“I used to have normal emotions and feelings, but (the government) locked me at home for two months and took away my happiness.”
So said Coco, a Shanghai resident who asked that VOA Mandarin not use her name to let her discuss freely an issue of concern to many of the 26 million people in China’s most populous city: their mental health, a subject often dismissed in China.
A building and construction materials seller, Coco said she remains constrained by pessimism and painful memories of more than 70 days in a draconian lockdown that local authorities imposed to comply with China’s zero-COVID containment policy.
Days after most of Shanghai reopened on June 1, Coco told VOA Mandarin that even though most residents can leave their homes, she doesn’t want to. Rather than adapting to life after reopening, Coco said she’s more concerned about dealing with her feelings of despair, resentment and even suicide that plagued her during lockdown.
Ever since the first 76-day-long lockdown began in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected in humans in late 2019, psychologists have studied the mental health impact of prolonged periods of mandated isolation.
Now, the sophisticated financial hub of Shanghai faces serious post-lockdown mental health concerns even as authorities announced they would be locking down several of the city's 16 districts on Saturday to conduct mass testing this weekend because new cases have emerged, Zhao Dandan, deputy head of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference Thursday, according to CNN.
The city began accepting professional psychological counseling as an element of health care in the 1990s and was the first metropolis in China to provide psychological assistance via telephone hotlines, according to Sanlian Life Weekly.
Then, as Shanghai authorities began locking down the city on March 28, and quickly sealed off all of it, "The number of calls to our psychological hotline in April almost tripled from the 3,000 calls in a single month in the past, and 80% of them were related to the epidemic," said Qiu Jianlin, director of the psychological counseling and treatment outpatient department at the Shanghai Mental Health Center, speaking to the state-affiliated China News.
The first callers expressed worries about obtaining food and adapting to the sudden lockdown. But as April progressed, callers described more acute mental challenges. Consultants who staffed some 30 hotlines described the work as "battlefield hemostasis."
“The situation is critical, the conditions are simple, and the situation is severe,” according to Sanlian Life Weekly.
In a survey of 1,021 Shanghai residents conducted April 12 and 13 by Data Humanism, a Chinese blog, more than 40% of respondents experienced depression during the lockdown.
“Nobody was unaffected,” said George Hu, president of the Shanghai International Mental Health Association, told NBC News.
Hu, who is also chair of mental health at United Family Pudong Hospital, added that “a lockdown of this scale is virtually unprecedented in the world.”
‘No one knows what will happen next’
For many middle-class Shanghai residents, Hu said the lockdown tore “the rug out from under you, because a person learns to navigate the world from a secure base, believing the reality they know is trustworthy and reliable. The lockdown has caused some to question that now.”
Residents struggled with feelings of hopelessness, anger and frustration while isolated, and for many, those feelings continue post-lockdown, in part because local authorities continue to require repeated nucleic acid tests. To enter public areas or board public transit, residents must hold a certificate of a negative test within the last 72 hours.
Victor, a financial professional in his 40s who lives in Shanghai’s Pudong District, told VOA Mandarin the testing regime reminds residents they are still not fully free from lockdown restrictions. He asked that his full name not be used so he could speak on a sensitive topic without fear of official reprisal.
"We have to do nucleic acid testing every 72 hours. … Basically, it takes the government half a day to get the nucleic acid report, so, we have to do nucleic acid testing every two-and-a-half days,” Victor said.
Coupled with inconveniences such as shops that remain closed, Victor said he’s constantly reminded that life has yet to return to normal. Because of these disruptions, he said, he’s far from alone in being in a bad mood.
Most people Victor knows in Shanghai are feeling anxious about their future because the lockdown slammed the economy of Shanghai, where Volkswagen's joint venture with SAIC Motor and U.S. automaker Tesla have manufacturing sites. He said that his friends are leaving Mo Du, or the Magic City, as Shanghai is known.
“Most of the people who choose to leave are young people around 30 years old and those just graduated. … Once these young people leave, Shanghai’s economy will collapse, and everyone will be worried,” Victor said.
Ying Miao, a lecturer in the politics department of Aston University in Birmingham, England, said some middle-class Shanghai residents were preparing to “flee.”
She told VOA Mandarin, “Shanghai is one of the most cutting-edge and open cities in China. At the beginning of this outbreak, many people thought ‘this cannot happen in Shanghai,' but the reality has proved them too optimistic. Now, the new hot word on social media is ‘run.’ The middle class in Shanghai chooses to vote with their feet.”
Yet Miao also detailed another middle-class response in Shanghai, as “some people seek more resources and more stable backers. For example, we recently saw there are more young people taking the civil service exams and trying to enter the civil service system than in previous years.”
According to recent statistics, for the competitive Chinese national civil service exam, the number of applicants for the exam this year has exceeded 2.12 million, a record high. Only 1.4% of them obtain jobs.
"The biggest impact of Shanghai's lockdown is that the public realized that the government’s confidence in its system with dealing with the pandemic in the past two years can’t be trusted. … No one knows what’s going to happen next. People just have to live in a different situation — the normalized abnormality,” Miao said.
In addition to worrying about the economic prospects, some Shanghai residents are also uncomfortable with returning to normal life.
"I may (need) to relax for half a month, and I need a ladder to step back from the thoughts of worry, anxiety, anger and suicide and go to a calm, normal state. I still feel that I don’t really want to talk,” said Coco, the construction and building materials seller.
Miao said that as most people gradually adapt to their new lives, many may remain worried about the future, adding the lockdown was “a huge collective mental trauma that will challenge the sense of security and wealth of the middle class in the city."
VOA's Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.