Inside Shanghai’s Zero Covid Camp

By Unherd News Apr 7,  2022

The biggest city in China is in complete lockdown, with no end date in sight. Cases are rising and the 26 million residents of Shanghai are not permitted to leave their homes — not even to buy groceries or walk the dog. Footage has emerged of eerily deserted streets, but owing to the Chinese Communist Party’s control of the media, reliable information about what is really happening is hard to come by. UnHerd gets the world’s first tour of the 4,000-strong zero covid camp.

Now, for the first time, UnHerd can reveal the reality of life inside the vast mandatory quarantine facility in Shanghai, a zero covid camp erected within the ‘Expo’ conference centre.

Jane Polubotko is a Ukrainian national who has lived in Shanghai for nine years, working as a marketing manager at a Chinese music technology company. On March 26th she felt slightly unwell, so went for a Covid test. The next day she was contacted to say that the results were “abnormal”, and suddenly an emergency health vehicle appeared at her block of flats to pick her up. She was shown no paperwork and she didn’t know where she was being taken.

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Jane in the numbered booth where she has been staying for the last 11 days

For the past 11 days, Jane has been known as resident HI-17 118 at the central Shanghai Covid quarantine centre — one of 4,000 individuals held in a single vast room with no walls, without showers and without information as to when they will be released. Jane points out that, as well as there being no separation or ventilation, they are living at such close quarters that if they didn’t have Covid on arrival they very likely will catch it at the facility.

She has been tested five times, and has received the results of four: negative, positive, negative, negative. “Today we were told that apparently if you have four negative tests in a row you can be released from the hospital — but I still don’t know if we can really trust this information, so until I actually see people leaving I can’t believe it.” To date, she hasn’t seen anyone leave.

“Yesterday there was a list circulating with names of people who might be leaving today. But nobody left.”

Jane is unclear as to her legal status or rights, but she is clear that she can’t simply leave. “I am pretty sure there will be legal repercussions if I just walk out from this place. It’s not that easy because — although we can go outside sometimes when they let us out — there is a fence, so I would have to climb the fence and that would definitely attract a lot of people with their phones.”

The daily conditions are grim. “There are no showers. We have little water baskets that we can use to wash our faces, hands, arms and legs. They bought some towels, but it’s still hard — especially for girls.”

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Residents of the Shanghai Zero Covid centre washing their hair in metal sinks

“The first day when I arrived, there were a lot of people complaining to the medical staff… And a few days ago, again people were complaining. That was already our 9th or 10th day, and people were really not satisfied with the fact that we are still here. Right now, I feel like people are getting more and more annoyed at staying here for such a long time.”

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Fully PPE’d health workers gather outside the centre to test queues of residents

Despite all this, Jane remains strikingly upbeat. “It’s not nice for sure, especially not knowing what’s happening next. And not being able to have control over your body. But I’m trying to stay positive… I’m Ukrainian. Knowing what’s happening right now in my country means I can’t feel upset about my situation — because I know that what’s happening in Ukraine is way, way worse.”

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