Written by Brenda Goh
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Veronica thought she did everything right by sticking to all the COVID-19 lockdown rules in the Chinese city of Shanghai.
After the entire city was shut down on April 1, her family of four meticulously followed government orders to stay home, walking out the front door only for a mandatory PCR test.
When restrictions were relaxed a bit in mid-April, allowing residents to roam inside their compounds, Veronica and her neighbors wore masks.
For weeks, their residential properties have been COVID-free.
But in late April, after what Veronica believes was her 12th PCR test, she, another member of her family, and a few neighbors tested positive for the virus.
“I have no idea how we found out,” said Veronica, who declined to give her full name, citing privacy.
Its construction was declared “closed”. She, her family, and others who tested positive were sent into quarantine. Anyone else has been ordered to go inside for another 14 days.
“I followed all the rules,” said Veronica from the quarantine center where she and her family were booked with hundreds of people in a spacious hall.
Veronica is among the thousands who have contracted COVID in vehicles that have been coronavirus-free and have been under lockdown for weeks.
The cases underscore how difficult it is to stop the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant as China sticks to a zero-COVID policy, perpetuating a cycle of lockdown, as well as bewilderment, anguish and anger.
Between April 21 and May 2, residents at 4,836 different addresses found themselves in a similar situation, with infections emerging after weeks of clarity, according to a Reuters examination of Shanghai government data.
On April 30 alone, 471 addresses were recorded as having found at least one case, after none had been registered at all in the previous 29 days. The population of a given address varies from a handful to hundreds.
The lockdown measures in Shanghai were very strict, especially during the first two weeks of April, when residents were only allowed out of the pools for exceptional reasons, such as medical emergencies. Many are not allowed outside their front doors to mingle with neighbours.
Shanghai’s daily case numbers have fallen for six consecutive days, but thousands of new cases are still being found each day, fueling speculation about how COVID will spread, debate over the wisdom of the “zero COVID” policy and fear of contagion.
work, to the point
When searching for answers, many residents refer to standing in line for frequent PCR tests, or deliveries of food and other items, all of which rely on volunteers, property management staff, and couriers.
Some people are even starting to refuse PCR tests, and impose penalties for non-compliance.
The Shanghai government, which has requested comment, referred to statements made on April 14 by city health official Wu Huanyu, who said infection through the distribution of supplies could not be ruled out, among other possibilities.
Health experts say the continued spread indicates China’s difficulty in sticking to its goal of eradicating the emerging coronavirus.
“Their zero-COVID policy works to some extent, but then they will continue to take a hit, especially when they don’t use that time to get high coverage for the most vulnerable population,” said Paul Hunter, M.D., professor of medicine at East University. Anglia, referring to the relatively lower vaccination rates in China compared to other places.
Jaya Dantas, a public health expert at Australia’s Curtin School of Population Health, said China’s approach came at high costs, and that eliminating transmission completely would take months.
“It’s been effective but really tough with ongoing testing in terms of resources, employment and finances,” she said. “And the mental health impacts on the population are significant.”
Lockdowns in Shanghai and dozens of other cities have sparked rare public outcry, especially as the continued emergence of relatively few infections prolongs the confinement of millions more.
Each new case has multiple consequences: A person infected with the COVID virus and their close contacts must go into quarantine. All neighbors in their building must be isolated for 14 days, with the clock resetting each time a new case is found.
Veronica says she was scarred from the experience.
“Don’t leave your apartment,” she said, “but I don’t even know if that helps anymore.”
(Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Natalie Grover in London; Editing by Tony Munro and Robert Percell)