Shanghai has put all its 26 million residents under lockdown in China’s single-biggest city-wide imposition of the restrictions since the pandemic began as authorities admitted the difficulty in containing the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Until this week, the megacity – also China’s most populous – adopted an approach of phased lockdown. Initially, the eastern side of the Huangpu River went into lockdown between 28 March and 1 April, then the western side followed suit for another four days.
But that approach has not worked as case numbers continued to rise. On Monday, the number of new daily positive cases exceeded 10,000 for the first time. Since March, the Shanghai government said, over 73,000 positive cases have been found.
These numbers are small compared with countries such as the US and the UK, but they are some of the largest since Covid was first reported in China in late 2019.
At least 38,000 medical personnel have been deployed to Shanghai from other parts of China. State media said the operation is the biggest since the Wuhan lockdown in early 2020.
“Currently, Shanghai’s epidemic prevention and control is at the most difficult and most critical stage,” said Wu Qianyu, an official at the municipal health commission. “We must adhere to the general policy of dynamic clearance without hesitation, without wavering.”
To achieve “dynamic clearance”, the government poured its resource to test all residents in the city on Monday. About 20,000 sample collection points were set up across the city, and 50,000 medics were dispatched to help test the population, state media said.
On Monday, authorities announced further restrictions would be placed on transport links. This means more tube lines would be suspended. On Tuesday, 30 main hospitals across the city have suspended their operations, according to the Shanghai municipal health commission website.
Yet, as mainland China’s most important financial hub came to a standstill, citizens are complaining about the government’s lack of organisation and preparation. Some residents reported difficulty in ordering food and water online, while others say they were unable to access crucial medical resources when they need them.
“I’m not able to buy food. I have nothing left in my fridge. My neighbourhood has been sealed off. I don’t know what to do,” said one resident on Weibo, the social media site.
Another wrote: “Our 90-year-old has diabetes. Before the lockdown, our doctor prescribed to us some medication to use at home because all the nurses were asked to help with Covid tests. Suddenly, Pudong was shutdown, and we were unable to get the medication at all. Then we bought it online, but the delivery company was unable to send it to us because they are not delivering anything now.”
Over the last few days, mobile phone footage showing residents protest against confusing lockdown messaging and being unable to buy daily necessities has been circulating online. In one video, several residents in a housing compound shouted: “We want to eat, we want to go to work, we want to have the right to know.” The footage has been taken down by censors.
The sense of confusion, chaos and helplessness is overwhelming across a city that until recent weeks was a Covid success story. “[A] lack of communications with the public and psychological preparations still drags an effective response to the pandemic,” said Chen Xi, a public health expert at Yale school of public health.
According to China’s present protocols, those who test positive have to be quarantined in a centralised facility. But Chen said given the current situation, the authorities should allow some – for example those infected individuals with no symptoms or light symptoms – to quarantine at home, in order to free up resources.