In Shanghai, Doctors Battle Officialdom and Exhaustion

As state media rings with Xi Jinping’s pronouncement that “persistence is victory” in Shanghai’s fight against Omicron—now sometimes referred to as “The Battle to Protect Shanghai”—a different martial metaphor reigns on social media: “An incompetent general will exhaust three armies.” The lockdown has proven to be an extreme test of Shanghai’s medical infrastructure. Doctors, nurses, and volunteers have been tasked with the near-impossible: ending the transmission of coronavirus among Shanghai’s population. Some are speaking out against the policy, which they find to be unscientific. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan reported on Zhu Weiping, formerly a relatively unknown epidemiologist working for the Shanghai CDC, whose recorded comments on the failures of Shanghai’s lockdown have gone viral

For most people, catching the variant is like getting the flu, Dr. Zhu said. Yet the government hasn’t taken on board advice by her and other medical experts to let infected people with mild or no symptoms isolate at home. As a result, she said, compulsory quarantine has stretched the city’s limited public-health resources.

“Which country would handle influenza this way?” Dr. Zhu asked during a 20-minute exchange with one caller who complained that his father had been taken into quarantine despite the official health app’s indicating he had negative test results. Dr. Zhu said the caller’s father should have refused to get into the ambulance.

[…]The caller, whose identity hasn’t been revealed, told her he was recording the conversation. Dr. Zhu said she had no objection if he posted it online. [Source]

Dr. Zhu’s frank style drew immediate comparisons to Dr. Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, who was fêted as a hero for warning the public about Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak in early 2020. At the time, Dr. Ai told China’s People magazine emphatically, “If I had seen this day coming, I would have said it everywhere, criticism or no.” The interview was swiftly censored, sparking a wildfire of creative attempts to preserve it. The recording of Dr. Zhu’s conversation has received similar treatment. In a terse statement, the Shanghai Pudong Health Committee said it was aware of the recording and investigating the incident. Netizens worried for Dr. Zhu’s safety (and perhaps mindful of the classic Chinese political adage “the fewer the words, the bigger the problem”) quickly started the hashtag “Protect Zhu Weiping” on Weibo, where it has received over 2.8 million views. Others turned their minds to the late Dr. Li Wenliang, whose Weibo page has become a “Wailing Wall” for Chinese netizens to express their thoughts, opinions, worries, and hopes. After Dr. Zhu’s comments went viral, many people headed to Li Wenliang’s Weibo page to invoke his protection of Zhu Weiping:

@卡罗在旅途:Dr. Li, please protect that doctor on the recording and see that she is safe and sound. We need truth-tellers.

@A周壮:Dr. Li, did you hear today’s recording out of Shanghai? I’m really heartbroken. I deeply, deeply love my country but I feel so helpless.

@NickWillowoleh:Dr. Li, it’s late night here in Wuhan and I’m staring at the breaking news out of Shanghai—it’s stirring up all sorts of emotions. I could never have imagined that the pain we common Wuhan folk suffered would be playing out again in Shanghai two years later. On tonight’s news, there was a recording of a woman on a telephone call, and everyone is saying she’s like you: someone who works for the public. Please watch over her.

@强尼大木:This [Wailing Wall] is a memorial stele. It has recorded too much. [Chinese]

Yet Dr. Zhu’s encouragement of non-compliance with quarantine measures may be impractical for most Shanghaiers. One Shanghai neighborhood committee issued a “friendly reminder” that anyone who “refuses to go to the quarantine center will forever have a red code [on their health app], and will never be able to ‘remove the hat.’” The final phrase, “remove the hat,” is an extremely charged term, rooted in the political upheavals of the 1950s. Those accused of being “rightists” during the Mao-era Anti-Rightist Campaign were said to have “donned” a hat they were unable to remove—until Hu Yaobang’s intervention in the late 1970s and early 1980s allowed most of those accused to be politically rehabilitated. Some Shanghai residents suspected of being positive for COVID-19 have been subject to seemingly indiscriminate forcible quarantine. Just as during the earlier lockdown in Xi’an, where residents’ singular hope was not to be “hauled off,” Shanghai residents have been pulled into centralized quarantine without being provided proof of positive tests. “You are [positive] if I say so,” one policeman was caught saying on video. The video has inspired grim, Monty Python-esque jokes about funeral home employees dispatched to nab the living for cremation—proof of life be damned:

Crematorium: You’re dead. We’re here to take you away!

