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‘I feel no better than a prisoner’: inside Shanghai’s crushing lockdown

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how anti-science disinformation is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: the source of the biolab conspiracy theory, and Russia’s burgeoning fake science industry

Shanghai has put all of its 25 million residents into lockdown, due to a Covid outbreak. It’s the largest city ever to undergo such restrictions. Drone footage of the deserted super-metropolis, shining emptily in the spring sunlight, calls to mind the spring of 2020. And yet for Shanghai’s citizens, there’s no end in sight. On Tuesday, authorities extended the lockdown for an “indefinite” period of time. On April 6, just 322 cases were reported as symptomatic, with a staggering 19,660 reported as asymptomatic. Zero deaths have been reported since early 2020. 

On Tuesday, the Qingming festival rolled around. During normal times, it’s a national moment of remembrance, where families bring gifts and offerings to the gravesites of deceased relatives. Now, cemeteries are offering alternative, online services, including virtual tomb visits with digital flowers and candles. 

Citizens have been posting on social media about the bizarre things they witness through their windows. “A neighbor is using a drone to try and find their runaway cat,” wrote one anonymous user on Twitter on April 5. “But what’s the plan if they do find it? No clear answer.” In the latest example of Chinese Covid officials killing pets over unfounded concerns they spread the virus, a chilling video of a healthcare worker bludgeoning a corgi to death has gone viral.

Shanghai residents, banned from even going to the grocery store, say they are running out of food. Many can’t order groceries online as all the delivery apps are fully booked, and others say government food drop-offs have been inadequate. “This is what my aunty received,” one young man wrote to me, asking to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the state. His extended family all live in Shanghai. He sent a picture of enough food for two people for about three days. “I’m worried about food shortages if lockdown goes on for another 2-4 weeks.”

Talking to people in China about the zero-Covid policy is difficult. Sources who have been brave enough to speak to me about the situation over social media messaging apps face getting a knock at the door the next day from the guobao, China’s secret police force.

“We are being watched every second by the so-called internet police,” one man from Shanghai wrote, after I messaged him asking how he was. He told me he started a Twitter account to get around Chinese censorship and find out more about what was really going on in his city. Although Twitter is blocked in China, some people use the platform via VPN, mainly as a way to connect with people and information beyond China’s borders. 

The man said he’s never felt more hopeless or desperate in his life.  He’s had to cut down to two meals a day, but is grateful because he has a 22-pound supply of flour, so he can make bread — which is more than many of his neighbors have. “I feel no better than a prisoner,” he said.

Food supply problems are crushing Shanghai’s citizens. Videos have emerged on Chinese social media of people screaming from their balconies, banging pots and pans, calling for supplies and saying, “We’re starving to death! We’re really starving to death! We haven’t eaten in a very long time!” People have also taken to singing from their windows in protest. One viral clip showed a drone equipped with a loudspeaker, instructing Shanghai citizens to “strictly abide by the restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open your window and sing.”

“This so-called dynamic Zero Covid policy is nothing but a power struggle of the CCP’s internal politics,” one Shanghaier wrote to me. “I understand perfectly that unlike the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world can do nothing to help our suffering,” he said. “However, knowing what is happening in Shanghai may help the world better understand what kind of totalitarian regime Xi’s is.”

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS  

A Russian website is peddling authorship in dozens of international scientific journals for up to $5,000 apiece. The website, www.123mi.ru, has posted over 1,000 advertisements selling bogus authorship in soon-to-be-published scientific papers. The website appears to be a paper mill — an outlet that churns out fake scientific research, and places pre-written papers into leading academic journals, adorned with the names of scientists who have paid to put their name on the author list. This phenomenon of cash for authorship may go back to 2012, when Vladimir Putin ordered universities to boost Russia’s international academic standing by publishing more papers by Russian authors. In response, universities created a system that financially rewards and promotes researchers for publishing in scholarly journals. A similar rewards system exists in China, also home to numerous paper mills, which I wrote about here

It appears the lone figure codenamed “Clandestine” who had a big hand in pushing the Ukrainian biolab conspiracy theory, has been unmasked. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has “with a high degree of confidence” identified Jacob Creech as the man who posted a viral Twitter thread on February 24 (the day Russia invaded Ukraine) claiming Russian airstrikes were targeting “U.S. biolabs” in Ukraine, and tweeting that Russia was trying to stop the U.S. from letting out “more viruses (bioweapons).” Creech says he’s a former restaurant manager and U.S. Army National Guard veteran. His claim about Russia targeting U.S. biolabs aligned with age-old Kremlin disinformation tricks of the trade, and was rapidly picked up by right-wing influencers including Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones. In the ensuing days, Russian Embassy officials, and even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, ran with the theory. Will the Russia-QAnon feedback loop ever end?

The solution to vaccine hesitancy? Trump. In the U.S., a creative new YouTube ad shows clips of former President Donald Trump recommending Covid vaccines. The ad was developed by researchers who asked hundreds of unvaccinated people who they would trust most for vaccine advice — Trump topped the list. They accordingly created an ad featuring a Fox News interview with Trump in which he recommends the vaccine. In areas where the ad was served, an extra 104,000 people got vaccinations, in comparison to control areas. The results showed that “health communication needs to come from trusted messengers and to meet people where they are,” University of Pennsylvania behavioral scientist Katherine Milkman told Science magazine

WHAT WE’RE READING 

Covid has reshaped our lives in myriad ways. And one of the most long term effects has been to influence the way we move through the world. During a genetics conference in California this week, attendees wore stickers to display their “comfort levels.” They could choose from “verbal hello and a little distance” to “elbows and knuckles” or “handshakes and hugs.” This infographic from Reuters looks at how across the world, our personal space norms have expanded. 

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