China tries to cover lockdown strains on Shanghai’s front-line workers

April 20, 2022 in News by RBN Staff

Source: Washington Post


Vic Chiang


A worker in protective suit rests on a street during a lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Shanghai, China, April 16, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song

The short statement issued late last week by the Health Commission bureau of Shanghai’s Hongkou district did not explain how its employee Qian Wenxiong died. It didn’t need to.

By then, news that the 55-year-old official had taken his own life in his office had already spread widely online, as had the assumption that the pressure of managing the city’s coronavirus outbreak was to blame.

The city’s 25 million residents are now entering a phased easing of lockdown after two weeks of a citywide order to stay at home to curb what has been China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since Wuhan, with the first three deaths announced Monday.

Central to the debate over how the virus is being handled is the pressure faced by volunteers and low-level officials on the front line of China’s “zero covid” effort. In addition to the news of Qian’s suicide, there have been multiple leaked resignation letters and recordings of fraught phone calls between exhausted officials and residents. But just as vigorous as the effort to control the virus has been an official campaign to counter negative news about ebbing morale among the city’s epidemic control workers.

Shanghai’s covid siege: Food shortages, talking robots, starving animals

Throughout the pandemic, China’s lockdowns have succeeded in large part because of a massive network of “neighborhood committees” responsible for enforcing restrictions on movement and ensuring everyone confined at home stayed fed, healthy and happy. In Shanghai, these individuals have come under enormous strain, caught between frustrated residents and the city’s failing logistical infrastructure.

In a recording of a telephone call posted online last week, an audibly exasperated official tells an elderly resident that he is unable to secure the medical attention he requests, saying he is waiting for a response from superiors. “What are we supposed to do?” asks the caller, eliciting a tired response: “I don’t know. There might come a day when I have to quit because I can’t cope anymore.”

After each incident, Chinese official media spring into action. The enervated officials in question are tracked down and interviewed about how they had a moment of weakness but are fully committed to the task at hand. The original story of officials “quitting” is then debunked as rumor.

Workers in protective gear sort bags of vegetables to be delivered to residents of a neighborhood in the Jing’an district of Shanghai on April 16. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest iteration of this process came over the weekend, when a letter from Yang Hai, a deputy representative to the National People’s Congress from Shanghai’s Minhang district, described how he would no longer help collect swab samples for PCR tests because he felt that no progress was being made.

“As a volunteer, we do not fear hardship and are willing to be dedicated but we already deeply doubt the meaning and value of what we are doing,” he wrote. A day later, Yang told a local state-backed news outlet that the letter was not meant for the public and was merely his opinion.

The constant positive spin in response to outpouring frustration has created more anger among residents.

Medical emergencies mount as Shanghai’s lockdown tightens

A televised gala about Shanghai’s fight against covid-19 scheduled for last Tuesday night was canceled after the city’s residents rebelled against their hardship being turned into propaganda. The announcement of the celebrity-packed variety show by state-run Dragon TV was met with disbelief online. What was there to celebrate?

On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, one influencer suggested that the famous guests could instead take part in a reality TV series where, starting at 5 a.m., they participate in an online scavenger hunt for groceries, with those who fail being knocked out.

One resident in Shanghai’s Xuhui district who asked to be known only by her surname, Chiang, to avoid backlash from authorities, said she was told by merchants that her delivery of groceries was canceled last week because an official inspection was staged in their warehouse.

“This is just bureaucratic formalism,” she said, echoing a slogan used by senior leaders to warn officials against showy displays of activity that achieve little.

Workers in protective suits disinfect an old residential area in Shanghai under lockdown on April 15. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China’s top leaders, apparently aware that a loss of morale in Shanghai could undermine their insistence on a zero-covid policy, often speak of the need for residents and officials to steel themselves against the temptation to give in.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, while on an official visit to the tropical island province of Hainan last week, urged officials to “overcome paralysis of thought, wishful thinking and a relaxed mentality” during their epidemic control work.

Since the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and most of the rest of surrounding Hubei province, was sealed off in early 2020, China has honed a formidable, if forceful, system of detection and rapid containment officially known as “dynamic clearing.”

For most of the past two years, the approach had been successful. Daily case counts rarely broke more than 200, and multiple small-scale outbreaks were contained within weeks. Strict lockdowns took place, but they mostly hit more remote locations, such as Ruili on the border with Myanmar or the high-security environment of Xinjiang, far away from the prosperous east coast, which mostly continued to operate as normal.

Shanghai has brought home how difficult it is to stick with zero covid without triggering widespread disruptions to daily lives. But that is the fine line Xi has told local officials to walk, declaring the overall policy a success that reflects the advantages of China’s political system.

Defenders of the zero-covid policy see Shanghai’s missteps as the fault of uncertainty and mismanagement. For them, the blame lies with local officials for failing to prepare or lock down quickly enough.

China reporter’s notebook: Stuck in time, as covid griefs repeat

Critics consider the problems plaguing Shanghai to be an unavoidable cost of mass lockdowns that are no longer worth it now that the virus is better understood and nearly 90 percent of China’s population is vaccinated. Officials counter, however, that relaxing policies would lead to an unsustainable surge in death.

A medical worker prepares to test residents in a neighborhood placed under lockdown in Shanghai on April 12. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

A list of deaths caused by the lockdown so far — rather than the disease — has been circulating online, however. Although details of each individual case are hard to verify, there are 140 names.

The argument for relaxing measures is propelled in part by the extremely low number of people falling severely ill during the Shanghai outbreak. Despite more than 350,000 individuals testing positive since March 1, the city only reported its first three coronavirus deaths on Monday, all of whom were unvaccinated patients between the ages of 89 and 91 with existing medical conditions.

Official policy, however, remains unswayed and zero covid is repeatedly described as the only way forward. Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that the reason other countries didn’t follow this approach is because they were simply unable — unlike China.

Other countries had no choice but to “lie down” and accept the virus, but “dynamically clearing” remains the best option for China, he said.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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