ZHOU SHENGNI NECESSA a doctor, and fast. Her 49-year-old family, who was suffering from an asthma attack, was being taken by her family to Shanghai East Hospital, where she worked as a nurse, for urgent treatment. It was March 23 and the Chinese city was under strict Covid blockade.
However, when they arrived at the emergency department, Zhou’s family found that it was closed for disinfection according to Shanghai rules to contain the spread of Covid. With an urgent need for medical attention, they had no choice but to drive to another hospital about 9 miles away. Zhou died later.
Zhou’s death caused outrage on Chinese social media, but it was not an isolated incident. The blockade of the city of Shanghai lasted two months, with most restrictions lifted on June 1. But during those two months, almost nothing moved, including the city’s hospitals, which were hit by sudden closures, and many restricted their services to emergencies only. Patients in need of medical assistance were told to take a negative PCR test to gain access to care.
From February to May, Shanghai health authorities reported 588 deaths related to Covid-19, most of them elderly. But officials did not count people like Zhou, who may have died as a result of city blockade restrictions.
Discussions about the collateral damage of China’s zero-covid policy are very restricted in the country. Censors have blocked comments from people who oppose the pandemic strategy, including remarks made by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But, as always in China, censorship has not stopped people from finding technical solutions to express their dissatisfaction.
April 14 a WeChat account named Shi You shared an article titled “Shanghai Deceased,” which reported on people in the city who had apparently died as a result of harsh blocking restrictions. The comment section of the article was quickly flooded with messages from people who said they had also heard or knew someone who had died during the blockade.
Capser Yu immediately realized that both the article and his comments were important. A native of Shanghai who now worked in Singapore, Yu had heard stories of people at home who had lost loved ones during confinement. One of the people lost was Chen Xiangru, a 3-year-old girl who was reportedly unable to receive timely treatment when she developed a severe fever in late March. Chen died at the hospital while waiting for the result of a PCR test required by doctors to provide treatment.
Concerned that censors would hide crucial evidence, Yu began taking screenshots of the WeChat article. A few hours later, WeChat cleaned up the article. When people in China tried to reopen the article, there was only one message left that said it was “in violation of regulations.”
Yu re-posted the content on a blog he created, called Real China, to help keep his parents informed in Shanghai about how news was reported in China abroad. Within hours, Chinese censors blocked the republished content. Yu says the article, which is still accessible outside of China, was read by more than 20,000 people before it was censored. The link has started working again for unknown reasons, and by the end of June, it had become the most read post on Yu’s blog.