Inside Shanghai’s COVID Camps

China is sticking to its “zero COVID” strategy as it fights its worst outbreak in two years.

Mar 31 2022, 1:00pm

The worst spike in COVID-19 cases in Shanghai has prompted the authorities to lock down large parts of the Chinese financial hub in pursuit of “zero COVID.”

At the center of the absolutist approach to containing the virus is a policy requiring anyone who tests positive for the pathogen to go to hospital or a quarantine center, regardless of the presence of symptoms or the severity of illness.

Barriers seal off parts of Shanghai’s Jing’an district. Photo: Hector RETAMAL / AFP

Such measures helped Wuhan beat back the initial wave of the pandemic after the virus emerged in the central Chinese city in late 2019. But the recent spread of the more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus in several major population centers could further test the country’s “COVID-zero” playbook and people’s tolerance of the disruptions it entails.

In Shanghai, COVID-19 measures have disrupted everyday life and could have deadly, unintended consequences. A nurse in the city of 26 million people died of an asthma attack last week after she was denied treatment at her own hospital because it was closed for disinfection. Residents ordered to stay home have reported not being able to get treatments, like kidney dialysis, for their chronic illness.

People sent to quarantine sites have complained about the cramped space and unhygienic conditions, as well as the initial lack of toilet paper, soap, and running water.


Shane Leaning, the head of teaching and learning at the international school group Nord Anglia Development, has tweeted his experience of getting quarantined in Shanghai since last week and shared photos with VICE World News.

After testing positive for COVID-19 on March 23, two days after his birthday, Leaning said he was told by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention that he would be sent to a quarantine facility despite his relatively mild symptoms.

Government officials picked him up on March 25 and transported him to a hospital, after waiting for two days due to a lack of space, he said. He wore a white hazmat suit with a mask and plastic face shield given to him while traveling in the back of an ambulance. 

Shane Leaning, left, on his way to the hospital. PHOTO: courtesy of Shane Leaning

The first night he spent at the Shanghai hospital, Leaning slept in a freezing cold room on a mattress he said was only two inches thick. He was placed in a closed room with three other people, he said. 

He was later transferred to a cleaner and more private room. His colleague was not as lucky, as he was admitted to a hospital that ran out of rooms and had to sleep on a bed in the corridor.

Some Shanghai residents who tested positive for COVID-19 have been put in hospital beds in the corridor. PHOTO: courtesy of Shane Leaning

In one video filmed at a different Shanghai facility, dozens of people could be seen placed in beds close to one another.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Leaning’s wife, Emma, an opinion columnist for state-run Shanghai Daily, was sent to the Shanghai Expo Center after testing positive for COVID-19 a few days later. 

Inside Emma Leaning’s quarantine center, which can accommodate some 7,000 people. PHOTO: courtesy of Shane Leaning

In a massive hall that fits about 7,000 people, Emma slept on a metal-framed bed with no walls or curtains for individual privacy. She shared a small cubicle with her neighbor, who was barely two meters apart from her. The writer shared photos of a port-a-potty that hadn’t been flushed.

Emma was given a bucket and a towel for washing as there are no shower facilities at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center. Photo: Courtesy of Shane Leaning

Chinese medicine that Shane Leaning was given during his time quarantining at a hospital. Photo: Courtesy of Shane Leaning

Emma and her husband can be discharged only after they test negative for COVID-19 twice. She recommends that anyone about to be isolated at the site bring items such as earplugs, medication, a sleeping mask, and toilet roll.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Chinese authorities on Thursday reported 1,803 new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, including 355 in Shanghai. The eastern city also reported 5,298 asymptomatic local cases on the same day, which are tallied separately.

Those numbers pale in comparison with much of the world. But China fears that the outbreaks could spiral out of control and overwhelm hospitals. 

The relatively low vaccination rates among its elderly and lack of immunity from prior exposure to the virus have also raised concerns that even a modest increase in its caseload could cause a spike in deaths. Chinese officials have already seen such devastation in Hong Kong, where elderly residents are similarly under-vaccinated and thousands of pensioners have died over the last few weeks.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.


Shanghai, outbreak, worldnews, world coronavirus

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