All Shanghai universities in lockdown in COVID-19 wave

All universities and colleges in Shanghai – which has around 30 universities and a similar number of colleges – are in lockdown amid the COVID-19 resurgence in Eastern China, China’s state broadcaster CGTN reported this week. Shanghai and several other areas in China are facing the worst COVID outbreaks since early 2020, mainly due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Since at least 12 March, students and staff at universities and colleges in Shanghai – affecting tens of thousands of students – have been unable to leave campus as mass testing is rolled out. Schools and universities have been the source of outbreaks in the past.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where some 33 cases of infection were identified early this week, was among the hardest hit in the city with around 30,000 students unable to leave the campus since 9 March and restricted to their own dormitories since 12 March, unable even to use shared bathroom facilities, some students said.

Several smaller university campuses in Shanghai locked down as early as 2 March.

As well as Shanghai, the current outbreak has spread to several dozen cities in 20 provinces, according to China’s National Health Commission. The main hotspots are Jilin – considered the epicentre of the current outbreak with cases reported in the Jilin capital Changchun and Jilin City – and the port city of Qingdao in eastern Shandong province.

Beijing and the southern city of Shenzhen, a technology hub bordering on Hong Kong, have also been affected with smaller numbers of cases.

CGTN showed footage of students holding choral concerts from their dormitory balconies at a Shanghai university campus on Monday as 955 new COVID-19 cases emerged between 1 and 15 March in Shanghai. The city reported nine locally transmitted COVID-19 infections and 130 asymptomatic carriers on Monday, the National Health Commission said on Tuesday.

While these are not large numbers relative to the population, China’s zero-COVID policy has led to immediate shutdowns to stop the spread, and mass testing with residents told not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. Schools in Shanghai have also been closed and classes moved online.

Since 12 March, those who need to leave Shanghai must provide negative nucleic acid tests taken within 48 hours. The country’s national aviation regulator said on Tuesday that 106 international flights scheduled to arrive in Shanghai will be diverted to other Chinese cities from 21 March until 1 May to “reduce pressure” on the city’s COVID prevention and control measures.

Taken by surprise

With food deliveries prohibited at several locked down campuses, students who spoke to University World News by phone said they were taken by surprise by the sudden lockdown orders. Many were left without food and other provisions after last minute panic buying at campus stores.

Some universities have distributed food supplies, but students on some campuses say they have been left without any provisions, including sanitary products.

On 12 March Shanghai Jiao Tong University issued a notice that the epidemic situation in the city was getting tighter, and epidemic prevention and control on campus needed to be severe. It issued an order to strictly implement the ‘Stay at home!’ control measures.

The university said it would set up “a special management and service team” in each building to enforce the restrictions.

Shanghai’s Fudan University issued a notice at 8pm on Sunday 13 March – too late for students to stock up – announcing a closed campus policy, initially for two weeks, but said the end time would be announced at a later date. East China Normal University made a similar announcement the same day.

Yang Zhenfeng, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, said this week that restrictions on university campuses would be loosened only after everyone on campus tests negative twice, adding that all teachers and staff must undergo weekly testing.

Yang told Shanghai media that the Shanghai Jiao Tong University campus was under quarantine and infected cases had been transferred to designated hospitals.

“Stress levels are rising among students,” said a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Many are afraid it could be a long lockdown and we have been unprepared.”

She said she had heard that students at Shanghai University, another campus in the city, had been allowed out only to pick up food and the university canteen there was providing packed meals, but that was not the case at her university. All classes had shifted online, she said.

“This is not the first time,” she said, referring to the lockdown, “But there was disruption. We do not want to be like the students in Jilin.”

Jilin student pleas go viral

Last week students at the Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University in northeastern Jilin province where China’s latest COVID-19 wave is thought to have originated, posted pleas for assistance on social media saying they were running out of daily necessities after suddenly being locked down in dormitories and campus buildings including the university library.

Jilin province unveiled strict travel restrictions after it posted a steep jump in daily COVID-19 infections. By 10 March a total of 68 local cases were recorded in the university including 20 confirmed and 48 asymptomatic cases. The first case was on 6 March.

