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The Effect on Mental Health of Shanghai's COVID-19 Lockdown

Personal Perspective: The impact could last for generations.

Chinese social media
Wild grass grew on the Bund, Shanghai
Source: Chinese social media

By Xinyu Wang

I write this post as a person who experienced the unprecedented lockdown in Shanghai. China has implemented a “Zero COVID” policy to control the spread of the virus. In March 2022, Shanghai, China, entered a three-month lockdown in response to increased COVID-19 cases, while the rest of the world relaxed most of the measures, moving somewhat back to “normal." Unlike those instituted in the United States, lockdowns in Shanghai do not allow residents to leave their neighborhood, or even their homes. While I “escaped” Shanghai right before the lockdown was fully implemented, I have been in touch with friends about their experience. People in Shanghai have a different mentality now than they used to. The main theme of these changes is pessimism about a bright future.

Initially, Shanghai authorities imposed a "precise lockdown" on some communities with positive cases as part of its prevention-and-control measures. Every 24 hours, citizens outside the "precise lockdown" zone were mandated to have a test, and people with negative results were alowed to travel within the city. The daily routine of my life in Shanghai was to order takeout, eat takeout food at the hotel, wait for the news of the pandemic, and open my phone every day to check the number of new cases. I was panicked by the soaring numbers. I couldn't stand two weeks of isolation as a high-spirited teenager, so I went to another city. It's so much worse, though, for people who were quarantined for two months. Shanghai residents' lives were completely disrupted.

Before the lockdown, some of my friends had a good schedule, but the lockdown disrupted it. Lately, they have been staying up late. The sleep time of some Shanghai communities is greatly reduced due to testing as early as 5 am. People stay up late playing games and using social media. A friend of mine said he had trouble concentrating, was unable to sleep well, had started procrastinating, and felt that life was meaningless. Although the lockdown is over, these symptoms persist. He may be suffering from major depression.

This lockdown has had long-term effects on people's mental health, particularly that of young people. Shanghai is seen by many young people as a prosperous international economic center that keeps getting better. A lifeless, stagnant Shanghai was unimaginable to them. Within a few days, though, their city changed beyond recognition. Wild grass has started growing on the ground of the Bund, once the city's busiest landmark. It's a chilling picture. Some even feel that an era is ending. Online searches about immigration have skyrocketed.

When young children started seeing people again, they struggled to recognize facial expressions through masks. All of their days had been spent at home. My childhood wasn't like this. I painted stones in the park with my best friends. During winter and summer vacations, my parents took me on trips or I went fishing with my grandparents on the river. As a result of the lockdown, more children were forced to stay at home and miss out on many of the joys of childhood.

In the fast-paced global financial capital of the 21st century, who would have thought that there could be a food shortage? Buying and hoarding food was the most popular topic about Shanghai on the Internet. Food security had been the last bottom line of people's quality of life. Even the most optimistic person can break when they see only radish and cabbage left in the refrigerator. One of my classmates told me he had set several alarm clocks every morning at 5. A.M to get up early to buy food on a phone app. The neighborhood food distributors bullied him because he was not local and only sent him lettuce and cabbage every day. Fortunately, he got meat from some kind-hearted neighbors. He told me that at that point, he had been about to have a mental break, and that now when he sees lettuce, he wants to throw up. If I were only allowed to eat lettuce for a month or two, my mood would definitely go downhill.

As the lockdown comes to an end, what will Shanghai do next? There are 20 million people living there, and this unprecedented lockdown is now their collective trauma. Is it possible to heal the pessimism about the future? How will those suffering from depression in China, where psychiatric medical services are scarce, be diagnosed and treated? Will conventional psychological interventions and treatments be effective for such collective problems? Is there a way for the city to reclaim its former glory? The people of Shanghai will need to think about and address all these issues.

Xinyu Wang is a student at the Jin Hua Foreign Language School.

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