The red flatbreads began to arrive after dawn, men in white hazmat suits unloaded parts of green metal cages.
Residents looked nervously out the windows of tall apartment blocks as the figures below erected fences across the entrances to their skyscrapers and put them into their homes.
This is the Pudong district of Shanghai, which is considered to be a high-risk Covid area that needs what the city authorities call ‘hard isolation’ and where residents say they are being treated like animals.
‘Could we also put up fences around the homes of the Shanghai leaders?’ asked one as their photos and videos ran through Chinese social media, pursued by the Communist Party’s ever-eager censors.
The story is the same in the rest of Shanghai’s districts. A video shows several hazmat-suited workers drilling the doors closed at a restaurant in the city to prevent them inside from leaving. Two older men look in disbelief.
Dragged away: Authorities in hazmat suits handle a resident of Shanghai
Elsewhere, several men-in-white beat a group of residents demanding food and viciously struck out with long sticks.
Phone cameras captured more and more PPE-carrying thugs beating and pushing boys and girls into a van to be taken to one of the city’s 100 mandatory quarantine centers awaiting all those who test positive.
Sometimes the scenes border on the surreal.
A video released Monday showed young children arriving at the school wearing their own all-inclusive white hazmat suits. They snuck through the school gate unmanageably, like little Michelin men waving awkwardly at the camera.
This is the face of China’s extraordinary – and barbaric – zero-Covid policy. For many of Shanghai’s residents, the draconian shutdown has lasted more than three weeks. Countless numbers have been confined to their homes under strict government instruction to isolate even if they do not have the virus.
Neighborhoods are divided into three categories based on the risk of infection. Those in the first category undergo the most stringent Covid-19 controls and have just been hit by tougher measures. The 2 m high green fences now block entrances to homes in many of these areas.
It appears that they are designed to prevent those living inside a complex that has a reported Covid case from leaving their homes – whether they have the virus or not. Under China’s relentless control, anyone over the age of seven who tests positive – even if they are asymptomatic or have a mild infection – must be isolated in centralized quarantine facilities.
Despite evidence that the Omicron variant is less deadly than the original strain, China continues in its leader Xi Jinping’s determination to eradicate the virus completely – a policy that is now destroying its economy and has even caused Western stock markets to fall.
While the focus has been on Shanghai, which so far has registered 400,000 cases and 138 deaths, all but 13 of China’s richest 100 cities have introduced some form of quarantine restriction, and the intensity is increasing.
The capital, Beijing, has launched mass tests for about 3.5 million people living and working in the city’s largest district, Chaoyang, after 26 cases were reported over the weekend.
Schools and gyms are closing down, while vegetables, toilet paper and instant noodles are sold out in the city’s supermarkets, while people are accumulating, fearing a shutdown as fierce as Shanghai.
That city’s eruption is China’s worst since Wuhan, and it has been like a virtual ghost town since it closed in early April.
Chinese social media has exploded with anger in a way not seen since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, with censors struggling to dispel the criticism.
Blue Sky Rescue Team members disinfect a residential community during the incremental shutdown triggered by the COVID-19 eruption on April 24, 2022 in Shanghai, China
At the dawn of darkness, the districts of Shanghai resound with the sound of pots and pans being pounded in protest.
This time, the concern is not predominantly with the virus itself, but with food shortages.
Those allowed to visit supermarkets have reported empty shelves.
For those unable to leave their homes, commercial food services and public packages are unreliable.
People have reported waking up early in the morning to order supplies online, only to be told that deliveries have already been suspended for the day. As Shanghai tap water is not drinkable, supplies of bottled water are essential.
Food shortages have even driven some to feed roadside plants – leading to reported cases of food poisoning.
There have been shocking online prayers for help with medicine and food when a video emerged of residents of a high-rise apartment apartment shouting from their windows: ‘We are starving.’ Another showed people fighting over food.
A hotspot has been the conditions in Shanghai’s mandatory quarantine centers.
From these facilities have come reports of overcrowded toilets, cold showers and a bit of privacy. In one, 4,000 people lived in booths next to each other in a large exhibition hall without showers.
On the hunt: A robot dog roams the streets of Shanghai making orders
There was a national outcry over a video showing crying children separated from their parents and crammed together in beds with metal rods.
