China’s Covid lockdown nightmare: hunger and anger in Shanghai – 71Bait

“Will run out in a few days if no government spending soon,” he wrote to me on Thursday.

Then, as if anticipating my inevitable concern, he added, “Have some more rice and crackers — and lots of coffee.”

Even during the darkest days of Mao’s China, my parents—born and raised in Shanghai—reminded me that unlike many in the countryside, they were fortunate not to fear starvation.

Now, as lockdown measures become ever more draconian, a once almost unthinkable issue has touched residents of the city and beyond more than anything else: people starving in Shanghai in 2022.
By the authorities’ own admission, the food shortage was a largely man-made disaster due to a lack of planning and coordination.

Despite official pledges, government donations have been unreliable in many parts of the city, including my father’s condominium complex in northeast Shanghai, which is filled with retirees like him. The elderly, due to their relatively low demand and lack of tech-savvy, had largely failed to secure supplies through bulk online shopping, practically the only way to buy anything in Shanghai at the moment.

I wanted to help, but never thought that shopping for groceries online would be such an emotional roller coaster.

Armed with a membership in a retail warehouse club – which presumably allowed me to face less stiff competition than those using a general online grocer – I quickly realized that snagging one of the coveted delivery dates that were daily was impossible at 9 p.m., even if groceries are still available on the virtual shelves.

For days, the retailer’s app just crashed every night – only to come back online a few hours later with the glaring message “No more delivery dates for the day”.

As frustration and fear built, my hope dwindled along with my father’s supplies. On the second day of my unsuccessful attempts, a friend referred me to a “boutique” online retailer who was still offering a grocery package with next-day delivery dates. Delighted to find out she was right, I immediately ordered for my father.

However, when I shared the good news in the online family group chat, uncles and aunts — all of whom faced their own food shortages to varying degrees — jumped in and expressed their shock that I willingly paid 398 yuan ($62) for five kilograms had paid for vegetables and 60 eggs.

“Road Robbery!” exclaimed an uncle, while an aunt stressed that the price was more than four times what she would normally pay for the same amount of groceries at the market.

“But these are boutique eggs,” my dad said dryly.

I was relieved that my father’s fridge was stocked on time, but hearing comments from relatives made me feel a sense of “survival guilt”: what about the countless residents who can’t afford expensive groceries?

Workers in hazmat suits transport daily food supplies and necessities for local residents during the Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai.

An indefinite lockdown

Literal survival was not a concern for most of Shanghai’s 25 million residents prior to April.

In the past two years, the city had cemented its status as the main international gateway to China – both for people and goods. It prided itself on its more focused and lenient approach to containing Covid, despite Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy.

As Shanghai eschews citywide mass testing and implements less restrictive quarantine rules, it once looked like a potential role model for the whole country, as the rest of the world had largely opted to live with Covid, with a focus on vaccination.

Then came Omicron, with the highly contagious strain of Covid that government statistics say has swept through the city since March, infecting more than 390,000 residents.

After repeated denials that the city was on lockdown – with police even announcing an investigation into alleged online rumor-mongers – Shanghai authorities abruptly changed course in late March and locked down the entire metropolis in early April.

The government initially billed it as a four-day “temporary pause” – claiming it would immediately test the entire population, isolate positive cases and then reopen the city. As a result, many residents never bothered to stock up.

Despite widespread pre-lockdown panic buying, my father was among the unfazed. A retired electrical engineer who enjoys travelling, photography and coffee, he had recently strained his back muscles – and wasn’t going anywhere anyway.

Still, his house arrest turned out to be far longer – and more precarious – than he ever imagined.

With tens of thousands of new infections being reported every day, the government has further extended the lockdown and ordered any shared accommodation with a single new positive case to be sealed for a further 14 days.

My father’s condominium complex is currently scheduled to be closed until May 2nd. But even that date remains uncertain as authorities continue to retest residents, meaning the lockdown clock could be reset at any time.

For once, millions of people in Shanghai – young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative – seem united in their growing anger.

Despite censorship’s fierce efforts to erase all traces of bad news, social media users continue to tell and post heartbreaking stories, increasingly disgusted with state media’s highly choreographed images showing an orderly and effective lockdown.

Among my friends and family, almost everyone has a personal story to share about the lockdown chaos and misery: from sneaking out in the dark to swap some food with a neighbor to the harrowing experiences of a friend breaking up with him a hastily built isolation ward, leaky roofs and overflowing toilets, and the wails of an old woman next door whose children never got to see their recently deceased father one last time.

Residents take part in Covid-19 tests during a lockdown in Shanghai on Monday April 18.

Propaganda adds insult to injury

People also see Chinese propaganda czars double down, portraying Omicron as a potentially deadly threat while emphasizing that only zero Covid can save China from the deaths and chaos caused by the virus in the west.

Officials have made clear that the policy has the personal stamp of approval from the country’s strong leader Xi Jinping, who has yet to visit Shanghai – a city he once led – amid the deepening crisis. Xi is expected to begin an almost unprecedented third term later this year, paving the way for him to rule for life.

Outside of Shanghai, that message still seems to resonate with many, although debates have begun to surface and intensify. In the eerily quiet metropolis, the lockdown and resulting disaster has become a turning point for locals and expatriates alike.

China's Covid controls risk a crisis for the country - and its leader Xi Jinping

With state media headlines screaming “It’s not (the) flu!” Contrary to government statistics, which so far show only about two dozen severe cases among those infected in Shanghai, almost everyone seems to agree with the apparent absurdity that “the solution is worse than the problem” – especially when stories of deaths surface on social media related to those unable to receive medical care for non-Covid reasons due to the lockdown.

Some residents have questioned online why authorities seem more interested in attacking zero-Covid critics than convincing residents over 60 in the rapidly graying city – the most vulnerable group with a disappointing 62% vaccination rate to get the vaccination shot.

Others are reflecting on the current tragedy and contemplating their next steps.

“How did Shanghai fall like that?” was the line I’ve heard the most lately. It’s mostly a rhetorical question – the real question seems to be, “Should I stay or should I go?”

An ambulance drives through an empty street in Shanghai on April 8.

For expats, many have voted with their feet, undaunted by the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles they must jump through to simply leave their homes.

For locals, this means more soul-searching, but a growing number of Shanghainese – local or adoptive – reflecting sentiment online have told me they have decided to set foot in emigration.

Entrepreneurs and bankers alike say the brutal lockdown has shown that money means nothing in a world where anyone can instantly become collateral damage in schemes instigated by distant and unaccountable leadership.

Most people in Shanghai, especially the older generations like my father, will always call the city home. They remain focused on surviving the ongoing nightmare and try their luck with online bulk purchases.

My dad said someone in his community recently attempted to buy a coffee group – but quickly failed due to a lack of interest.

“No one seems to be in the mood for coffee right now,” he said.

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