The 300,000 residents of Beicai community, at the centre of the outbreak in central Shanghai, were especially hard hit.
When Shanghai, a city of 25 million, hit the pause button on March 18, the city descended into an eerie quiet. The usually bustling city emptied as residents were confined to their homes.
The 300,000 residents of Beicai Town, a group of nine villages across 23 sq kms, in central Shanghai, were especially hard hit. They remain under COVID controls as parts of the city slowly begin to reemerge with some public transport lines and shopping malls reopening. On Monday, Shanghai government officials announced some COVID restrictions on businesses in the city centre would be relaxed from Wednesday.
Forced to self-isolate for more than two months, Beicai residents have experienced delayed food supplies, a strained medical environment and suffered serious mental and emotional stress, leaving them feeling nervous, hungry and helpless.
In the week after the initial lockdown, Beicai residents were optimistic, confident that the lockdown could be lifted within the next 14 days. However, with the rapid increase in confirmed patients, the day of lifting the ban was delayed for two weeks and then continuously extended. With the extensions, came anxiety. Moreover, due to the sudden blockade, people had been unprepared in their supplies of food and daily necessities.
On social media such as Weibo, WeChat, and TikTok, Beicei residents were seen asking for help because they did not have enough to eat and trying to organise takeaway orders or purchases of items in groups of 50 more people.
Residents would go to sleep anxiously after doing an inventory of their refrigerators every night. They would wake at 5:30 every morning to try to buy food via the community's application forms, and then they would anxiously check the pandemic data released by the government. The day's routine included daily nucleic acid testing, snapping up any available food, swearing and asking for help. This was repeated every day for the people of Beicai.
After 14 days of lockdown, residents' anger was gradually ignited by the government's unfulfilled promise of food supplies.
Jen*, an English elementary school teacher, who lives in Beicai, recalled "intense conflict broke out in our community". Residents in her community gathered at the gate of the community to protest and clashed with the police, saying: “It's enough! We need food!” The lack of basic food security, the isolation at home and the inability to earn an income triggered the protest. After mediation by the police was ineffective, the leader of the community was taken away and they were promised food would be distributed as soon as possible.
The next day, food to this community was prioritised. "After the protest, our community was given four opportunities to distribute materials. Except for some individuals who need to buy with money, the supply of vegetables and ham is sufficient,” Jen said. By contrast, the supply situation of other more "quiet and obedient" communities was not as positive.
Electric horn call to testing
Every day, over the course of the months'-long lockdown, Secretary Wang*, wearing a large white protective suit, pushed his brightly-coloured electric bicycle with an electric horn, through the Beicai community, giving out information on the ongoing rounds of nucleic acid testing.
"Currently Shanghai, especially the Pudong, is facing a huge challenge, and the Beicai area has been blocked for a long time. Due to the shortage of volunteers, in addition to conveying the tasks of superior leaders, I spend most of my time in the role of volunteer," said Wang in April. He asked that his name be changed so he could speak openly on the sensitive issue.
"In order to avoid residents' contact and facilitate everyone's testing, our testing points are all mobile, one building after another." When Wang spoke, the residents of a building not far away had just completed the test. Several volunteers lifted the table, took the medical testing equipment, and quickly walked to the next building with the medical staff. "We have carried out extensive screening these days," he said: "There are two doctors and nurses who came from Suzhou. I am really grateful to them!"
By early April, Shanghai had recorded more than 73,000 cases since the outbreak began in March and authorities were conducting up to 4 million tests per day.
"I have to supervise my community every day. The results of self-testing antigen screening in the community, counting the number of people tested, etc. In order to check so many people, it is normal to be busy until the middle of the night," Wang said of his work during the lockdown.
In one incident, reported by the BBC, the Beicai government received a notice from the higher-level government that a whole village needed to be relocated overnight as part of the anti-COVID drive. This would then allow the government to dispatch a disinfection vehicle to conduct a comprehensive sterilisation of the village. Pets were not in the evacuation operation, so many villagers sincerely asked the government not to harm the pets they had left behind.
Wang, speaking at the height of the infections in April, explained how the disinfecting of communities worked. "The entrance and exit of the village have been blocked by high cement walls, and this treatment is carried out at almost every village entrance," he said.
"However, due to the continuous increase in the number of infected people, the living environment of the villagers has been polluted uncontrollably. Anti-epidemic measures such as self-isolation at home and going to FangCang isolation (residents who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were treated at local gymnasiums ) are no longer effective."
For the residents of Beicai who could not leave their homes, the challenge was how to ensure they could buy daily necessities. “Some of the markets are completely disinfected and used as temporary warehouses for supermarkets, storing goods for the residents. Residents of Beicai will receive special supplies to ensure their livelihood,” Wang said.
At that time, the unblocking of Beicai was still a long way off. The sound of Secretary Wang holding an electric horn and calling the residents of the community to come downstairs and line up for nucleic acid testing was part of the daily ritual of life under lockdown. His voice only fell silent when he had the misfortune of catching COVID-19 himself.
The hunt for insulin
Beicai resident and teacher Jen* is a diabetic, who buys insulin every month. Due to the pandemic lockdown, her supplies were seriously depleted. "As a Type 1 diabetic, the state stipulates that you can only get the dose of this month's medicine each time, and you can only get the medicine for the next month at the pharmacy next time. After a week of isolation, I ran out of medicine on Saturday," Jen said.
"Shanghai is very strict with the monitoring of medicines. Insulin can only be obtained from Public Grade A hospitals. So, I applied to the community-management committee for medicine on Saturday night," she recalled.
On Sunday, the committee directed her to contact the official website of the hospital with insulin reserves to apply for medicine online. Jen went to the hospital's official website to inquire online. The doctor said that it was not allowed to apply for insulin online, and she had to go to the hospital to get the medicine herself. Next, the community management committee asked nearby clinics but the answer was that they did not sell insulin.
In the end, there was only one way left. The committee applied for a vehicle pass, giving Jen permission to leave the locked down community and drive to the hospital to get her insulin. To do so, she needed to carry a nucleic acid certificate report less than 48 hours old.
The drive to the hospital required further on-road testing. On passing through a tunnel, she underwent a nucleic acid test at the entrance and again at the tunnel's exit. When she finally arrived at the hospital, the number of people waiting to collect medicines was far greater than usual. Small-scale clinics were closed, so patients could access doctors and medicines at the public hospitals.
Light at the end of the tunnel
At the height of the outbreak, Secretary Wang was asked how long Beicai would be quarantined, when could residents hope to move freely around their city again. "The exact date is still unclear," he said, with some hesitation in his voice. "It will probably wait until there are no positive cases."
In late May, Shanghai announced it had reached zero-COVID and was beginning a staged emergence from citywide lockdown by June 1. Since then new infections have been reported.
In Beicai, while the lockdown continues, residents are embracing a "cold spring". They believe the "cold winter" of this COVID Omicron wave has passed, so, by comparison, this "cold spring" is not terrible. Even if they do not yet have a clear date, they look forward to a future where they can once again go out and enjoy a big meal with friends and family.