The traditional signs of spring — blooming flowers, warmer weather, occasional showers — are ever present in the city of Shanghai; unfortunately, Shanghai’s residents are banned from seeing these hallmarks.
In early April, the Chinese government imposed far-reaching lockdown measures for Shanghai, China’s financial hub, in response to the omicron variant. These restrictions have confined each of the city’s 25 million residents to their homes indefinitely after roughly 10,000 cases were detected. Only allowed outside for routine testing, Shanghai’s citizens are forbidden from leaving their apartments, a measure that is enforced by imposing military presence in the city and a barrage of health care professionals in white hazmat suits.
Similar to China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policy at the start of the lockdown, those that tested positive for the virus (regardless of the presence of symptoms), were forcibly shipped to separate isolation facilities with questionable living conditions to quarantine alone.
The elderly and young children were not exempt from this fate, with these two vulnerable populations being removed from their homes in the middle of the night. CNN reported on the story of a mother, identified only by her surname Zhu, whose two-year-old daughter tested positive and was taken from their home to such a clinic. Zhu received little information about her daughter from authorities after her removal beyond sporadic updates that she was in ‘good health’. While Zhu’s daughter will presumably recover from the coronavirus physically, the emotional and mental scars that will remain from being severed from her mother at such a vulnerable time will take longer to heal.
Shanghai authorities have recently adopted new draconian measures in the name of achieving the ‘zero-COVID’ standard. Posts from the Chinese microblogging site Weibo showcase hazmat suit-clad officials installing 6-foot-tall green metal fencing around the buildings of those who test positive, entrapping them in their spaces as if they are caged at the zoo. CNN reporter David Culver, who is experiencing the lockdowns in Shanghai, reported that authorities sealed his door to ensure he did not leave his apartment, lest he wish to face the consequences.
These appalling conditions are only made worse when one takes into account the dire food insecurity that the citizens of Shanghai experience. Forbidden from leaving their residences, civilians are mandated to rely upon government food deliveries that seldom come and with few too groceries to survive as personal stockpiles have dwindled. Neighbors cry out to other neighbors to barter food, medication, and other necessary supplies that are needed for survival. Third party grocery deliveries are similarly stretched thin and are only available to those that pay the high premiums.
Voices of dissent are silenced swiftly by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censorship. Angry netizens take to social media platforms like Weibo only to have their comments deleted. A six-minute video titled ‘Voices of April’, which plays the cries of locals voicing their frustrations about the oppressive lockdown measures over video of empty Shanghai streets, was virally shared. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government scrubbed all traces of the video off their internet, even going as far as to restrict the word “April” from search results on Weibo.
At what point do lockdown measures such as these stop being preventative and become oppressively punitive? Is it when we remove infants and toddlers from their parents and send them away, often without basic supervision, attention, and care? Is it when we seal off people in their homes and ensure their subservience by fencing them in like dogs? Is it when we silence any voices that conflict with the party narrative on the abhorrent conditions through which everyone is suffering?
The Shanghai case questions the validity of lockdowns as an adequate response to COVID entirely. At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, before much was known about the virus, lockdowns seemed as good a strategy as any to slow the spread of COVID and learn more about the virus. But as we have seen in Shanghai and in other cases around the world, lockdowns have repeatedly been used as a vehicle by which to suppress personal freedoms and infantilize the masses through paternalistic measures of control. It implies that the CCP, and other parties that initiate lockdowns at this stage of the virus, are more concerned with coercing and exercising power over their people than preventing the spread of the virus.
The intense pressure that lockdowns places on societies has strained the mental fortitude of their citizenry. The isolation and loneliness that are inherent to lockdowns inevitably lead to a mental health crisis with affected populations. As Alex Gutentag of Compact puts it,“abandoning individual rights didn’t save society from ruin – it is how we ended up with… a social fabric even more tattered than it was before the novel coronavirus.”
And now, as we near day 780 to slow the spread, it has become clear globally that societies can and should collectively learn to live with the virus and allow individuals to determine their own personal mitigation strategies with which they are most comfortable.
Authorities in Shanghai have grossly mismanaged their city’s response to COVID-19 and oppressed their people into forced obedience, starvation, and loneliness with no end in sight. The case of Shanghai demonstrates that total or “real” lockdowns, something for which some American pundits clamored in 2020, do more to suffocate the will of the people than to improve COVID statistics. Shanghai authorities continue to allow their citizens to near the brink of starvation, to crush any dissent to these drastic policies, and, ironically, remain complacent in letting their population go without necessary medical attention. The Chinese Communist Party’s actions have been successful in convincing millions of angry Shanghainese people (and worldwide observers to this tragedy) that a government’s response to the virus is to be feared more than the virus itself.
Someday, hopefully, the people of Shanghai will be permitted to emerge from their homes and rejoice in the fruits of springtime. But so much damage has already been done. Those that survive will be forever scarred with the memories of the horrors experienced during their drawn out winter.