday that it was extending the closure of its Shanghai factory until at least April 2, after originally suggesting it might restart production by Friday. 

On Thursday, Ma Chunlei, the secretary general for Shanghai’s government, apologized for “inadequate guarantees for people’s livelihoods in sealed-off areas.”

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