16 hours on the bus: Uninfected woman describes nightmarish quarantine process in Shanghai

Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP

Hats off to the Wall Street Journal, which has owned the story of the fiasco in Shanghai since the city’s outbreak became international news. They published the story I wrote about last night about infected children being separated from their uninfected parents. They also got the scoop about China covering up mass infection inside a city hospital for the elderly, with at least a dozen patients reportedly dying.

They’re back today with their most Kafkaesque dispatch yet, about a woman in Shanghai who’s never tested positive for the virus yet found herself on a nearly daylong journey after the state insisted that she be sent to centralized quarantine. Lu Jiaying is a tech worker whose apartment building was shut down in late March and its residents ordered to get tested. Her tests reportedly came back as “abnormal” — but not positive. In fact, all of her official test results so far have been negative. Even so, her husband was taken away on March 26 due to being a close contact of an infected person. And then Lu herself got a call on Sunday night from a local Communist Party official telling her to pack a bag because she was headed to quarantine.

Why? Unclear.

She was made to don a hazmat suit with a face shield, then loaded onto a bus with others (some of them coughing) for transport crosstown to the city’s New International Expo Center. The trip took … 16 hours.

After several hours of waiting, the bus began heading further east, arriving after midnight at what appeared to be a construction site on the eastern outskirts of the city.

With no word on their next move, the two dozen passengers, some of them coughing, spent the night on the bus. During one of several calls to the police, Ms. Lu, who said she was too afraid to fall asleep, expressed concerns over her asthma, her previous bouts of pneumonia and the fact that she hadn’t used the bathroom for hours…

At 9 a.m. on Monday, roughly 14 hours after boarding the bus, Ms. Lu and the other passengers were offered food for the first time: A bowl of congee and a few dumplings and buns. Ms. Lu, concerned about removing her mask so close to other people, didn’t open her box of food.

Once they got to the quarantine site, she was offered some moldy rice and told that she’ll be there for one or two weeks. “My only wish is to leave this place alive,” she said to the Journal’s reporter yesterday.

It’s rough on the outside too. Some Shanghai residents who are under lockdown are getting shipments of food and then apparently being left to divvy it up among themselves. If you get to the delivery site late, you have a problem. This tweet reportedly translates to: “At the shelter isolation point in Nanhui, Shanghai, the quarantined people need to grab the supplies themselves to get the bedding, food, and drinking water. A woman who only grabbed a box of water called on everyone to forward the video to attract the attention of the relevant managers and help her through the difficult time.”

Some residents are posting on social media in desperation to call attention to their hardship. “I’m not able to buy food. I have nothing left in my fridge. My neighborhood has been sealed off. I don’t know what to do,” wrote one quoted by the Guardian. If your only difficulty is food, you’re lucky: China’s lockdown rules are so strict that people with medical problems who need treatment are out of luck. Another social media quote: “Our 90-year-old has diabetes. Before the lockdown, our doctor prescribed to us some medication to use at home because all the nurses were asked to help with Covid tests. Suddenly, Pudong was shutdown, and we were unable to get the medication at all. Then we bought it online, but the delivery company was unable to send it to us because they are not delivering anything now.”

One woman whose father has late-stage stomach cancer has been in intense pain since mid-March, unable to go to the hospital because his neighborhood is locked down. The authorities finally started paying attention to her after she posted to social media and an outcry was raised, agreeing to let him be hospitalized — if she took down her post. She refused. He’s still not at the hospital.

Parents are also terrified of being separated from their children, of course. Reportedly an online petition demanding that asymptomatic children to be allowed to isolate at home received 1,000 signatures before it was mysteriously taken offline. An official at Shanghai’s CDC was recorded on a phone call saying, “I’ve already suggested [to higher officials] multiple times that those with mild or no symptoms should just be quarantined at home” since the city’s medical system is obviously under strain. But she’s been ignored so far apart from an internal warning at the CDC that officials should speak with “one voice” when answering the hotline.

One mother who lives in Shanghai has an op-ed at the Times today describing her terror at the thought of being separated from her newborn and the protocols for when someone in your general vicinity tests positive:

Because I am vaccinated, I worry less about getting sick than about being removed from my family if I test positive. With my son still breastfeeding, stubbornly refusing a bottle and allergic to formula, this would be a nightmare scenario.

Right now in Shanghai, the just-completed half-city lockdown of Pudong is being extended in various ways. If your building has a case, the entire building will be locked down for 14 days. If your apartment complex has a case, you are locked down in your apartment for seven days, followed by a seven-day quarantine within your complex gates. If your subdistrict has a case, you are locked within your complex grounds for seven days. If your subdistrict has no cases, you are free to move around. In all cases, the person who tested positive for the coronavirus is taken away to central quarantine.

China’s reward for these draconian tactics has been a tripling of cases since the lockdowns began nine days ago, although it’s hard to tell from that whether infections are increasing or if the new mass-testing policy is simply picking up more of them. The more oppressive their control measures get, the greater the risk of adverse consequences, though. For instance, per the SCMP, “Towns and cities across China are rushing to impose strict travel restrictions and lockdowns as soon as new infections are reported, fragmenting the country.” If you know that a surge in case counts locally means getting the Shanghai treatment from Beijing, you’ll do whatever it takes to in order to snuff that outbreak out immediately.

And of course, if you’re a resident of Shanghai — especially if you’re a parent — the fear of you or your child being kept apart if either of you tests positive may lead you to conceal any symptoms you’re experiencing and to avoid being tested to whatever extent you can, which increases the risk that you’ll pass the virus on to someone and start a new chain of transmission. Watch Scott Gottlieb on that point below. The Chinese government is essentially in a race to stamp out the virus before residents’ sense of desperation makes the city unmanageable.