Recently, a recording of a five-minute phone call made by an elderly Shanghai man to his neighborhood committee has been circulating on the Chinese internet and social media. During the call, the man [identified here only as “Mr. Yu”] tells the local cadre who answers the phone that he needs food, medicine and other supplies, and that he feels unwell and needs to go to the hospital. The cadre explains that his hands are tied and that he cannot help the man, and later expresses his own frustrations about the limitations of his job and his inability to help those suffering under Shanghai’s lockdown. Numerous social media posts related to the call have been censored via deletion or restrictions on reposting. According to a Chinese-language report in the Shanghai Observer [a subsidiary of Jiefang Daily/Liberation Daily, the official daily newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Party], the elderly caller was diagnosed with COVID-19 several days ago, and following the publicity generated by the phone call, he was admitted to a hospital for treatment.
Caller (Mr. Yu): I can’t take it anymore. I’ve run out of my medications, food, and other supplies. I’m really suffering.
Cadre: What supplies have you run out of? Your son asked me to fill your wife’s prescription yesterday. Why didn’t you ask me to do the same for you?
Mr. Yu: I’m feeling awful. I have a sore throat, and my fever’s on the rise.
Cadre: Let me send you some of that Lianhua Qingwen [Chinese herbal medicine].
Mr. Yu: We’ve still got some of that left.
Cadre: That’s the only medicine we’ve got here at the neighborhood committee.
Mr. Yu: I want to get a CT scan.
Cadre: A CT scan? That’s beyond my power.
Mr. Yu: No, I want to go to the hospital and get a CT scan.
Cadre: We’ve passed your name on up the line, but the higher-ups haven’t responded yet.
Mr. Yu: I’ve been waiting so long and they still haven’t handled it. What am I supposed to do? Wait around to die?
Cadre: (resignedly) I don’t know.
Mr. Yu: What?
Cadre: I don’t know either, Mr. Yu.
Mr. Yu: Which department should I turn to? Can’t you urge things along? You’re my only point of contact.
Cadre: (sighing) I’ve reported your situation, but the higher-ups …
Mr. Yu: Is that all you can do? You reported it days ago, and I haven’t heard back from you since.
Cadre: They never responded to me.
Mr. Yu: So because they didn’t respond, you’re just giving up?
Cadre: I’m not giving up. I’m handling a lot of cases today, not just yours. There’s a pregnant woman I managed to help get transferred out of here, and an elderly person who passed away. Mr. Yu, we’re not shirking our duties—we’re just handling too many things right now. (pause) But our hands are tied. I’ve done everything within the power of our neighborhood committee, and even gone above and beyond.
Mr. Yu: In that case, can’t you … take it up with someone at a higher level?
Cadre: The next highest level is the subdistrict committee. We can’t report to any higher level than that. As a resident, you can try to contact them on your own, but I’ll tell you—
Mr. Yu: If I can contact them, I—
Cadre: (interrupting) The 12345 hotline in Shanghai is useless!
Mr. Yu: I’ve already tried it.
Cadre: (raising his voice) Right, and did you get any results? Did you? Sorry, I don’t mean to sound harsh. But I’m worried sick, too. I’m furious about this. I’m angry!
Mr. Yu: Yes, we—
Cadre: (interrupts, shouting) But our hands are tied! I’m telling you, Mr. Yu, my hands are tied! There’s nothing I can do.
Mr. Yu: So, what am I supposed to do?
Cadre: I don’t know! And you’re not the only one I’m dealing with here. I’ve got a whole crowd of people in the same boat as you, and they’re not getting any help either!
Mr. Yu: So what are we supposed to do? Just cope with it on our own?
Cadre: (quietly) I don’t know. There might come a day when I have to quit because I can’t cope any more.
Mr. Yu: Today, I—
Cadre: (interrupting) I don’t know whether that day is coming soon. Mr. Yu, right now I’m even more hard-pressed than you!
Mr. Yu: (reasonably) Yes, I can see how you might feel that way. But I’ve been calling the subdistrict committee all day and couldn’t get through. It’s not like I haven’t tried. I called 12345 and the police too, you know?
Cadre: I know you have. But did you get any response?
Mr. Yu: That’s what I’m saying. There was no response. None.
Cadre: I have no idea what on earth they’re thinking.
Mr. Yu: Can’t they do anything to save us [ordinary people]?
Cadre: I want them to save us, too. (raising his voice) I want that too!
Mr. Yu: Why is this happening?
Cadre: Why? I wonder the same thing! Why are they doing this?
Mr. Yu: That’s what I’m asking.
Cadre: (incensed) They’re not taking care of the elderly, or pregnant women, or older people who have died. They’re not even collecting the trash!
Mr. Yu: I reached out to the Municipal Committee as well, but they just brushed me off.
Cadre: (kindly) Mr. Yu, I’m really frustrated that I can’t help you. I don’t know, right now … if anything, I’m even more heartbroken than you are. You’re just one family, but right now I’m dealing with countless families.
Mr. Yu: Right. (long pause) I empathize with everything you just said, I really do.
Cadre: I’ve filed written reports about your situation. I’ve made countless calls.
Mr. Yu: Well, I appreciate it.
Cadre: I’m sorry, Mr. Yu. There’s nothing I can do.
Mr. Yu: (sighing) Is this really what our country has become?
Cadre: I don’t know. How did Shanghai come to this? Well, thank you, Mr. Yu. (sighing softly) Bye now. [Chinese]