Since Friday, more than 26 million people have been banned from leaving their homes in Shanghai. Mass confinement reminiscent of the one organized in Wuhan at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic. A French expat present at the scene testified to France 24.
The streets are almost deserted. “There are only a few police cars and delivery trucks left in circulation”, tells France 24 Éric *, a French expatriate in Shanghai, confined to his apartment since Friday 1is April.
Shanghai, one of China’s main economic lungs, extended the ban on leaving home to all its 26 million inhabitants this weekend. Even in the Xuhui district, which is west of the Huangpu River and where Eric lives. Previously, only half of the city east of this creek was affectedsince March 28, for these measures to combat the spread of the Omicron strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
First contention in Shanghai
China had not had to take containment measures of such magnitude since the initial effort in the spring of 2020 to eradicate Covid-19 from Wuhan, the city where the virus was first identified.
Images of soldiers called in as reinforcements to enforce confinement 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.
Seen from the West, where the impression of the end of the pandemic begins to sink in as countries release sanitary pressure one after anotherthese shots are above all a reminder that the virus is still circulating.
In China, more than 13,000 new cases of contamination were registered on Sunday, April 3. An incidence that may seem ridiculous compared to some European countries such as France, experiencing almost 130,000 new cases a day. But for Beijing, which prides itself on having successfully implemented a “zero covid” policy (eradicating the virus instead of controlling its spread), this is too much.
Of the total contaminations in China, more than 8,000 have been registered in Shanghai. Another bad news for the Chinese government because until now, “the city had been an exception after going through the pandemic without having been hit with any specific traffic restriction measures”, recalls Éric.
The authorities had managed to apply a policy of eradication of sources of infection that had been very effective until then. As soon as a case of contamination was identified, the authorities quarantined the entire residence where the patient lived. And in Shanghai, “a residence can be the size of a small town in France”, specifies Éric, who lives in a residence of about 4,000 inhabitants.
Group purchases on the Internet
But the Omicron variant outperformed this device. The health authorities recognized, on Sunday, March 27, that they had been overcome by this mutation of the virus, much more contagious than the original strain of Sars-CoV-2.
The initial solution had been to first lock down 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 the local authorities to try to minimize the economic impact of this strict confinement. Shanghai is not only China’s financial center (its stock market is the second largest after Hong Kong), but its port is also the largest in the world. Only, accounts for nearly 20% of all China’s imports and exports.
But this plan did not go well. The spread of the virus could not be stopped east of the Huangpu River late last week, forcing authorities to opt for a costly full lockdown of the city.
For the population, “it is above all the feeling of uncertainty about the evolution of the situation that predominates”, says Éric. Shanghainese have robbed store shelves just in case… and “some of the food delivery apps are no longer working, due to lack of products,” admits the French expat.
At his residence, “we used to do group purchases on apps that still work,” he says. Next, a team of volunteers goes down to collect the food and is in charge of distributing the food to all the inhabitants.
This mutual assistance for group purchases is not exclusive to Éric’s residence. It has also given rise to abuses in certain neighbourhoods, especially in the most luxurious ones, where neighbors have literally stolen the stock of food delivery services, highlights the Financial Times.
Solidarity is not limited to racing. Some applications, such as the WeChat messaging service, have enabled city dwellers to overcome some of the shortcomings of the authorities.
This is particularly what happened with medical services. “We have not managed to offer sufficient guarantees for the well-being of all,” lamented Ma Chunlei, secretary general of the local government of Shanghai, on Thursday, March 31. One way of recognizing that the population did not know, for example, which hospitals or clinics were still receiving patients during this period of confinement, tells the South China Morning Post.
Very quickly, a group of medical students drew up lists, updated almost in real time, of availability in the different establishments for those who have health emergencies that force them to travel to a hospital despite confinement. “WeChat has become an essential tool, if only to be duly informed”, admits Éric.
But these private initiatives cannot solve all the problems caused by this confinement of 26 million people and the multiplication of contamination. Therefore, the authorities had to transform public buildings into emergency reception centers. This is how the city’s two gigantic fairgrounds are now used to house some of the 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, notes Reuters. Photos of crying children in medical facilities, whose authenticity is questioned by Shanghai authorities, have been widely circulated on Chinese social media such as Weibo.
These images were quickly censored. But health authorities have confirmed that there is a family separation policy. “If one of the parents is also infected, she can accompany the child and take care of him” at a dedicated place “where they will be treated,” said Wu Qianyu, an official with the municipal health services. But “if the members of the family do not meet the maintenance conditions”, that is, they are not contaminated, the children will be separated from their parents, he stressed to the press.
The existence of these controversial measures and the reaction of Internet users show that the price to pay for the “zero covid” policy is high. Especially to deal with a variant as contagious as Omicron.
* The first name has been changed.