Frustration and anger among Shanghai residents as China doubles down on zero-COVID policy

In Shanghai Thursday one of the world’s most important financial hubs reported 27,000 cases of COVID, the highest single-day total reported anywhere in China at any point during the pandemic. Much of the city’s 25 million people have been under a strict lockdown for three weeks. Nick Schifrin reports on the backlash to China’s zero-COVID policy.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today, Shanghai, China's largest city, reported 27,000 new COVID cases. That is the highest single-day total reported anywhere in China at any point during the pandemic.

    Much of the city's 25 million people have been under strict lockdown for three weeks. Guangzhou, with 15 million residents, is now close to visitors.

    Nick Schifrin reports now on China's zero COVID policy that has pushed residents in Shanghai to frustration and anger.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In one of the world's richest cities, residents scream: "Give us food." Last week, they were so hungry, they ransacked a grocery store.

    In this apartment complex, a woman screams: "We are starving to death."

    But police in hazmat suits enforce the rules by any means necessary. They take a woman who didn't want to test and separate her from her husband. Just yesterday, a man tried to hide on his balcony. No match for authorities imposing one of the world's strictest lockdowns.

    And after three weeks of containment, residents are willing to confront the communist state, the anger aimed both ways. A city worker had to be restrained from attacking a resident who criticized him.

    Today, as they do every day, residents lined up for mandatory tests. And some restrictions have been eased. But much of this metropolis is still locked in silence. Everywhere you turn, yellow barricades barricade apartment buildings. Other buildings' front doors are taped, warning residents against going in or out.

    This is home for an American who asked us to keep him anonymous.

  • Man:

    Initially, it was working on buying egg. And in the city of Shanghai, that's kind of crazy.

    Most of the day is occupied with trying to secure food and water supplies, other essentials. There's a lot of rising frustration. There's also a lot of young people who are willing to step up and help.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The way he's helping? Organizing bulk food and water purchases designed to last a week. It's the only way to get around food shortages.

  • Man:

    People just want their basic needs met. And they want, I think, basic respect.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing has worked to improve the access to food. But it rejects calls to ease lockdowns or allow the country to live with COVID, which means residents still acutely fear getting sick from neighbors or being quarantined.

  • Man:

    We had learned that the infected person had gone through that stairwell. And we said, we can't go down. Like, we don't have contamination suits. At any time, you could be taken from your place and put into — indefinitely into one of these quarantine centers.

  • Jane Polubotko, Shanghai Resident:

    So, this is basically how my room looks like; 138 is my number.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is a quarantine center. People who test positive are forced to live here communally.

  • Jane Polubotko:

    And now we're going to walk into the bathroom area.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This was an exhibition center. Now it's home to 4,000 people. This was filmed by Jane Polubotko. She says she's the only foreigner.

  • Jane Polubotko:

    The facilities are not great. We don't — actually, we don't have a shower here, so it's been like 18 days without shower. The lights that you see here in my background, they are on 24/7. They never turn them off.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you have any privacy?


  • Jane Polubotko:

    No. No, no.

    Over there, we have the main entrance, where people are coming inside.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Her past three tests have been negative, but she still has no idea when she can leave.

  • Jane Polubotko:

    This uncertainty, lack of communication, that just adds up on that collective anxiety, basically, what people are having here. It's not only me who feels frustrated, angry, anxious.

    I really don't understand why we are forced to be here, when we are actually not that dangerous for the society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing defends its zero COVID policy as saving lives.

    China claims only 13,000 COVID deaths, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian argued on Tuesday.

  • Zhao Lijian Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator),:

    China's dynamic zero COVID policy and anti-epidemic protocols are based on science and expert opinions. They have effectively protected the life and health of Chinese and foreign nationals living in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's also about political stability.

    Yanzhong Huang, Council on Foreign Relations: That policy in China, you cannot just justify that from a public health perspective.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yanzhong Huang is the Council on Foreign Relations' senior fellow for global health.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    When the top leader himself is personally invested in the policy, right, that policy U-turn could undermine his personal leadership and even cause him problems for regime legitimacy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing is also worried about its health care system being overrun. But COVID restrictions limit Shanghai Hospital's ability to provide regular health care.

    And social media is full of videos of patients rejected care, pleas to health care workers ignored, and a desperate family for whom health care was kept out of reach.

    Yesterday, a man yelled at visiting officials, there wasn't enough to eat. He was later detained. The restrictions in rich, educated Shanghai threaten to create the very political instability officials are trying to prevent, says University of Toronto Professor Lynette Ong.

    Lynette H. Ong, University of Toronto: Once people start questioning that they would show some sort of resistance either overtly or covertly, and that, in itself, may actually evolve into another source of social unrest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But authorities appear unmoved and continue heavy-handed tactics.

  • Lynette H. Ong:

    Any sort of positive cases or death rate means that the officials have failed to perform their duties, and that would look very bad on their career, which is why you see all sorts of measures, counterintuitive, sometimes to the extent of being silly, being taken.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Polubotko, that means its time to leave China after eight years, even if home is Ukraine. She's from a city in the middle of the war.

  • Jane Polubotko:

    I only want to get out of here. I definitely cannot wait to go to Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For her, a war zone seems better than COVID zero with no end in sight.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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