Shanghai residents warned about online posts over Covid lockdown

Food shortages a problem for millions in massive Chinese city

Chinese officials have warned Shanghai residents about what they say online regarding the city's Covid outbreak, after many complained about conditions and food shortages almost two weeks after the city of 25 million was locked down.

Social media has been full of messages and videos in recent days from residents voicing their frustration over increasingly difficult conditions in the city. A pregnant woman appealed for help on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, after being turned away from a hospital following a positive result in one post that went viral.

But internet censors have been quick to scrub critical posts about the government from online public forums and Shanghai’s internet watchdog on Friday urged people to “distinguish rumours from facts”.

The warning came as the country reported more than 24,000 cases, with almost 90 per cent of the new infections in Shanghai. The surge has brought the financial hub to a standstill, leaving many residents struggling to obtain basic food and medical supplies.

“It’s the first time in my life I’ve had to worry about securing food,” said one executive who has lived in the city for more than 10 years. “Now, I’m worried we’ll run out of milk for our kids.”

Residents say food orders have been cancelled as delivery drivers struggle to meet demand, and many have been placed in quarantine after testing positive with no clear guidance on when they would be released.

“The whole city logs on to food delivery apps at the crack of dawn to get their hands on produce,” said one man who secured a delivery after a series of failed attempts that arrived at 1am on Wednesday. “It felt like winning the lottery.”

A senior executive at a private equity firm, who has been stuck indoors for more than three weeks, said the restrictions were affecting the entire population.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or are willing to spend, you can’t get steady access to food,” he said.

Fan, a woman in her 30s, has been in a quarantine facility with capacity for 400 since Monday and has only been given traditional Chinese medicine.

“The staff have had to deal with all kinds of things from the occasional fight [among patients] and water running low,” she said. “But I can’t complain. We’ve been given three meals a day, the food isn’t bad and there is an outside area to exercise and smoke.”

Stockpiling food

Almost 200 million people and 23 cities are under full or partial lockdown, according to Nomura, the Japanese bank, but many in areas that are not yet dealing with such severe restrictions have begun stockpiling food and other necessities.

One woman from Taiyuan in the northern province of Shanxi, said residents began panic buying after a single-digit numbers of cases were reported in the city this week.

“There is plenty of food, but the prices at the markets skyrocketed because people are scared of a potential lockdown,” she said.

One vegetable seller doubled the price of spring onions after hearing news of cases in the community.

“The prices keep going up and down, depending on what people hear about the situation,” she added.

The outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron variant is testing the limits of China's zero-Covid policy and piling pressure on the economy but Beijing has given no indication it will change its approach.

The People’s Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, on Friday published a front-page article defending the policy, saying it was the “best choice” while large numbers of the elderly population remain under-vaccinated.

Bo Zhuang, an analyst at Loomis Sayles, an asset manager, said: "Even if Shanghai manages to contain this outbreak, the disruption to supply chains and consumption will continue with even larger swaths of China being put under lockdown".

China was already experiencing "multiple economic shocks", explained Hui Shan, chief China economist at Goldman Sachs. Rising commodity prices and a dramatic slowdown in property sales were "reinforcing the negative impact" of the localised restrictions.

For residents of Shanghai, the rising case numbers probably mean lockdown will be extended indefinitely.

“Prison must be better than this. Prisoners are locked up, but at least they have three meals a day and know how long their sentence is,” said one resident.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022