BEIJING — June, for Shanghai, was supposed to be a time of triumph. After two months of strict confinement, authorities had declared the city’s recent coronavirus outbreak under control. Shops and restaurants are finally reopening. State media trumpeted a return to normalcy, and on the first night of the release, people marched through the streets shouting, “Freedom!
Julie Geng, a 25-year-old investment analyst from the city, couldn’t bring herself to join. “I don’t think there’s anything worth celebrating,” she said. She had spent part of April confined to a centralized quarantine facility after testing positive and the feeling of helplessness was still fresh.
“I think there are no basic guarantees in life, and so much could change overnight,” she said. “It makes me very fragile.”
The confinement had plunged Shanghai into chaos and suffering. Locked in their homes, residents were unable to buy food, were denied medical treatment or were separated from their children. Social media overflowed with their fury and desperation. Now the worst is apparently over. But in this city of 25 million people, many are just beginning to take stock of what they’ve been through, what they’ve lost and what they want for the future.
Some residents face the precariousness of rights they once took for granted: to buy food and expect privacy in their own homes. Some are grieving relationships that have broken down under the stress of the lockdown. Many people remain worried about the weeks they have gone without pay or about the survival of their business.
Above all of this is a broader inability to put the ordeal completely behind them, as China still clings to its goal of eliminating the virus. Authorities recently announced that every neighborhood in the city will briefly close every weekend until the end of July for mass testing.
“We see many symptoms of post-traumatic stress, although many people don’t recognize them,” said Chen Jiejun, a psychologist in Shanghai. Some people had chest pains or couldn’t concentrate at work, she said.
“How do you move on from that trust that was shattered and rebuild it in a way that will allow you to feel stable and safe again?”
Health officials around the world have warned of the consequences of the pandemic on mental well-being. Anxiety and depression increased by 25% worldwide in the first year of the epidemic, according to the World Health Organization.
But epidemic controls in China are singularly restrictive, with locked-down residents sometimes physically locked in their homes, unable to receive emergency medical care. Prescriptions, including for mental health issues, have not been filled. Those infected with the virus were sent to hastily built makeshift hospitals, some of which lacked showers or had bright lights at all hours.
The apparent arbitrariness of admission or exit policies fostered a sense of helplessness; some people were sent to facilities in the middle of the night, or unable to leave despite testing negative. Others said officials entered their homes with disinfectant while they were away and damaged their property.
Ms Geng, the investment analyst, was sent to a makeshift hospital after testing positive. She declined, citing her mood disorder diagnosis, she said; eventually, authorities sent her to a quarantine hotel instead. Still, she was shaken by his lack of control.
“People who test positive are dehumanized, treated like animals,” she said.
During the lockdown, calls to mental health hotlines in Shanghai increased. City queries for psychological counseling, on the Baidu search engine, more than tripled compared to a year ago. A survey of the city’s residents revealed that 40% of them were at risk of suffering from depression. When restrictions in some neighborhoods eased slightly in late April, more than 1,000 people lined up outside the Shanghai Mental Health Center one morning.
At a government press conference in May, Chen Jun, the chief medical officer of the Shanghai Mental Health Center, said anxiety, fear and depression were unavoidable under a prolonged lockdown. For most people, the feelings would be temporary, he said.
But other experts have warned that the effects will be long-lasting. An op-ed published this month in the medical journal The Lancet said the “shadow of poor mental health” will linger over Chinese culture and economy “for years to come”. He continued, “The Chinese government must act immediately if it is to heal the wound its extreme policies have inflicted.”
The long-term fallout from the lockdown policies was already becoming clear in the inquiries that Xu Xinyue, a psychologist, has received in recent weeks.
When the pandemic started two years ago, said Ms Xu, who volunteers for a national hotline, many callers were afraid of the virus itself. But recent callers from Shanghai were more concerned about the side effects of Chinese checks – parents worried about the consequences of prolonged online schooling, or young professionals worried about paying their mortgages, after the lockdown hit the labor market from Shanghai.
Others wondered why they worked so hard in the first place, after seeing how money couldn’t keep them comfortable or safe during lockdown. They now saved less and spent more on food and other tangible items that could provide a sense of security, Ms Xu said.
“Money has lost its original value,” she said. “It upset the way they always thought, leaving them a bit lost.”
Lockdown has also transformed interpersonal relationships. According to Shanghai policies, a single confirmed case could lead to stricter controls on an entire building or district. Some residents who fell ill said they were shamed in group chats at their housing compounds.
Before confinement, Sandy Bai, a 48-year-old resident, considered her next-door neighbor a friend. They swapped eggs when the other was young and asked about each other’s parents. But a day after the city was shut down, Ms Bai returned after walking her dog – technically banned, but she had escaped because her dog was sick – to find her neighbor had reported her to the police, a she declared.
“She really destroyed the trust I had in her,” Ms Bai said. “You can’t do anything, you’ll never convince the other person, and you just learn to distance yourself.”
Interactions between strangers also seem to indicate a frayed social fabric. After officials at a testing site told residents they couldn’t be tested — and therefore couldn’t move freely around the city — a resident smashed a table and injured a worker.
Li Houchen, a blogger and podcaster, compared the people of Shanghai to easily frightened birds, nervous because they had exhausted their ability to cope with stress.
“There is also a sense of tension in the newly reopened streets and in the behavior of people, that at any moment you could be watched, interfered with, interrupted or chased away,” he wrote in a widely shared essay on WeChat.
There are few ways to release this tension. Along with limited resources for mental health – National Health Insurance does not cover counseling – censors have scrubbed many critical social media posts from the lockdown. State media glossed over residents’ residual anger and fear, encouraging “positive energy” and presenting Shanghai as another example of the success of the zero Covid strategy.
The absence of any collective judgment or mourning has stung even those who have largely felt capable of returning to their pre-lockdown lives.
Anna Qin, an educational consultant in her twenties, started going to the office and the gym again. She walks and rides her bike around the city, delighted to feel her feet on the pavement.
But the fact that such mundane things now feel so special is just a reminder of how much the city was forced to sacrifice.
“We are happy that it is reopening, but there is also no acknowledgment of what we have been through,” she said.
“Now it’s closed, now it’s open, and we have no control. And now we’re supposed to be happy.
Li you and Liu Yi contributed to the research.
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