The following is an absolutely fascinating report from TPM Reader AK on the COVID-19 clampdown in Shanghai. We get so many great accounts from TPM Readers, always with different dimensions and different kinds of information depending on the kind of news story over so many years. This one is particularly rich. But I’m reminded how great an asset and value this is to the TPM community and our ability to bring you the news.
AK is responding my update from last night which reported on some experts’ argument that basic public health fundamentals may account for a lot of China’s apparent success more than some of the outlandish approaches we’re seeing reported. But I want to clarify that I — and I think the two people I was referencing — are not just talking about hand washing or bans on large public events. I still mean pretty dramatic actions. That said, what AK describes in marvelous detail is really a vast and almost unimaginable restriction at scale, and one that seems to have succeeded with a great deal of voluntary buy-in that is almost unimaginable in American society. And as AK makes clear, by “voluntary” here we don’t mean that really anything was voluntary
— more the degree of willing compliance. People did what they were told.
From TPM Reader AK:
After reading that recent Twitter thread you posted as well as the NPR piece it references, I wanted to push back a bit with some on the ground color. I’m an American living in Shanghai, have been here 11 years. While it is true that most of China did not go as draconian as Wuhan, it is/was much more than anything I think most of the US would accept, especially in major cities. Even if Trump or local governments wouldn’t attempt to enforce these things or even suggest them as “good ideas”, there more happening here (and more buy in from the populace) than just wearing masks and washing hands. Some thoughts/anecdotes:
– Multiple weeks of travel restrictions post-holiday. We were out of town (within China) for the holiday and cut it short to get back early as I was afraid of being trapped where we were. Many colleagues were stuck in home towns for weeks. Some by choice, as no reason to be in Shanghai, but travel was severely restricted. Many cancelled flights and trains to restrict movement. All who came back at least a week “late” were told to take automatic 14 day self-quarantines by the government (and people listened). It didn’t matter where you were coming from, if they had cases there, or you had one on your flight/train. Once you’re back in Shanghai, 14 days at home.
– Most companies of any type had their offices shut down in Shanghai for a month. Not by their own choice, by the government’s order. There was no option here. Even getting things from the office after the holiday so you could work from home was a strict process. Some members of my company were working from their phones/personal computers rather than getting to their laptops.
– Nearly every restaurant/bar/shop shut down for a month. Convenience and grocery stores allowed to remain open and some large food chains for delivery only, but that’s it. No choice in the matter. No “keep the shades and noise down”. No “just let the workers come in to do some cleaning/upkeep”. Sticker/seal over your door, you have no choice in being closed. Now they are slowly coming back online. First, a week of delivery only, and now “fully” open but with very strict restrictions on number of patrons at a time, hours of operation, etc. Even so, you could be shut down for the day with no warning for any perceived issue by patrolling govt workers.
– All residents of Shanghai had to use an app to register their travel back to Shanghai after the new year. Regardless of symptoms or issues, you had to register. This data was also shared/coordinated with many companies and their HR teams to plan returning to the office as well. Everyone registered without thinking. Proactive compliance from the public rather than the govt having to reach out/chase people down once they found a case on a flight/train. My entire company of 400+ had their data in within 24 hours.
– Nearly every apartment complex/building with temp checks at the gate and little to no access for non-residents. I live in a neighborhood of about 50 buildings, it’s generally open to all. Now you need to show a residency card to get in and only one of the 4 entrances is open. Strangely, completely open to delivery guys on scooters, but that’s it.
– All schools still shut down going on 6 weeks with no end in sight. They were “back to school” after a few weeks through e-learning, but all those kids are home. Their parents didn’t have anywhere to go, but if/when they do, it will be a problem.
– Huge, HUGE stigma on going out at all, even to just take a walk, though that’s beginning to relax. Regardless of whether we were allowed to, no one was leaving their apartments. It has changed in the last week or so as some companies have started back and office buildings are opening again, but prior to that it was maybe 5% of pedestrians/cars out on the road (and that might be generous). There was an incredible amount of self-quarantining happening, even above and beyond any 14 day recommendation.
None of the above is to take away from the fact that people here were also very conscious of what was happening and how serious it was. There was a very strong messaging push on the “fundamentals of public health”, and an equally strong adoption of that messaging, but it was still not just that. There is a reason emissions dropped 25%, there is a reason new cases plummeted, and I have no doubt if offices had been open, even with such public awareness and commitment, it would not have been as successful. Masks, hand sanitizer, hand washing are all in the front of people’s minds, and there was zero sense here from anyone that it was “not serious”, but life was also not normal for an extended period.
Side anecdote: One interesting social note was that the older generations (50+) were the hardest to get on board. While you might expect them to be the most compliant or on board with government propaganda, it was the younger generations that took it seriously. Many cartoons/jokes about the struggles of getting your parents/grandparents to wear their mask, etc.
Sorry for the ramble, feel free to slice and dice as you see fit, should you choose to use it at all. Feel free to quote me as “AK” should you need. Love everything you guys are doing, keep up the great work.
One of the things that comes through in this account isn’t just the scale, the largely voluntary compliance or the crazily different legal regime. It’s the already existing apparatus of control that is entirely lacking in the U.S. To be clear, thank God it’s lacking. In addition to what seem like armies of state minders, other accounts refer to neighborhood watches, firmly tied to the party or state, that kicked into gear to enforce things. These kinds of things are wholly alien to American society and for good reason. But they made for a dense apparatus of control that was clearly critical to achieving this clampdown at scale.
As I suggested last night, we still have the very operative question: what can we learn from China’s apparent, though still very tentative success? What can be adapted that would be useful and plausible in the U.S.?