Shanghai emerges from lockdown - but how lasting will the damage be?

Shanghai's residents celebrated the end of lockdown. Credit: AP

At the end of March people in Shanghai were told to prepare for a lockdown of five days. The city was to be divided into two halves, each half would lock down, one after the other.

Two months later the entire city is only just emerging from, what for many, has been a longer lockdown than the 76 days Wuhan endured in 2020.

It has been a disaster for the government.

We’ve seen people screaming from their windows that they have no food, banging pots and pans, as the authorities scrambled with the logistics of feeding the 26 million population they’d just shuttered in their homes.

The apartment buildings fenced off, amid China's zero-Covid strategy. Watch Debi Edward's report

There have been mothers with sick babies pleading for help, and relatives who’ve been forced to watch their loved ones die as they waited for the necessary permission, and a Covid test result, to be taken to hospital.

And I don’t believe we will ever learn how many people have taken their own lives.

The response of the president has been to double down on the 'Zero Covid' policy, hailing its success compared to the dangerous "living with Covid" policies in the West. He has also made clear there will be consequences for anyone who dares to speak out against it.

In fact, it is a ruthless policy that millions are deployed to enforce, often with brutal tactics.

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Some dabai (大白) or big whites as they are nicknamed (the volunteers enforcing the lockdown, and helping people with tasks) have even admitted to not understanding their orders, when they’ve been told to go and take someone with no symptoms, including elderly people, from their homes and force them into a mass quarantine centre.

They can see it makes no sense, but they risk losing their job if they fail to carry out their orders. Many of them are migrant workers, who have left their own families behind, to travel around the country and make money as part of a hazmat army.

Now the lockdown has ended as abruptly as it started, and there were scenes of celebration on the famous Shanghai Bund as the clock struck midnight and "freedom day" dawned.

The unprecedented protests and online criticism we’ve seen are unlikely to manifest into anything more now that people have their freedom back.

China is on a vaccination push. Credit: ITV News

But people, in China’s most metropolitan of cities, will not forget, and many not forgive, the way they have been treated during these past few months. Forced to barter with neighbours for food, and ration government handouts of cabbage and spam.

In Beijing, it appears the capital has avoided the same fate.

The case numbers have started to drop and some restrictions, like working from home, have been relaxed in certain districts. But for weeks we’ve been feeling the walls close in. A daily trip to the nearest testing site, a highlight of the day and a time to be grateful we still had the freedom to walk on the streets, when all the parks had been closed.

Our relief is, however, tempered by the knowledge that lockdowns are still viewed as a successful tactic and will be used again to control any future outbreaks.

It is like calling another world when I speak to people in the UK and they tell me they’ve "got the bloody virus" and they are conked out on the couch.

Train travellers wear full hazmat suits in China to protect from Covid. Credit: AP

I’m terrified of getting Covid, not because I might get very sick, but because I’d be whisked off to an isolation ward at a hospital in Beijing and be stuck there until I’ve tested negative for at least a week.

And the response to the more transmissible variants has been to quarantine not just close contacts but sub-close contacts. That means we also live with the fear that someone where we live, or who works in our office building will not just test positive, but be flagged as a close contact. This would be enough for you to have to do seven days of home quarantine.

Living under these circumstances, and with travel in and out of the country still heavily restricted, it is little wonder that this summer thousands of expats will leave China. For example, it's estimated between 40-60% of teachers will depart at the end of this term. And there isn’t a long line of volunteers to replace them.

People out on the streets after midnight in Shanghai, when lockdown laws were lifted. Credit: AP

The British Chamber of Commerce has also warned that the economic impact of 'Zero Covid' could prompt a foreign brain-drain. Several smaller companies have had to shutter because of massive revenue losses and bigger companies are putting investments on hold, considering their future in a market that is no longer stable and predictable.

When there is no end in sight, it is also hard for businesses and people, to make long term plans.

This week, posters started to pop up in Beijing inviting the elderly and children to get vaccinated. The country is belatedly trying to address the fact that millions of its elderly are only partially or completely unvaccinated.

Low, close to zero, Covid cases for the past two years meant people in these vulnerable groups didn’t feel the need to get vaccinated, and felt the risk was greater than the benefit. And at a certain point the government stopped urging people - but almost all Covid deaths in Shanghai were among those over 60, and a large percentage of them hadn’t had a single vaccine.

The damage done to public confidence and the government’s credibility will likely be repaired, perhaps when an exit strategy is finally revealed.

We still don’t know how the pandemic started in China, or when it will end.