Me: I’m not dead!

Crematorium: We’ve already been notified of your death, we must take you away!

Me: Show me a death certificate! The hospital got it wrong! I can prove I’m still alive!

Crematorium: We’re just the ones that do the cremating. If you can prove you’re still alive, you’ll be able to file an appeal afterwards.

Me: How am I supposed to prove I’m alive after I’ve been burned to a crisp! I beg you, please take a second look to see if I’m still alive!

Crematorium: Are you coming with us or not?

Me: I won’t go!

Crematorium: In that case, we’ll play rough! [Chinese]

A second rendition of the joke appears below, in a short skit performed in Shanghai dialect:

Other doctors who have voiced criticism of the government’s pandemic prevention policies have also been censored:

The central government has shown no sign of relenting. “We cannot relax the controls now,” Xi Jinping said during a recent inspection tour of Hainan Province. A propaganda campaign extolling zero-COVID and attacking other strategies as “lying flat” has commenced apace. Frontline doctors and cadres, and especially cadres who are also doctors, have been instructed, as one Xinhua commentary put it, to “gnaw on the hardest bones.” The Party’s war of attrition against the virus has taken an immense mental health toll on those tasked with executing it. On April 12, the director of Shanghai’s Hongkou district municipal health information center, Qian Wenxiong, hanged himself in his office. A rumor that his wife, a late-stage cancer patient, followed him to the grave has been debunked by official Chinese sources. At the South China Morning Post, Guo Rui reported on Qian’s suicide and the online outpouring of grief it inspired

There is a widespread view online that the official took his own life because of the unbearable pressure at the front line of Shanghai’s health crisis.

[…] Some vent their anger on social networks, and Qian’s death sparked another wave of emotion as Shanghai’s online community questioned its cause.

“I am speechless. The mortality rate of the virus is not high, but there are a lot of people who die because of epidemic prevention,” one Weibo user said. [Source]

Qian is not the first doctor to die during the current outbreak in Shanghai—although none have died of the virus, at least officially. Before the commencement of the city-wide lockdown, a nurse died from an asthma attack after being denied treatment at her own hospital. At times, the traditional doctor-patient relationship has been upended: in one Shanghai field quarantine hospital, patients took care of a doctor who had collapsed from overwork. Photographs of exhausted medical workers abound on social media. Over 2,000 military doctors from the People’s Liberation Army and 38,000 doctors and nurses from around the country have been deployed to Shanghai to combat the shortage of medical personnel. 

The heroism of Shanghai doctors has been tainted by sexism in official media. On April 2, the Weibo account of the Communist Youth League (CYL) posted a photo montage connecting the heroism of those on the front lines of the COVID fight with other notable crucibles in the Party’s past, namely the Long March and the Korean War (or the War to Resist America and Aid Korea, as it is termed in China.) No women were pictured in the collection, a glaring omission that drew criticism from around the web. On April 12, in response to the criticism, the CYL and the Beijing Evening News posted screeds labeling feminists “malignant tumors” and “feminazis” bent on inciting “gender opposition,” a charge that Weibo has used in the past to silence feminist voices. State media has often minimized the role of women in fighting the pandemic. Even though women made up approximately 70% of the nurses who went to Wuhan as medical volunteers during the initial 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, a CCTV show dramatizing that era, “Heroes in Harm’s Way,” portrayed women as cowardly, gossipy sidekicks unwilling to risk their lives for others. China’s top COVID fighter, Sun Chunlan, is the only woman on the Politburo. A formidable presence who commands the respect of her peers (see the deferential and attentive manner of Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang, Sun’s supposed equal on the Politburo, during her Shanghai inspection tour), Sun was nonetheless passed up for a position on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, a position no woman has ever held. “Sun’s experience shows that female leaders are just as capable as men […] but the Communist Party does not provide women with equal opportunities to rise through its ranks,” Neil Thomas of Eurasia Group told Bloomberg News. That sexism permeates the entire Party: female cadres make up only 9.33%, 5.29%, and 3.23% of the Communist Party’s leadership at the county, municipal, and provincial levels, respectively.

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