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Shanghai residents clash with police over homes being used to isolate Covid patients

The rare protest comes amid mounting public frustration over the strict coronavirus lockdown in China’s financial center.

Residents at a housing complex in Shanghai clashed with health authorities on Thursday, after they tried to block a government-mandated requisition of buildings to house Covid-19 patients amid a coronavirus outbreak that has had the city on lockdown for weeks.

The rare protest, footage of which was livestreamed and later widely circulated on social media before it was scrubbed by censors, comes amid mounting public frustration over the lockdown in Shanghai, China’s financial center. The city of 26 million is at the center of China’s worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, in a major test of the country’s “dynamic zero-Covid” strategy.

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Footage of the incident at a residential compound in Shanghai’s Pudong district showed people in white hazmat suits labeled “police” wrestling residents to the ground and leading several away toward a white van. People could be heard wailing as some screamed, “Bring them back.”

“The police are hitting people,” several people could be heard shouting.

The Zhangjiang Group, a state-owned development company that owns the compound, said in a statement that five buildings had already been converted into isolation facilities for people with confirmed Covid-19 infections, and there were plans to requisition nine more.

It said the requisitions had forced 39 tenants to abruptly move to other parts of the compound, but they had been provided compensation.

“On the afternoon of April 14, when our company organized the construction of isolation fence, some tenants obstructed the construction site, and the relevant departments handled it on site,” the group said. “Now the situation has subsided.”

The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Workers disinfect the floor of a makeshift hospital at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai on Thursday.
Workers disinfect the floor of a makeshift hospital at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai on Thursday.Ding Ting / Xinhua via AP

Residents had expressed fears that the presence of Covid-19 patients could expose them to infection. Under China’s strict anti-Covid policies, even people without symptoms must isolate at centralized facilities, where many people have complained about poor conditions.

“I think it’s become clearer that the costs of maintaining dynamic zero-Covid — not just the enormous costs to businesses and people’s livelihoods, but also the excess deaths caused by non-Covid conditions and the constant mental anguish and anxiety — exceed the benefits of the policy,” said Donald Low, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Public Policy.

“It’s clearly untenable, and the fact that people in Shanghai are more afraid of the zero-Covid restrictions than Covid itself is evidence of that,” he added.

China’s zero-tolerance approach has kept Covid infection and death rates far below those in the United States and other countries, and officials worry that an uncontrolled outbreak could overwhelm the country’s fragile health care system. Chinese leader Xi Jinping said this week that China could not relax its anti-Covid measures and must stick to a principle of “people first and life first.”

On Friday, Shanghai reported almost 20,000 asymptomatic cases and a record 3,200 symptomatic cases. It has recorded more than 300,000 cases since the outbreak began in March but no deaths.

Critics say the outbreak, and the resulting lockdown, is costing lives in other ways. When local health official Qian Wenxiong died this week, there was widespread speculation that he had taken his own life because of the pressure he was facing to control the outbreak.

In a statement on Thursday, the Hongkou District Health Commission confirmed that Qian had died on Tuesday at age 55. It did not share the cause of death.

The lockdown restrictions have been blamed for other deaths in Shanghai, including that of a nurse who was turned away from her own hospital during an asthma attack and the 98-year-old mother of a prominent Chinese economist who died waiting for kidney disease treatment because her Covid test result had not yet come back.

An online initiative to document all deaths related to the restrictions had reached around 130 entries as of Friday.

There are also continued complaints about difficulties obtaining daily necessities under lockdown rules, which confine residents to their housing complexes and sometimes even their apartments.

Though food is also delivered by the government, residents are greatly dependent on online orders and overstretched delivery drivers. In many residential compounds, volunteers are working together to coordinate and distribute bulk orders of food and medicines.

Lucia Shen, a documentary film producer, said procuring necessities for her community of about 1,500 people had become a full-time job.

“My first priority is really helping the elderly in our community, because these are the people who might be excluded from all these new technologies,” she told NBC News on Friday. “Sometimes they don’t know how to place an order on their phone.” 

Shen said she had experienced “ups and downs” during the lockdown.

“There were definitely moments that were emotional, but I think I was able to switch to focus on the practical side of things,” she said. “I think the emotional part really comes from uncertainty, because we don’t know when this lockdown will end.”