A few minutes after midnight, when several workers raised the metal fences that sealed the accesses to a housing development in the Pudong district, in the financial heart of Shanghai, there was a stampede to get out. Hundreds of neighbors eager for freedom ran aimlessly, jumping from one side to another as if they were celebrating Real Madrid’s goal in the Champions League final, but avoiding close physical contact. The joy was contagious, but at a distance. Some took off their masks for a few seconds to take a breath of fresh air. Others stretched out their arms and legs like animals that haven’t been out of the cage for a long time.

Among all the happy crowd, there were also neighbors who dragged large suitcases and who fled as if someone were chasing them. Many went to the airport or the train stations to get on the first transport that would take them away from the city, lest they be confined again.

That procession of suitcases, which spread throughout the city on Wednesday morning, was already experienced in Wuhan in April 2020. It was Holy Wednesday when the epicenter of the pandemic opened its doors after 76 days under a strict lockdown. After serving penance, thousands of Chinese who had been trapped in Wuhan returned to their homes. The same is happening now in Shanghai.

The most populous city in China began a staggered blockade on March 28 that was to last only nine days but has lasted 65. Some 25 million people have been locked up in their homes for more than two months. Some residents have even made it through the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan because there were positive Covid cases in their neighborhoods and they were quarantined before the general lockdown.

That happened to the Italian Alessio. “In my case, it has been 79 days at home with my wife. We only stepped out on the street when they took us to do a PCR,” says this video game programmer who answers the call early on Wednesday after spending the whole night walking around in bicycle through the city.

“Mentally it has been very hard. My wife, when they told us that on June 1 we could go out on the street, she became afraid of freedom. And in the WeChat group -the Chinese WhatsApp- that we have with the neighbors, many of them, who have fallen into deep depression, manifested the same panic”, explains the Italian.

A survey of more than 1,000 Shanghai residents in mid-April suggested that 40% of those surveyed were on the verge of depression. On Baidu, China’s version of Google, searches for the phrase “psychological counseling” rose more than 250% this past month compared with the same period a year earlier, the survey company Data-Humanism said.

Many stories were shared on Chinese social media during the lockdown about exhausted officials who have been fighting to contain it since the beginning of the outbreak. They expressed desperation and exhaustion from continued mass testing in residential communities and having to relocate everyone who tested positive to mega-quarantine centers. A very heavy burden that even claimed a life: a 55-year-old local public health official, Qian Wenxiong, committed suicide in mid-April. Another notorious suicide was that of a local newspaper reporter, Tong Weijing (30 years old), in early May. She suffered from severe depression.

These situations only triggered public outrage as the weeks of confinement passed. The weariness of the confinements was accompanied by controversial images of children separated from their parents because they had tested positive, food shortages or news such as the death of a nurse from an asthma attack who was denied admission to her own hospital due to to the restrictions. Or the patient who was undergoing chemotherapy in a hospital and died while in quarantine. Or the sick grandparents who are not treated in medical centers because they live in communities where a positive case has been reported. To deal with this, it did not help that when the neighbors downloaded their complaints on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, they circulated almost at the same speed that the cyberspace system of vituperation later censored them.

After two months, more than 300 deaths and more than 600,000 positives in a city that before March had barely reported 400 infections in the entire pandemic, a lack of confidence has begun in Shanghai to gradually return to normality. Starting this Wednesday, more than 90% of residents will be able to move freely. But around 800,000 people will remain locked up because they live in areas considered at risk, which are those that have reported a case in the last 14 days.

City officials said public transportation has resumed as normal, though residents will need negative PCR test results within 72 hours to access the subway or bus. Around 15,000 mass testing stations are spread throughout the city. Shopping centers and department stores will be open, but it will not be possible to exceed 75% of the maximum capacity.

The city has gone from a peak of almost 28,000 daily infections to 14 new positives reported on Wednesday. That has led to trying to restart the locomotive of the world’s second-largest financial hub, whose economy, according to analysis by investment banks such as JPMorgan, will contract this quarter as a result of the shutdown in Shanghai, which has halted production.

Many businesses in the city, from factories to financial services firms, had been operating under “closed-loop management” for a month, meaning companies could open as long as workers lived on the premises. The same thing happened in some supermarkets such as Carrefour in the Xujing neighborhood, where the 43 employees had been barricaded inside since April to be able to fulfill the thousands of online orders from neighbors.

The immutable national policy of zero Covid charged harshly against a city that had been one of the few strongholds in China that endured under a more permissive strategy towards restrictions and closures. While in the West the large metropolises parked the pandemic a long time ago, the closure of Shanghai suffocated a large city that is essential for the Chinese economic muscle.

“It has been a ruin. Many businesses have ended up closing and their owners are the ones you now see with their suitcases leaving the city fast, lest they be locked up again,” says Jonathan Ren, an economist who works for the firm FTI Consulting at its headquarters in Shanghai. “It is not going to be an opening as fast as many expect. Restaurants are still closed and only serve at home. There is also no forecast that cinemas, bars or gyms will open for now, and some companies have decided that their employees continue working. from home. National tourists cannot come because they would have to quarantine for a week and there is a lot of fear because as infections rise again, they will close many neighborhoods again. So it will be a very slow restart, “says Ren.

Noise, dust and traffic have returned to the main avenues of Shanghai. People celebrate the new freedom after an extreme confinement that will have to wait a little longer to see the havoc it has left in the pockets and heads of 25 million people.

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