Elsewhere, a man who had lost his will to live threatened to throw himself from the indoor balcony of a crowded quarantine facility.
Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese social media users who are unable to leave their apartments have shared stories of people with life-threatening illnesses who have not been able to receive treatment.
Trucks bringing supplies into the city have their cab doors sealed, to prevent the driver from getting out. Plastic buckets are handed to them through the windows should they need the toilet.
A shocking six-minute video, titled Voices Of April, features sounds of anger and sadness as a drone camera slowly moves across the city.
Excerpts include crying from babies separated from their parents in quarantine, prayers for food and emergency medical care – as well as the cold indifference of officials.
It went viral, but censors eventually deleted it.
Other social media mocked the authorities by posting pictures from the movie Night Of The Living Dead, suggesting that China’s business capital of 25 million people experienced its own zombie apocalypse.
That analogy seemed all the more appropriate on Monday, when the city was whipped with heavy rain and wind, sending trash cans across the empty roads.
Despite calls for relaxing decommissioning measures, President Xi insists: ‘Prevention and control work cannot be slackened’ and ‘Peristence is victory’.
Many Chinese epidemiologists consider it madness, but it is Xi’s madness, and in today’s China, the ’emperor’ can not be questioned.
Complete ‘victory’ over the virus has become an important part of the Xi cult. It supports the triumphism of the Communist Party and Xi’s boasts that China is superior to the roaring West.
In the parallel world of official propaganda, China’s state-owned media insist that ‘belief in zero-Covid politics’ and’ residents’ lives have been made easier ‘. Such claims are widely ridiculed.
It is hard to think of any other country, even among autocracies that could impose China’s combination of claustrophobic surveillance and random brutality against those who do not obey the party.
The surveillance has reached new extremes, including the deployment of robots and drones to shepherd Shanghai’s desperate population.
Mini Michelin Men: Children attending school in protective gear
The robots include a dog called the Preserved Egg (named after a famous Chinese dish), the size of a terrier. It roams the desolate streets and apartment corridors of Shanghai, making orders to stay inside and wake up residents when it’s their turn to come down for another round of mandatory tests.
On Monday, there was a riot at the city’s famous Fudan University, which has been adorned with cameras to enforce lockdown rules.
‘It’s a university, not a concentration camp’. . . ‘Against surveillance! Mod bureaucracy! Against micro-fascism ‘were just some of the banners that went up on campus (and spread on social media) after several white suits were photographed installing cameras outside the women’s restroom.
On Monday, the Shanghai Stock Exchange experienced its biggest decline in two years and fell by more than 5 percent.
This was partly due to fears that Beijing may soon follow Shanghai in the lockdown.
The economic cost of endless and severe shutdowns is undeniable. Even Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister and the man nominally in charge of economic affairs, sounds more and more rattling as he talks about the ‘major uncertainties and challenges’ ahead.
China has been horrified by the way Covid-19 has been swept through Hong Kong, where death rates reached the highest in the world.
As in Hong Kong, the vaccination rate among the elderly is low in China – only half of those over 80 are fully vaccinated and only a fifth are boosted.
Add to that the lower efficiency of Chinese vaccines, and China is very vulnerable, although the rapidly spreading Omicron variant is less deadly.
The Communist Party is getting more and more stinging, and as always it is in search of foreign conspirators to blame.
Officials have accused the United States of “arming” the crisis after the State Department ordered non-emergency personnel to leave its Shanghai consulate – a move motivated more by China’s measures to control the virus than by the virus itself.
Volunteers wearing PPE disinfect a residential community in the Yangpu district of Shanghai
The US statement cited the risk of parents and children being separated – forced removal of Covid-positive children to quarantine has been one of the most controversial of Shanghai’s shutdown practices.
A very shared post on social media asked, not unreasonably, whether the zero-Covid policy did not cause far more harm than the virus itself.
The post was deleted.
Ultimately, zero-Covid is a political strategy – Xi Jinping’s talisman.
There is too much at stake for him, especially this year, when he is expected to be anointed by the party as leader for life.
Xi has boxed himself into a corner. He plays a big, expensive and increasingly vain game Whac-A-Mole. It is difficult to see how zero-Covid can be maintained. It is under pressure like never before and it is in Shanghai that its future is likely to be decided.
Ian Williams is the author of Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny, published by Birlinn.