Shanghai authorities have put up fences outside residential buildings as China hardens its strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy, sparking fresh public outcry over a lockdown that has forced much of the city’s 25 million people indoors.
The largest district in Beijing, meanwhile, will require everyone living or working in the area to take three COVID tests this week, and put more than a dozen buildings under lockdown, after the Chinese capital reported 22 new cases for Saturday. The district, Chaoyang, is home to 3.45 million people.
The announcement set off panic buying Sunday evening, with vegetables, eggs, soy sauce and other items wiped off grocery shelves.
In Shanghai, images of workers in white hazmat suits sealing entrances of housing blocks and closing off entire streets with green fencing – roughly roughly two metres tall – went viral on social media, prompting questions and complaints from residents.
Volunteers and government workers erected metal barriers in multiple districts to block off small streets and entrances to apartment complexes.
In the city’s financial district, Pudong, the barriers – thin metal sheets or mesh fences – were put up in several neighborhoods under a local government directive, according to Caixin, a Chinese business media outlet.
Buildings where cases have been found sealed up their main entrances, with a small opening for pandemic prevention workers to pass through.
‘This is so disrespectful of the rights of the people inside, using metal barriers to enclose them like domestic animals,’ said one user on social media platform Weibo.
One video showed residents shouting from balconies at workers trying to set up fencing. The workers relented and took it away. Other videos showed people trying to pull fences down.
‘Isn’t this a fire hazard?’ asked another Weibo user.
Many of the fences were erected around compounds designated ‘sealed areas’ – buildings where at least one person tested positive for COVID-19, meaning residents are forbidden from leaving their front doors.
It was not clear what prompted authorities to resort to fencing. A notice dated Saturday from one local authority shared online said it was imposing ‘hard quarantine’ in some areas.
Reuters news agency was not able to verify the authenticity of the notice or all of the images, but saw green fencing on a street in central Shanghai on Sunday.
In recent days, police in hazmat suits have been seen patrolling Shanghai streets, setting up road blocks and asking pedestrians to return home.
The Shanghai government did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
The latest outbreak, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, has spread nationwide, but has been particularly large in Shanghai.
The city, a financial hub with 25 million residents, has counted hundreds of thousands of cases but fewer than 100 deaths since the outbreak began nearly two months ago.
Shanghai is using a tiered system in which neighborhoods are divided into three categories based on the risk of transmission.
Those in the first category face the strictest COVID-19 controls and were the main target of the new heightened measures. In the third category, some buildings allow people to leave their homes and visit public areas.
Shanghai is China’s most populous city and most important economic hub, and anger has been growing, with videos showing its citizens rioting in some areas.
It is battling the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 with a policy that forces all positive cases into quarantine centres.
The lockdown, which for many residents has lasted over three weeks, has fuelled frustration over lost wages, family separation and quarantine conditions as well as access to medical care and food.
Supermarket Freshippo, backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd , said on Sunday it was adding couriers to meet demand in the city.
The lockdown has also dragged on China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, with factory production disrupted by snarled supply chains and difficulties faced by locked-down residents returning to work.
Shanghai is carrying out daily citywide COVID tests and accelerating transfer of positive cases to central facilities to eradicate virus transmission outside quarantine areas.
In the past week, authorities have also transferred entire communities, including uninfected people, saying they need to disinfect their homes, according to residents and social media posts.
Many residents have vented on the internet about the lockdown and express dissent, using euphemisms and other means to battle government censors who often remove content critical of the authorities.
Videos of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’, a protest anthem from ‘Les Miserables’, have been widely reposted, with the title of the French musical receiving over 90 million mentions on WeChat on Saturday, the chat app’s data showed.
Shanghai reported 39 COVID deaths for April 23, versus 12 a day earlier and by far the most during the current outbreak.
It did not report any deaths in the first few weeks, fuelling doubt among residents about the figures. It has since reported 87 fatalities, all in the past seven days.
The city recorded 19,657 new locally transmitted asymptomatic cases, versus 20,634 a day prior, and 1,401 symptomatic, versus 2,736.
Cases outside quarantined areas totalled 280 from 218 on the previous day. Other cities that have been under lockdown began easing restrictions once cases hit zero.
China largely succeeded in keeping coronavirus at bay following the Wuhan outbreak, with a ‘dynamic zero’ policy aimed at stamping out chains of infection.
That approach has been challenged by the spread of the highly infectious but less deadly Omicron variant, which has prompted cities to impose various levels of restrictions on movement.
Nationwide, China reported 20,285 new asymptomatic coronavirus cases for Saturday, versus 21,423 a day earlier, with 1,580 symptomatic cases, versus 2,988.
News of the barriers in Shanghai came after a viral video last week showed an elderly broom-wielding woman busted out of quarantine three times and evaded guards wearing hazmat suits trying to enforce the city’s zero-Covid lockdown.
The 95-year-old was seen in one video walking down the street in an attempt to break free of the city-wide lockdown when she was stopped by one of the guards.
But the man, who tried to block her path with a wooden broom, was in for a surprise when she jumped into action and pushed her way past him.
The flustered guard again positioned himself in front of the woman to stop her from getting any further down the street, but she grabbed the broom handle and tried snatch it from his grasp.
This sparked a tug-of-war between the pair, with the guard – wearing full PPE – being forced to retreat backwards down the small residential backstreet.
The bewildered medical worker continued to stand in her way, but she marched towards him while angrily pointing at him and gesturing to an onlooker.
The guard is also seen gesturing towards the elderly man watching the scene unfold, as if the guard is asking for his help with dealing with the women.
Eventually, the 95-year-old appears to give up and a second video taken nearby showed the women was put into a small confinement area nearby.
But this did not deter her, as she was able to break free of a corrugated iron cage.
She was then reported to have returned home by jumping over the wall of the quarantine centre. According to The Daily Telegraph, the woman staged three daring escapes in total.
In one photo of the determined woman, six guards in hazmat suits can be seen running away from her as she marches towards them – a metal pole in hand.
Finally, another video showed the woman being carted off in the back of a yellow tricycle by a group at least six of the hazmat-wearing medical workers, escorting her down an otherwise empty road.
One neighbour posted on social media: ‘The old lady was taken away by a tricycle yesterday; she climbed the wall of the quarantine centre and got back the same evening.’
It is believed that the woman lived in a flat close to where the videos were filmed, and that she came to the attention of local police when her neighbours reported her walking around outside – having recently tested positive for Covid-19.
‘The old lady is trying everything to ‘prison break’,’ the video’s description said, as it was posted to Chinese social media.
One user wrote in response to the video: ‘We all should learn from this lady. There is no need to wait for or depend on anyone, but gain our freedom with action.’