A slew of comments by netizens saying they were students at Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University pointed to the university’s lack of transparent and effective management procedures after positive cases were registered on the campus.

One student said on the social media platform Weibo that students isolating in their dormitories at the Jilin campus found “their doors were sealed off and they can’t even go to the dormitory’s public toilet”. When the students tried to call the government’s COVID-19 control centre, phone operators “refused to answer our questions”, he wrote.

The Weibo post went viral, with over 2.6 million likes within days. The wider public expressed outrage on social media with many netizens sympathising with the students and calling for university administrators and local officials to be held accountable.

The students’ complaints became a hot topic. “Not just the university’s Party secretary, all officials involved should be held accountable for their bureaucratism!” commented a netizen on Weibo.

“From the school to the prevention and control institutions to the Jilin city government – if there was one person who had the courage to assume responsibility, it would not have developed to the present situation,” another post read.

Perhaps in response to the outcry, on 11 March some 6,556 students and 85 teachers at the university in Jilin, all wearing protective suits, were transported in a convoy of buses out of the city to different cities in Jilin province for quarantine. “After that, thorough disinfection will be conducted at the university,” CGTN reported.

The evacuation of students and staff came after Zhang Lifeng, the Communist Party secretary and top manager of the Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University, was dismissed on 10 March, the Jilin provincial party committee said in a brief notice without stating the reason.

Official media later said he was removed due to his “negligence and ineffective response”, and also pointed to the weak and ineffective response of other university officials.

University administrators in several provinces were told last year that they would be held responsible for outbreaks on campus and for ensuring that effective measures were in place.

Officials sacked over outbreaks

The following day official media reported that Wang Lu, deputy party secretary and mayor of Jilin City, had been removed from his position as cases in the city continued to soar. The mayors of Jilin City and the Jiutai district of the city of Changchun have both been dismissed, the state-run Xinhua news agency announced on Saturday, without specifying when the dismissals had happened. Both places have had rapidly expanding outbreaks.

Elsewhere in the province, Jilin University in the provincial capital of Changchun, which has a student enrolment of over 60,000, sealed off its campus, with only essential epidemic containment workers allowed to enter. The university started online courses for all students on 9 March.

The university was at pains to avoid complaints, saying it offered free meals to students and made sure students and teachers have sufficient supplies of daily necessities, according to a social media post from the university’s official account. The hashtag “Dear students, we will make sure you have enough food” became a trending topic on the Weibo microblog platform, viewed more than 110 million times.

Students posted pictures and videos of meals provided by the university on social media, praising the university’s “thoughtfulness and care”.

In the Laixi area of Qingdao in Shandong province, students constitute more than a quarter of the 776 confirmed cases since 4 March. Authorities said the “cluster” had since spread to other provinces.

As many as 17 officials from Laixi have been reprimanded or dismissed for allowing “loopholes” and alleged negligence in handling the outbreak, the Qingdao disciplinary commission said last week. The principal and vice-principal of a middle school in Laixi were fired after many pupils became infected, according to the official China Daily newspaper.

Zero-COVID strategy fatigue

As public frustration and sympathy for the students mounted, state media acknowledged that some sectors were showing “a certain level of fatigue toward the country’s zero-COVID strategy, which could affect the outcome of the implementation of the current policy”.

But China’s Ministry of Education said this week that universities letting their guard down, especially when the COVID-19 epidemic situation had been stable for a long time, was one of the reasons for the ongoing cluster infections on campuses in a dozen provinces and regions.

Wang Dengfeng, head of the department of physical, health and arts education at the Ministry of Education, said at a press conference that an important reason for the delayed response on campuses was that institutions failed to launch emergency plans, especially quarantine, in a timely manner, the Global Times newspaper reported.

Shenzhen, China’s major tech hub bordering the country’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, asked its 17 million-plus residents on Monday to work from home if they can, while the city is carrying out three rounds of mass testing.

Residents are barred from leaving the city, the public transport services are suspended, and businesses, except those providing essential services, have been closed until 20 March. Students have been studying online since mid-February.