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An aerial view of Lhasa in China’s Tibet autonomous region shows near-empty streets, with the city in Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Getty Images

Coronavirus in China: food shortages and chaos reported in locked down Lhasa

  • People are confined to their homes or in hospitals but officials and volunteers are falling sick, leading to supply breakdowns
  • The city of 860,000 has recorded more than 540 infections so far, along with many more asymptomatic cases
Widespread infections and food shortages have rocked the small city of Lhasa in Tibet after more than a month of extreme Covid-19 measures, according to online posts and confirmed by a resident.

Food is running out for many families in the city of 860,000, where people have been either locked in their homes or sent to makeshift hospitals since the first local cases were identified on August 8.

According to the official numbers, nine new symptomatic and 95 asymptomatic local cases were reported on Friday.

A Lhasa resident, who identified himself as Sam Wang, said he had been locked in his home for 36 days so far.

“It is extremely difficult to get food and many people have run out of food. I feel we are in the same situation as Ili [prefecture in Xinjiang],” Wang said.

The Ili city government apologised after acute shortages of food and essential items earlier this month prompted residents to take to social media to complain, triggering an online backlash.

Before they were largely censored, the posts suggested a large outbreak in Ili, which has a population of more than 4.5 million, and a breakdown of local healthcare systems and grass-roots organisations.

In Lhasa, Wang described the situation as “chaotic”.

“One of my neighbours’ one-month-old child was infected and had a fever. There was no ambulance and the couple went berserk in the [neighbourhood] WeChat group and finally a volunteer managed to get the infant to the hospital,” he said.

“The last time I managed to buy some food was half a month ago ... but now I only have several potatoes and onions left and the rice we have can only last for a few days.”

More than 100 officials in Tibet punished over zero-Covid failures

With no large e-commerce operator, Lhasa depends solely on community-level Communist Party cadres for its food supplies. They liaise with suppliers but most of the cadres in his community had been infected, Wang said.

“The community-level cadres are infected and then volunteers are infected, we really don’t know when we can buy food.”

Wang’s account matches the picture portrayed by a large number of online posts. Most are quickly censored, but residents and other sympathetic internet users continue to post them, hoping to attract outside attention to the city’s dire situation.

“It seems that people don’t know what to do, it is chaotic. The community-level police were infected, community-level cadres were infected, volunteers were infected and then the following batch of volunteers were also infected,” he said.


Tibet cobbles up 2,000-bed hospital as region prepares for its first major Covid-19 outbreak

Tibet cobbles up 2,000-bed hospital as region prepares for its first major Covid-19 outbreak

Wang said the situation in Lhasa was similar to the worst days of Shanghai’s two-month lockdown, when people were allegedly left to starve.

“It has been three years since the pandemic and Shanghai has been locked down for two months. What happened to Shanghai is happening here and why aren’t there new ways to handle this virus?” he said.

Some of the internet posts show pictures of overcrowded and shoddy makeshift hospitals, while in others buses are shown transporting large numbers of people to these facilities.

Local officials appear to be at breaking point, unable to separately quarantine positive cases and close contacts, or keep up with food supplies to them.

Is the end to China’s zero-Covid rules in sight? Internet users hope so

“Putting those who are negative with the positive [in the quarantine facilities] of course there are cross-infections and of course the local government wanted to cover up,” one post said.

“There is a lack of food and necessities, the vegetables we managed to buy are all rotten and they are also expensive,” said another, while a third asked: “Isn’t it shameful to announce fake numbers in the press conference every day?”

Lhasa’s plight has attracted sympathy from other parts of the country and many have called for their fellow internet users to help circulate the posts before they are censored.


Panic buying in Chengdu as China locks down another megacity to contain Covid-19 spread

Panic buying in Chengdu as China locks down another megacity to contain Covid-19 spread

With China’s twice-a-decade party congress starting on October 16, local governments have been ordered to use all measures to keep cases low, with failures to be punished.

First-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai have managed to impose more nuanced measures, to adjust the risk level and freedom of movement for residents according to the number of cases in a block or a street.

But remote centres like Lhasa, Ili or Dongxing in Guangxi have been quietly imposing large-scale lockdowns for weeks – and apparently failing to bring cases down, despite months of extreme measures.