Xi’an COVID lockdown: Growing frustration over food shortages and official mismanagement

Society & Culture

The 13 million residents of Xi’an, China remained on strict lockdown over the new year, and continued to complain on social media about official handling of the situation.

Pandemic relief workers deliver groceries to a residential compound in Xi’an. Image from Weibo

No fireworks, no private gatherings, and no form of public celebrations. There was little good news for those hoping to celebrate the New Year in the Chinese city of Xi’an, which has been in lockdown since December 23 when a substantial tide of local COVID-19 transmissions was identified. 

Instead of hope and optimism, the 13 million residents of Xi’an — which has so far reported over 1,600 cases of the Delta strain since December 3 — rang in 2022 with growing frustration over food shortages, sudden orders of centralized quarantine, and an outpouring of sad stories about how the local government’s alleged mishandling of the outbreak upended their lives.

The promised deliveries that never arrived

Barred from leaving their housing compounds except for regular COVID testing, citizens in Xi’an have been struggling to keep hunger at bay as supplies at home are running low. Last week, in a state of desperation and exasperation, a number of Xi’an residents took to social media to vent their frustration about a lack of groceries and other necessities, resulting in the trending hashtag, “It’s difficult to buy groceries in Xi’an” #西安买菜难#, which so far has been viewed more than 400 million times and brought a great deal of attention to their plight. 

Following the cries for help and ​​public outrage over the perceived incompetence of the Xi’an government, local officials promised steady deliveries of groceries to households, with the country’s Ministry of Commerce saying that it would contact nearby provinces to help ensure adequate supplies of food and other essentials in Xi’an. Since then, major state media like Chinese Central Television (CCTV) have published multiple stories showing community workers assembling free grocery deliveries for Xi’an residents.

However, not everyone is satisfied with the services. On Weibo, there have been a stream of posts by Xi’an residents complaining about the quality and price of the produce delivered. And judging from other posts online, there were still no fresh groceries in sight for many people in the city. Finding humor in a time of helplessness, some of the hungry posted drawings of the groceries they wish they had received.

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The efficiency and sanitization of the deliveries were called into question, too. In a video that was intended to generate good publicity for the Xi’an government, a group of anti-epidemic workers are shown — instead of driving into residential compounds to make deliveries — standing in a line and transporting vegetable packages in a relay manner. On social media, reactions to the clip ranged from confusion to outright hostility. “They were literally standing right next to a road. They could have driven a truck and dropped the goods at the gate. Nothing about it makes sense to me,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese), while another person wrote, “It’s insane that they thought it was a good idea to let dozens of anti-epidemic workers touch those packages before they reached people in need.”

A fight over steamed buns

For some people in Xi’an, the hunger was so intense that they were left with no choice but to break lockdown restrictions to get food. But as with strict epidemic controls, Xi’an officials seem to have a zero-tolerance policy towards disobedience.

Over the weekend, one video clip (in Chinese) that made the rounds on Chinese social media showed a young man in Xi’an getting physically assaulted by several community workers because he left home to buy steamed buns. In the video, the person can be seen explaining his situation to the workers, who beat and kick him, knocking his food to the ground. After the clip blew up on the internet, setting off a firestorm of criticism of the violence by the government employees, city authorities announced that two of the community workers had been punished, adding that they had apologized for their actions. 

But the response did little to placate social media users who continued to call on the Xi’an government to treat its residents better. Many argued that the incident highlighted the misplaced emphasis of Xi’an officials on enforcing rules, rather than meeting people’s basic needs. Some pointed out that such disputes were inevitable as Xi’an’s anti-epidemic workers were encouraged by local authorities to take “targeted and forceful” measures to curb the outbreak.

Midnight eviction

In another example that has demonstrated Xi’an’s indifference towards the plight and suffering of people in a time of crisis, hundreds of residents in the Mingde Bayingli housing compound in the south of Xi’an were reportedly told just after midnight on January 1 that they had to leave home and undergo isolation in centralized quarantine facilities for an indefinite period of time due to recent reported infections in the community.

According to the people who were transferred, the eviction apparently happened on short notice, leaving essentially no time for them to pack and make requests for family members who needed special arrangements. Photos and videos shared online show the residents waiting for hours in freezing temperatures for buses to come, many of them children, seniors, and even pregnant women. While on the buses, “there was no protection provided against potential infections” and “little information was given as to the destination,” an affected resident wrote (in Chinese) online. The living conditions at the facility were hazardous, he claimed. 

“During our first night there, many of us were frustrated by a lack of heating and basic supplies. But there was no one for us to contact,” he wrote, adding that the frequency of COVID testing at the facility was worryingly low, which he said defeated the entire purpose of centralized quarantine. “I was doing just fine staying at home. Now I feel vulnerable and exposed here. What if one of us turns out to have COVID? How am I supposed to protect and save myself?” he wrote. 

Chaotic management of medical resources

While some people were forced into centralized isolation despite testing negative for the virus, those who actually showed symptoms of COVID faced difficulties seeking immediate attention and proper treatment. On Monday, news (in Chinese) broke that an entire household consisting of six people, including two children, tested positive for COVID on December 30 after the husband of the family first developed COVID symptoms about a week ago and repeatedly asked community workers to take him away from his family. 

His story is reminiscent of the experience told by a university student in Xi’an last week, who wrote in a viral Weibo post that after she woke up with a high temperature on December 26, community workers ignored her calls for medical assistance and a total of six hospitals rejected her, citing concerns about taking in patients showing COVID symptoms. Although her illness turned out to be a regular cold, she wrote, “If these community workers keep focusing on controlling public opinion, playing the blame game, and deceiving people, instead of containing the spread of the virus, when will the outbreak in Xi’an end?”

Another unintended, disastrous outcome of Xi’an resolve to eradicate the virus is that people with needs unrelated to COVID are being turned away by hospitals. In an unverified post (in Chinese) on Weibo, a woman claimed that her dad had died of cardiovascular disease after multiple hospitals refused to treat him, citing policies of not being allowed to admit patients from regions affected by the outrage.