Apr 12, 2022 - World

A modern city starves

Illustration of a bowl and fork forming a "no" symbol

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many of Shanghai's 26 million residents are facing food shortages as the Chinese government's strict COVID lockdowns have ground one of biggest and busiest cities in the world to a halt.

Why it matters: Scenes of residents rationing vegetables and begging local officials to allow them to search for food has cast a shadow on the Chinese government's COVID response.

State of play: Shanghai reported more than 26,000 new infections on Sunday, as the number of new daily infections continues to rise despite the city's lockdown, which has lasted more than two weeks.

  • On Tuesday, some restrictions were eased for some of the city's residents, per the AP.

What's happening: Shanghai residents across the city are scrambling for food, as empty grocery shelves, unreliable government provisions, and strained food delivery services make it hard to secure enough to eat.

  • Extreme lockdown conditions and censorship mean journalists can't easily report from the ground, so many Shanghai residents have turned to social media for support, posting photos of their few remaining vegetables and videos of residents demanding that local health authorities allow them to leave their building to look for food.
  • “It’s the first time in my life I’ve had to worry about securing food,” the Financial Times quoted one Shanghai-based executive as saying. “Now, I’m worried we’ll run out of milk for our kids.”
  • One video posted to Chinese social media platform Weibo showed a drone flying through a Shanghai residential neighborhood, broadcasting to residents to remain in their homes.

Shanghai authorities have also forced children who have tested positive to quarantine separately from their parents if they test negative, a policy that has come under harsh scrutiny after parents spoke out about its devastating consequences.

  • One seven year old boy was forced to quarantine away from his mother for one month after they traveled to Shanghai, and has had nightmares ever since, the boy's mother told NPR.
  • "Some of the toddlers quarantined with [my son] lost the ability to speak. Another friend's 6-month-old came out with his legs covered in scratches, graffiti on his hands and open sores," she said.

What they're saying: "China's medical system would risk a collapse leading to enormous loss of life if it gives up on epidemic prevention and control," Chinese state news agency Xinhua said.

Between the lines: No matter where they happen, COVID lockdowns may be ineptly implemented, causing major disruptions. But under current conditions in China, politics may be an additional obstacle to a more humane response.

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has signaled that the country must continue its zero-COVID policy, meaning local authorities feel intense pressure to eliminate COVID outbreaks no matter the cost. And it's politically difficult for Xi to admit error and change course, since later this year he will be making a bid to assume a highly unusual third term in office.

The big picture: Despite relatively high vaccination rates, the Chinese population remains vulnerable since they have received Chinese-made vaccines, which have limited efficacy in preventing infections and severe disease.

  • Chinese regulators have not approved more effective western-made mRNA vaccines, even though China could easily afford to the purchase them — most likely because leaders in Beijing don't want to be perceived as relying on the West for help. They have, however, approved Pfizer's COVID treatment drug Paxlovid.
  • "When China developed its own vaccines, they used that to show the technological progress of China. And now if you switch to a foreign-made vaccine, it's tantamount to admitting that you're not as good as other countries in terms of technological capabilities," Yanzhong Huang, a global health fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN in December.

Editor's note: This story was updated with news that restrictions were eased in parts of Shanghai on April 12.

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