Lessons from Shanghai

Hari Kumar


The outcome of the weeks-long Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai could, perhaps, show political leadership everywhere a valuable lesson: stubbornness is not a good strategy in policymaking.

As Shanghai began reporting more than 20,000 new cases a day, the Chinese authorities, vigorously pursuing a Zero-Covid policy, ordered almost all residents in the financial hub to stay within their homes or workplace and take swab tests practically every day.

An expat locked up in his Shanghai apartment for three weeks, spoke of his situation last week (April 16-17): “In my younger days, my cousins made fun of me, saying my nose looked like a pumpkin. Now, I think it is now like a watermelon with this never-ending series of nasal swabs I have been taking.”

His confinement is set to continue for at least two more weeks as more cases are being detected in his apartment complex.

The capacity of the Chinese state machinery to isolate the entire population of the country’s most populous city (27.8 million in 2021, according to the UN World Population Report) and pull off millions of tests daily is impressive indeed. Unfortunately, however, the effect of this mammoth operation, locally and globally, is not as heartening.

The lockdown is causing insurmountable supply chain problems in Shanghai and also impacting other Chinese cities and the world at large by way of putting extra strain on the markets, which are already feeling the pressure of a disrupted global shipping, uncertain truck delivery schedules, rising freight costs, and broken supply chains due to health curbs in other countries. On top of this, Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the commodities market jittery.

A study that researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, and Princeton University made has concluded that a lockdown of over 30 days in just four biggest cities – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen – could shrink the country’s GDP by 8.6 per cent. It will, then, have a knock-on impact on the global economy.
Still, President Xi Jinping is determined to continue with the Zero-Covid policy, perhaps, enthralled by the policy’s initial success two years ago.

When Beijing decided to lock down Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak started, it could also get a reasonably efficient delivery system within a few weeks. Then, as the virus spread to other cities, the state machinery honed its operations and began isolating entire cities with ruthless efficiency.

China then trumpeted the success as an example of the Chinese Communist Party’s virtue and ridiculed the democratic governments that descended into chaos over lockdowns and other issues like the compulsory use of facemasks.

But now the situation in Shanghai has become a challenge to the Communist Party.

To feed a city of 27.8 million requires an army of people to help with the supply of food, medicine, and other essential items. The authorities had flown in over 38,000 medical workers to keep the testing and isolation part running. The problem is to get enough volunteers to package and deliver things that people need.

As authorities put severe restrictions on the movement of people, truck drivers and delivery workers find it impossible to do their job. Stories of delivery workers sleeping under the bridge to escape confinement to their homes have appeared on the social media.

Trucking has dropped 40 per cent nationwide since mid-March, while truck movement in and around Shanghai is down to about 15 per cent of its average level, wrote Ernan Cui, an analyst at the Hong Kong-based research firm Gavekal, in a note last week.

Only 13 of China’s top 100 cities have no public health-related restrictions – such as lockdowns and quarantines – in place, while 73 cities that account for 53 per cent of the national GDP have imposed limits on movement and activities, according to Gavekal.

Like during the Delta surge in India, people’s resilience is coming to the rescue in Shanghai also. Getting small individual orders of supplies delivered to the doorstep isn’t easy. So, residents in every apartment have organised WeChat groups to consolidate orders as a group. Once the delivery is made to the apartment complex, volunteers from the building sort out the goods and deliver them to those ordered. The supply is placed outside the door to avoid personal contact. Barter of goods is also taking place.

While these creative options have kept the life ticking for most, some fall through the cracks. Even the super-rich find it hard to procure essentials at times. For example, venture capitalist and billionaire Kathy Xu had to go on a group chat asking for bread and milk. It went viral and triggered a discussion about the plight of the less privileged.

Numerous stories have appeared on the Chinese social media about elderly people who are being left to fend for themselves. Neighbours reach out and help them, but such helping hands are not always reliable given the restrictions on stepping out of the apartments.

The frustration is not limited to locked-up residents. Leaked audio of a conversation went viral as a government employee revealed his helplessness.

“I can’t believe our country is like this,” said the elderly man seeking to see a doctor said at one point, to which the government employee replied, “I also don’t know why Shanghai has become like this.”

The authorities reacted in their typical manner – by censoring all such social media posts. That response angered more people, and some openly started blaming CCP and officials, though it is dangerous in a country where leaders brook no dissent.

The government desperately tries to fix the supply chain; delivery platforms send more people to help their regional offices. However, restrictions continue to plague them.
The situation has evoked criticism about continuing the Zero Covid policy – mainly because the Omicron variant is apparently milder than previous variants and does not necessarily warrant hospitalisation.

Shanghai has set up a temporary hospital to accommodate thousands of Covid-19 patients. But people resist taking tests as they are reluctant to get isolated. The condition at the new Covid hospital has redoubled this reluctance. Garbage is piling up, and videos of clogged toilets in such facilities have emerged.

Nevertheless, Beijing insists on moving all positive cases to isolation centres for two weeks.

There is no room for alternative ideas when stubborn leaders head governments, adhering to top-down delivery as their policy – a scenario not unfamiliar to people in India today.
“Zero-Covid is not just a Party policy, but … a Xi policy”, Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told AFP. “As such, it cannot be wrong and cannot be abandoned – at least not until Xi sees its continuation will harm himself or his hold on power.”

Analysts say China is unlikely to review its policies until after the party congress in the autumn and Xi gets his third term. While this situation might project a sense of calm and stability to the domestic audience, there is a price to pay.

As per Lanzhou University’s “Global Forecasting System for New Coronary Pneumonia Epidemic,” the current virus surge in Shanghai will be brought under control by early May. The rest of the world should worry about what impact this will have on the global economy.

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