Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After months of lockdown, people and traffic return to the streets of Shanghai

Women throw their hats in the air to celebrate the easing of restrictions in Shanghai on June 1. (Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SHENZHEN, China — After two months of lockdown silence in Shanghai, Lily Liu was thrilled by that most mundane of sounds on Wednesday morning: traffic.

“A lot of cars were driving out of our housing complex,” said Liu, 24. “It’s been a long time since I heard the sound of car motors.”

China’s financial capital officially lifted its lockdown for most of its 25 million residents on Wednesday morning, with taxis and public buses returning to the streets. But Shanghai’s reopening remains a gradual process and residents say it will take time for the financial and emotional scars to heal.

Shanghai faces mental health crisis as covid lockdown drags on

On Wednesday morning across the city people flipped on the lights of long-darkened offices, strolled the famous Bund waterfront, crowded into subway cars and browsed supermarket shelves. Ranjit Singh, a longtime Shanghai resident and chief executive of the marketing agency Fugumobile, estimated traffic was at 60 percent of pre-lockdown levels on Wednesday, a surprising overnight rebound.

“I don’t think most people believed that it would open to the extent that it has,” he said. “There’s a hopeful mood.”

In the first minutes after midnight when the lockdown lifted, fireworks and firecrackers could be heard ringing across town, and some residents revved up their cars for a joyride.

In some Shanghai neighborhoods, ecstatic young people flooded the streets to party, prompting cheers from some neighbors that the city was returning to life.

“ ‘Bacchanalian revelries’ is the descriptor I would use,” Shanghai resident Animesh Narain said of some of the partying. “It’s been crazy.”

But others still felt scarred by the harrowing two months and did not feel like celebrating. One Shanghai-based business executive, Hua Shan, wrote on social media platform Weibo that people should remember those who died, those who lost their jobs and businesses forced into bankruptcy by the lockdown.

“There is no joy, just the humiliation of the past two months, and the fear of the future,” he wrote. “If we just celebrate that we ourselves are fine, then we are beasts and deserve it if it’s our turn next time.”

Some of the rhythm of normal life had resumed this week, including China Telecom maintenance work, routine physical exams at hospitals and — according to bemused residents — telemarketing calls.

But movie theaters and gyms remain closed. Some factories remain in “closed-loop” operation, with workers barred from leaving company grounds.

Shanghai's hummed back to life on June 1, as the financial hub ended its strict lockdown for most of its 25 million residents after two months. (Video: Reuters)

On Weibo, the hashtag #ShanghaiIsBack# got some 330 million views on Wednesday. “First time in two months, Shanghai’s had a traffic jam,” one resident quipped, posting a video of a line of cars crawling down a street.

Sidewalk barbers have become a common sight in recent days, catering to the scraggly haired residents emerging from long confinement.

Stranded in their own homes: Portraits of Shanghai's lockdown

While the United States has largely ended pandemic restrictions, China remains on the opposite end of the policy spectrum, doubling down on a “zero-covid” strategy to stamp out outbreaks through massive quarantine and testing campaigns.

Chinese health officials say if they quit now, the country will suffer a huge wave of covid-19 deaths. It remains unclear why China is unwilling or unable to accelerate its coronavirus vaccination program to the point where it can ease up on the zero-covid approach. Beijing has declined to import foreign vaccines.

Now China’s most populous city is sorting through the aftermath of its lockdown, the country’s most traumatic one since Wuhan at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. Many smaller businesses haven’t survived the two-month closure, when they had no sales but still had to pay rent. Residents say they carry the psychological scars of long isolation and having to scramble to secure food.

The economic impact of Shanghai’s shutdown has rippled along supply chains across China. Premier Li Keqiang warned last week of “grim challenges,” saying the economy was at risk of contracting in the second quarter.

“Even without further large-scale lockdowns, we think China’s economy will struggle to return to full health,” London-based research firm Capital Economics said in a note on Tuesday, citing continued supply delays and weak employment across the country.

Shanghai’s covid siege: Food shortages, talking robots, starving animals

Although most of Shanghai’s residents are now allowed out and about, some 190,000 people remain in lockdown in higher-risk neighborhoods, a city official said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Shanghai reported only 15 new cases on Tuesday, all people already in isolation centers, after daily case counts peaked above 20,000 in April.

The reopening has been gradual. In the past couple of weeks, certain neighborhoods started letting residents out a few hours at a time on exit permits, allowing them to go grocery shopping or to stretch their legs, even as most stores and venues remained closed.

Singh said he was allowed a brief outing on May 25, the first time in almost two months. With only a convenience store open, he bought a vanilla ice cream cone, walked along the empty streets and went back home.

As for Liu, she said she was allowed to go to the grocery store just outside her apartment building on May 18. But until Tuesday night, barricades blocked her from going anywhere except a small stretch of their street.

Stuck at home, she spent nearly 80 hours roaming the virtual world of the video game “Elden Ring.”

When the lockdown started to ease, Shanghai’s railway station saw a flood of people seeking to leave the city, even though they faced quarantine again when they arrived in another city. One of them was Han Huanhuan, a 21-year-old photography art student.

Han said she had been locked down at her Shanghai university since early March, weeks before the citywide lockdown began. At one point, she and other students were barred from using the showers for 13 days.

When school administrators started allowing students to leave the city last month, Han jumped at the chance. On May 23, she took a train to Chongqing, where she spent a week in quarantine as an arrival from a high-covid-risk city.

It was worth it. She got out of quarantine on Tuesday and was able to enjoy a hot pot meal at a restaurant. Her university classmates in Shanghai remained in lockdown.

In another part of Shanghai, aviation consultant Peter Jolicoeur, was looking forward to meeting with his running club Wednesday evening and finally seeing friends from other parts of the city. He said that in his apartment complex, they are reminded to take their coronavirus tests every couple days to help ward off the risk of a relapse into lockdown.

“The message we get is we need to do these tests,” he said. “And that we can’t let up on our efforts.”

Regular coronavirus testing will remain a part of daily life for Shanghai residents for the foreseeable future. The city is requiring a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours to get onto public transport, and one within 48 hours to leave Shanghai.

Liu said she was looking forward to eating lemon cheesecake again. She’s angry about the time she has lost and fearful that pandemic restrictions will linger.

“It feels like a return to the normal life of the past is still distant,” she said.

Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report