A drone hovers in the night sky between apartment blocks, its light flickering like a distant star and bearing an ominous message: “Control your soul's desire for freedom.”
Footage of the scene emerged on Chinese social media last week and could have been straight out of a dystopian movie, but it was in fact just one of the many disturbing videos to have emerged in recent weeks from Shanghai, China’s latest and largest COVID-19 outbreak hotspot.
Shanghai has recorded over 200,000 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of March, with the city grappling with China’s biggest outbreak since the start of the pandemic. With 25 million residents, Shanghai now finds itself at the center of China’s “dynamic zero-COVID strategy” and an indefinite citywide lockdown.
While COVID restrictions were eased in certain areas of Shanghai on Tuesday, most of the city remains under strict isolation. Over the past weeks, images emerging from Shanghai paint a grim picture of the harsh reality of China’s zero-COVID policy, sparking concerns beyond its borders. On Monday, the U.S. State Department ordered all nonessential staff out of the city, saying they were at risk of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws” and public health regulations.
For the residents of Shanghai, living with zero-COVID has meant being confined to homes, mass testing, and being whisked off to quarantine centers if you test positive. But beyond these measures, a more severe picture of the impact of harsh public health measures is emerging as food shortages abound in Shanghai’s neighborhoods, children are separated from their families, and pets are ruthlessly culled.
Last week, in a video apparently taken from a nearby building, a worker dressed in protective gear is seen bashing a corgi by the road with a shovel. Seconds later, the dog is seen lying on the ground in a pool of blood. According to local reports, the corgi’s owners had tested positive for COVID-19 and were sent to a quarantine facility.
They had let the corgi out of the house in the hopes it would survive on the streets as their requests for the neighborhood committee to take the dog in were rejected. It’s unclear who originally uploaded the video, but it was widely shared on Chinese social media, causing uproar due to its brutality.
This is far from the first example of China’s ruthless treatment of family pets in the name of public health, and as the country has battled a surge in COVID-19 in recent months, videos have emerged of pets being culled. In March, a hidden camera captured footage of a Samoyed dog in the southern province of Guangdong being beaten to death by public health workers after its owners were sent to a quarantine facility.
But testing positive has also raised concern among parents, as authorities in Shanghai have separated children from families. Under the strict lockdown, children who tested positive for COVID-19 are quarantined in hospitals without their parents, a policy that has prompted intense backlash. Videos circulating widely on social media apparently show children—including infants—housed in hospital wards with little adult supervision.
A video widely circulated on Chinese social media site Douyin, which could not be independently verified by VICE World News, appears to show the situation at a Shanghai children’s quarantine facility.
Authorities said the video was taken in the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center while its paediatric wards were being adjusted to accommodate an influx of COVID-19 patients. Some expressed skepticism about the claim, while others remained critical of the children’s quarantine policy, calling it “heartbreaking” and “extremely cruel.” Last week, responding to public backlash, the Shanghai government said some parents would be allowed to undergo quarantine with their COVID-infected children.
Outside, social life is governed by dystopian helpers nagging at residents to take the pandemic seriously. Robot dogs have been released to patrol neighborhoods, blasting calls to residents to wear a mask, take their temperature, and wash hands diligently. Drones also weave around apartment buildings reminding residents to test themselves before leaving the house.
Stuck inside, Shanghai residents have taken to shouting words of encouragement to one another from their windows, with one video showing an apartment block filled with the echoes of the popular Chinese phrase, ”add oil” (press on).
Other videos, however, paint a more disturbing picture. One appeared to show residents across multiple apartment blocks screaming in frustration, while the person behind the camera explained that the cacophony of voices had spontaneously erupted after a couple of people had started.
As the city trudges on with its indefinite lockdown, residents are not allowed to leave their homes, even to purchase food and other necessities. One video showed workers in protective gear sealing the doors of apartment units while reminding residents to quarantine at home.
Though the video could not be independently verified by VICE World News, it corresponds with news reports of paper seals being pasted on the doors of Xuhui residents this week.
As a result, food shortages have emerged as the most pressing concern among the millions of people confined to their homes. Despite government rations and stockpiling in anticipation of a lockdown, food supplies have run low in most households, while food delivery services are overwhelmed. This has given rise to secret barter economies in residential compounds as neighbors exchange household items that they need.
Even for those who have successfully secured precious food items, simple accidents like the dropping of a carton of eggs is a distressing event during the shortage. On Chinese microblogging site Weibo, a photo of a man squatting over a pile of cracked eggs in Shanghai has ignited an outpouring of sympathy from netizens. The context of the image could not be verified.
People, especially the elderly and the terminally ill, have had trouble getting urgent medical care due to blanket COVID-19 restrictions, as desperate calls for help mushroomed on social media platforms. Lockdown fatigue has taken a toll on residents, who have started protesting the public health measures. Anger is rising, and footage has captured protests and riots, rarely seen in China.
In an unverified video circulating on social media, people can be heard chanting for food rations in Shanghai’s Kangting neighborhood. The same video also shows a fight breaking out at the entrance of a neighborhood as police vehicles arrive at the scene.