As of Monday, Shanghai has reported over 26,000 COVID-19 infections that were transmitted locally. As we speak, the residents of Shanghai, the most populous city in China, have been very vocal in their complaints about the supply of food and other necessities, as concern spreads that more cities in China will enter lockdown in the immediate future.
Shanghai is a major financial hub in China with a population of 26 million people, and its streets were under a zero-tolerance policy of lockdown that is only allowing volunteers, healthcare workers, delivery personnel, and people with special permission to step out of their homes.
In comparison to other cities of the world with a high caseload of COVID, Shanghai has a comparatively smaller number of cases, but it appears that the government is not taking any chances as it fights the worst outbreak of COVID ever since it first emerged from Wuhan back in 2019.
Shanghai is under the government’s “Test Bed” elimination strategy where the government is testing, tracing, and centrally quarantining all those people with COVID to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The curbs put into effect have dwindled the supplies of essentials and more importantly, critically constrained food supply chains into Shanghai, as most of the supermarkets are closed, and many thousands of food couriers and delivery truck drivers are locked in.
There have been many online videos doing the rounds showing residents of Shanghai struggling and breaking into fights with security personnel, in many compounds of the city’s high rises, with the demand of the occupants being access to basics like food. And there have been limited reports of looting.
Twitter videos show residents of the city of Shanghai screaming from their balconies and high-rise apartments, after the end of 7 straight days of lockdown, as there are no updates on when this draconian lockdown will end. There are rising concerns over fast depleting stock of food in general and baby food in particular. The Chinese narrator of one of these videos has said that there are worries that the people may collectively reach a breaking point and cannot really hold out with compliance of the lockdown much longer, in a voice that implies tragedy.
The narrator in the video can be heard saying “yao si” or “ yao ming le” where both of these expressions mean “life and death”– but more literally, it also means “asking for death” which is a terrible thing because the narrator implies that things will get super crazy and unreal if the lockdown situation continues. The originality of this video has been confirmed from sources, and it has been found that shouting is a common phenomenon, which means that most apartments and high rises are facing the very same situation, not to mention those who live in modest houses. There is further low chance of the video being an item of propaganda because the dialect is Shanghainese, which is a local dialect only spoken by a relatively limited 14 million people out of China’s total population of 1.4 billion, and thus, very unlikely used for broad propaganda.
For all practical purposes, China is reaching a breaking point with the BA2 variant of the COVID-19 virus. There are two outcomes to this. One is that it continues with its current policy which implies that there will be more human tragedies to witness for the world media, or it can change direction by letting go of the severe restrictions of lockdowns that it has in effect at the moment. The second option is also not palatable as it will give ample scope for the COVID-19 virus to spread its tentacles again and will soon lead to another deadlier outbreak of the virus that will claim even more lives than it did in the previous wave.
It is not only Shanghai that is grappling with shortages of food. There are at least 23 cities in China under full or partial lockdown. These are cities with 193 million people as residents. The doctors and nurses tending to COVID cases are fully exhausted by now. One video shows a doctor collapsing due to sheer exhaustion as patients carry him out to another ward in the isolation center. Very many people in the city of Shanghai are running out of food fast. The older generation say that they remember the feeling of having no food in their stomach as it reminds them of the situations they themselves had faced during their grandparent’s times, back when China underwent the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961, in which 15-55 million Chinese died of mass starvation during the Great Leap Forward era. People going hungry today was never expected to ever occur in 21st century Shanghai, which is an accepted core social contract in Chinese society, but here we are. And in Chinese culture, where food is love and hospitality, to allow citizenry to go hungry is the one unbreakable social contract that the Chinese government knows cannot be broken.
Some people report their loved ones communicating through the internet and telephone that their food stocks are running really low and that they are starting to ration their meals. With incomplete stocks of food, come opportunistic food sellers who are inflating the prices of basic food items to make a quick killing. Residents are worried sick about what will happen a week from now. While you can order food on delivery apps, it requires competing over fiercely limited delivery slots, and requires technological savviness than many elderly or poorer migrant workers just do not have.
A Shanghai resident was heard telling police that he was breaking through the police barricade so that he would at least receive food in the prison— an idea very eerily similar to the plot of an old O’Henry novel, The Cop and the Anthem. The police retorted that they would arrest him and send him back to his house, so no escape there as well. The same caller to the police was complaining that except for tap water, he did not have anything else in his house to eat or drink, the police had no answer to that. A lot of videos coming out of Shanghai are heavily censored by the government, yet we know that in limited snippets of audio not censored, that some lay citizens have now even discussed the idea of violent revolt if food is not provided.
As of now, China is extending its Shanghai lockdown for an indefinite period as well as rushing in 38,000 health workers from other parts of the country to the embattled city. This is a scary proposition, to say the least. Delivery of food has to be ensured if the government does not want an insurrection on its hands led by starved and isolated citizens.
Citizens in many different cities of China expressed their anxiety and worry on social media that their cities may also go under lockdown. On Saturday, the Beijing municipal government had placed a high-risk area under complete lockdown after 8 cases of COVID were detected there in the last two weeks, according to Pang Xinghuo, who is the deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Again, on Saturday, the city of Guangzhou, which is a megacity by all definitions, and is home to 18 million people, had stated that it would start testing on a large scale over its 11 districts after a fresh bump in the number of cases on Friday. Shanghai reported 1006 symptomatic cases and 23,937 asymptomatic cases on Sunday.
There were people in Shanghai who were posting guides for the people in other cities about what they should stock up on, fearing massive lockdowns. Items on every list included basic equipment for cooking, rice, and pasta which are staples in the country, and seasonings as well.
Altogether, if the pandemic lockdown-exacerbated food crisis in Shanghai is a preview what could come for the rest of China, the country could be in for a difficult summer, thereby so could the world’s supply chain problems if Chinese manufacturing exports are disrupted. Thus, China losing control could affect the whole world both pandemically and economically. #CovidIsNotOver