As the Shanghai government ordered the bulk of the city’s 26 million residents to stay home early last month to contain a COVID-19 outbreak, one woman and her dog settled into a red telephone booth.
The woman, reportedly a migrant worker in her 50s, lived in that tiny space for the next month, occasionally taking her dog out on a stroll and airing her blanket in the sun. Her living conditions came to light only when a resident in a high-rise apartment across the street documented her existence—and eventual eviction—in a series of photos on Chinese social media, where they generated an outpouring of anger at what many thought was the city’s mistreatment of someone without a home.
For many in Shanghai, the woman’s apparent hardship added to residents’ frustration with a protracted lockdown that has led to widespread food shortages and harsh—sometimes absurd—enforcement actions. In a recent incident compared to a scene in The Shining, officials broke through the door of a flat to drag its residents off to quarantine. In another case, a 75-year-old resident of a nursing home was put in a body bag destined for a crematorium only to be found alive when workers loaded her on a van.
“How has surviving become so difficult?” a Shanghai citizen wrote in a comment on the Chinese social media service WeChat in response to the photo diary, published in Esquire China on Sunday.
Details about the woman’s life have underscored deep-rooted economic inequality that was only compounded by the city’s chaotic pandemic responses.
The woman, who was not identified in the article, was among legions of migrant workers who could not find a job as the city ground to a halt. Unable to afford rent, she carved out a living space for herself in the phone booth, while some others like her slept on cardboards in parking lots, on makeshift beds under bridges and in tents on the sidewalk.
“Many migrant workers live from hand to mouth and rely on their employers to provide shelter and food,” Pun Ngai, a professor at Lingnan University of Hong Kong, who studies Chinese labour, told VICE World News. “With most factories and shops closed, they are left to fend for themselves.”
With scant labour protection and little job security, migrant workers, who make up a third of China’s workforce, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic compared to those with regular incomes. As the new wave of lockdowns dampened China’s economic growth and sank its manufacturing output to a 2-year low, millions of migrant workers were put out of jobs, according to China Labour Bulletin.
But like many labourers who survive on temporary gigs, the woman’s economic hardship predated the recent lockdown. In an interview with China Youth Daily on Tuesday, the woman said she began living out of the phone booth in January.
That was until police officers in white coveralls arrived one midnight last week. Tossing her belongings on the curb and sealing the booth with tape, they evicted the woman from her only shelter. Holding her dog to her chest, the woman left barefoot and disappeared into the rain. According to state-run China Youth Daily, she declined the authorities’ offer of accommodation and preferred to be on her own.
But many others living on the street do not do so by choice.
Zhang, a 31-year-old migrant worker, had lived on the street for weeks after the sudden lockdown in early April stranded him in Shanghai and shut down the construction site where he worked. Unable to return to his home province in Henan, he had slept around the site and spent two nights at a wet market. He survived on cup noodles for two weeks before finally getting his first bite of rice at a government shelter on Tuesday. But now, in a compound surrounded by gates and guarded by officials in full-body suits, he is not allowed to leave.
“I don’t want to stay here, I want to work,” Zhang told VICE World News, requesting the use of only his surname for fear of reprisal from authorities for speaking to foreign media.
The pandemic has highlighted the precarious working conditions of labourers like Zhang. In another video that has gone viral on Chinese social media this week, a worker stopped a truck on the road in desperation. “I am a worker. I am going to starve to death,” said the elderly man. He wept after the driver gave him bananas and crackers.
During the weeks-long lockdown, some workers have appealed for help online, saying they helped construct the temporary hospitals and isolation facilities to accommodate the growing number of patients only to be cast out by their employers when they themselves caught the virus.
As the authorities focused their efforts on fighting the outbreak, some Shanghai residents have taken it upon themselves to help migrant workers and rough sleepers, including by distributing supplies.
“Many have nowhere else to go, after they were released from centralised quarantine, as their residential compounds or dormitories do not allow them to return,” said Jane, a 33-year-old business owner, who has been collecting tents, blankets and food to distribute to those in need. She requested the use of only her first name because she wasn’t sure if her actions were legal. As the weather became warmer, she and other volunteers also handed out mosquito repellants.
Made up of dozens of volunteers, Jane’s group has received more than 200 requests for help in the past week. But the number has dropped since Monday, as the city authorities started to intervene and house people dwelling on the streets in shelters.
Xu, a volunteer with another group, said it should be the government’s responsibility to handle the consequences of their pandemic measures, including caring for those left on the streets.
“It is not an act of charity. This is their legal duty,” said Xu, who is waiting in a hospital for a kidney surgery that has been postponed indefinitely. “And the tradeoff should not be our freedom and rights. People should be able to choose their own ways of living and where they want to go.”