Outcry as Shanghai sends vulnerable senior citizens into makeshift quarantine camps
(CNN) -- The men came after 2 a.m. on Tuesday in the dead of the night, banging on an apartment door in a rundown housing complex in Shanghai. When nobody answered, they pried open the lock and barged in, rousing a 92-year-old woman from her bed.
The visitors demanded to take the woman and her 74-year-old son to a quarantine center, because, according to their records, both had tested positive for Covid-19 five days earlier on April 14. When the old woman refused to go -- both she and her son had since tested negative -- she was allegedly pulled out of bed and dragged onto the floor. Fearing the worst, her son helped her dress and agreed to comply.
The account of events, as told in a series of online posts by the woman's granddaughter Zhi Ye, a former journalist born and raised in Shanghai, has sparked shock and fury across Chinese social media.
"There's no limit to the cold-blooded cruelty and violence," said the top comment under Zhi's post on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service.
Amid public outcry, the local government issued a statement on Tuesday evening, confirming the late-night transfer of the two elderly residents to a quarantine site. It said police and neighborhood committee workers had a locksmith pry open an outer door to the apartment because they feared "an accident had happened" to its occupants.
The statement said the two elderly residents had agreed to the transfer after communicating with police officers and "voluntarily went downstairs" to get in the car.
Zhi declined to be interviewed when reached by CNN.
Zhi's grandmother is among many senior Shanghai citizens who have been hauled off to government quarantine in recent days, as authorities step up efforts to remove all positive cases from communities in a bid to end the spread of Covid outside designated sites.
A patient at a quarantine center converted from a warehouse told CNN a group of senior citizens, some in wheelchairs, was transported to his facility from a nursing home on Monday night.
Some senior citizens have attempted to push back. Several social media videos show an elderly woman who appears to have left quarantine and is trying to enter a neighborhood compound. She is seen walking around and arguing with Covid workers in hazmat suits, who try to persuade her to go back to the government facility. CNN has reached out to local officials for comment about the situation, but they have not responded to calls.
The mass transfer came as Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the most senior official in charge of the country's Covid response, vowed Monday to send anyone who tests positive for Covid and their close contacts to quarantine sites, "without exception, deduction and delay." Sun said in an interview Saturday that community transmission in Shanghai could be expected to end soon, and cases would only be detected in quarantine centers.
Shanghai officials are under tremendous pressure to contain a raging Omicron outbreak, which has infected more than 430,000 people despite weeks of stringent mandatory home lockdown. Public discontent has been mounting, with residents struggling to secure food and medical access.
The latest efforts to end community transmission have only sparked more anger. Many fear that senior citizens will not receive proper care at makeshift isolation facilities, some of which are plagued by poor conditions, overcrowding as well as shortages of medical equipment, doctors and nurses.
"For the elderly in their 80s and 90s, the risk of them getting cross-infected and dying in these quarantine centers is much higher than having them stay at home and self isolate," said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Many of those elderly people suffer from chronic conditions that require special care, which likely won't be provided at quarantine centers."
Chinese officials have long boasted that "zero-Covid" is saving lives, especially vulnerable groups like the elderly. But some argue that by forcing senior citizens into centralized quarantine, it poses a threat to the health and well-being of the very people the policy is supposed to protect.
"The question is at what cost? And does the end justify the means?" Huang said.
"They've pried open the door"
In her social media posts, Zhi said her grandmother and uncle tested positive for Covid-19 by antigen self-test on April 13. They immediately informed the neighborhood committee, which sent workers to take their nucleic acid tests the next day. Both developed only mild coughs and had no fever, and by April 16, their antigen tests had returned negative results.
Then, on Monday afternoon, they were told by the neighborhood committee they would be transferred to a makeshift quarantine facility. Zhi was immediately worried -- her grandmother suffers from high blood pressure and heart disease, while her uncle is on daily medication for a recent prostate surgery.
Like many other Shanghai residents, Zhi resorted to social media for help. "Please everyone help me share this! Please don't take my 94-year-old grandmother to the quarantine center," she pleaded in a lengthy post on WeChat, which went viral. (Traditionally Chinese age is calculated differently and can add up to two years to a person's actual age.)
Then, at 2:47 a.m., Zhi received a brief phone call from her uncle. "They've pried open the door," she heard him saying, his voice barely audible above the noise.
When Zhi's grandmother and uncle arrived at the isolation facility after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, it was already crowded with elderly people, including some in wheelchairs, Zhi wrote in a later post. There was no free bed available, and they spent the rest of the night sitting in the hallway. The next morning, they were assigned to their beds and each received a sleeping bag and a blanket.
A video of the healthcare center obtained by CNN shows senior citizens lying or sitting on beds lining a hallway and a reception area, with wooden boards and thin sheets as bedding. An elderly man who could hardly walk is seen clinging onto a wall as he moves in slow, tiny steps toward his bed.
The local government statement said medical workers at the quarantine center conducted a basic medical check-up on Zhi's grandmother and uncle, and "made sure their health conditions are normal." It acknowledged the shortage of beds, and said healthcare workers would pay extra attention to elderly patients with underlying ailments.
The public attention appeared to pay off. Shortly before midnight Thursday, 45 hours after they were taken away, Zhi's grandmother and uncle were sent back home following three negative Covid tests, Zhi wrote in an update on WeChat.
"I hope grandma and uncle can finally have a good night's sleep without being disturbed again," she wrote.
But many more senior citizens remain in centralized quarantine, or are likely on their way there as the campaign to end community transmission intensifies.
On Wednesday, Sun, the vice premier, told local officials to come up with more targeted measures to deal with old neighborhoods and nursing homes that have reported high infections.
Officials were told to strengthen on-site contact tracing, speed up the transfer of positive cases and close contacts into isolation, and swiftly conduct disinfection, according to a statement from the Shanghai government.
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