Interview: ‘There was no overall logic to anything’

A Belgian national of Taiwanese descent has described living through the bureaucratic hell of the Shanghai lockdown, which left the city’s 26 million people confined to homes or makeshift hospitals for weeks on end with scant access to food, basic supplies and live-saving medical treatment for some. The woman, who gave only the surname Chang, told RFA her experiences after arriving back in the city where she currently works just as the lockdowns under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s zero-COVID policy were beginning:

“The Shanghai I was seeing on [Chinese state] TV was quiet, with large numbers of volunteers, no shortage of supplies. The weather was good and everyone was full of confidence. There were no visible problems, so I wondered why my residential community was different from the rest.

The Shanghai authorities put out a lot of information. We would check every morning how many people in our compound were infected. The city government would publish figures every few hours, and everyone in our [WeChat] friends circle would also communicate with each other, so we found out what was going on in other districts, too, if they were doing PCR testing.

Gradually, we discovered that nobody could find anything to eat. One person said they had a single potato left in their home. Initially, we thought the lockdown would be for four days, so that’s what we had prepared ourselves for, mentally, psychologically. That is totally different from being locked down for a month.

I really experienced that feeling of the days and nights merging into one. We had no way of knowing that they would keep postponing lifting the lockdown, again and again. We couldn’t trust our leaders … and we had no idea when it would end.

My father is in hospital right now in Taiwan. If he had been in Shanghai, he wouldn’t have been able to go to hospital at all. Because to get into a Shanghai hospital, regardless of how seriously ill you are, no matter if it’s an emergency, you have to get a negative PCR test first. There are so many PCR tests getting done in Shanghai right now that you need to wait 12-48 hours for the result to come back. All I can say is, I’m glad my family wasn’t in Shanghai too.

[Errors with names and results of PCR tests] were also happening to people around me. Someone would get their PCR test result on their mobile phone, then somebody would call them up and tell them that the result was wrong. So if you had gotten a negative result, you could be told by your neighborhood committee that it was actually positive, and that they had decided to haul you off to a makeshift hospital [for isolation]. Some people were hauled off to makeshift hospitals after waiting so long for a test result that they were already negative again.

Just imagine what that’s like if there’s an error with your test result. You don’t know whom to turn to, to sort it out.

Nobody knew what would happen from one day to the next. The people in charge didn’t know either. It felt like PCR testing was the only thing confirming my existing. And yet, I didn’t see the CDC taking any other [anti-COVID] measures apart from testing.

Everyone was telling each other not to go get a PCR test if they had tested positive on a rapid antigen test [at home]. People were willing to cooperate. If they didn’t test, then they’d be recorded as not having it. The more people they tested, the more people would be found to have it. And all the time we were forced to buy [food and supplies] in groups, or putting pressure on the delivery guys [to bring food]. They had to cheat the system too, because they had to have a negative PCR to be allowed to work. The absurdities of that kind were unbelievable.

I really don’t understand a country that can advance and progress so fast in space, military, weapons, and various areas of scientific research … and yet, two years in, in April 2022, they still don’t seem to have any understanding of this virus, and they don’t seem to have any vaccines against it.

[The official rhetoric was all about] keeping their eyes on the prize of zero-COVID, tackling important nodes, taking faster and more effective action and measures, and winning the air-defense war against the pandemic as soon as possible. But they could have been talking about the war on pornography or corruption. There wasn’t much in [the Shanghai disease control and prevention] report about the actual virus. This was the official guidance.

On April 26, it was all about keeping up the spirit of zero-COVID, on April 27, it was about fully implementing CCP general secretary Xi Jinping’s instructions. I couldn’t see any difference between the statements … they could equally well have been about fighting pornography or corruption. They were all the same.

[Even after lockdown lifted, I heard about someone who] tried to leave the residential compound, where they checked all his papers, and he had everything, so he got as far as the highway, where there was a police roadblock, and the highway police wouldn’t let him through. They said he didn’t have a pass. He said he did, with his name on it. They said it should have his license plate on it, too, and that he should go back to his residential committee to ask for it. So he got off the highway, by which time all the roads back to his residential compound were blocked, and he couldn’t get back there. It took him five minutes to get to the highway, but an hour or two to get back to his compound. When he got there, the police in the compound told him they were only allowed to let people leave, but they weren’t allowed to let anyone back in again. It was the same everywhere. Everyone was just focused on their role, and there was no overall logic to anything, and no room for flexibility in any situation you might encounter.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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