In the hours before the south-western Chinese city of Chengdu went into a Covid lockdown on 1 September, residents dashed to their local markets to scramble for whatever food they could grab hold of.
Huang, a 42-year-old university lecturer, was among those who got wind of the imminent lockdown on the internet. While she was buying meat and vegetables, someone shouted: “Someone identified as a close contact is here. This place will be locked down!” She dropped the groceries, swooped up her young daughter and ran home as fast as she could.
“At that moment, all I could think of was to run,” said Huang, counting herself lucky for evading compulsory quarantine. “I don’t know what happened to those who didn’t manage to get out.”
A week later, however, the city of 21 million extended its lockdown indefinitely. And with little idea how long the measure would remain in place, Huang worries about her elderly parents, one of whom needs kidney dialysis every fortnight at the hospital. The mother of two also needs to juggle between looking after her children and working online.
About 65 million people in 33 cities across China have been placed under partial or full lockdowns, as authorities double down on stamping out coronavirus outbreaks ahead of the Chinese Communist party’s 20th congress in mid-October. The party chief, Xi Jinping, is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term as China’s leader at the one-in-five-years congress.
But few have been as hard hit as Chengdu, the capital city of the south-western province of Sichuan. In recent months, the city has been hit by heatwaves, power cuts, lockdowns – and then on Monday, by a magnitude-6.8 earthquake that killed 65 in the surrounding region.
It is also the largest Chinese metropolis to be hit with Covid restrictions since Shanghai earlier in the year. The lockdown was initially meant to last just seven days, and the indefinite extension has stoked a growing sense of anxiety and desperation among many citizens.
Another mother, Li, also a university lecturer, said that even after the 5 September earthquake there was no let up in the stringent measures.
“We live on the 15th floor and had just finished lunch when the building started to shake. We quickly dashed towards the bathroom for shelter,” Li said. Video clips circulating online show residents arguing with Covid prevention workers over being barred from leaving their buildings after the quake, although Li was able to escape from hers.
Li was also worried about the mental impact of the repeated lockdowns on ordinary people.
“An older relative got very depressed over being confined at home,” she said. “Think about how many more are having the same issue. Would they end up doing silly things when depression gets the better of them?” Reports of suicides are occasionally circulated online.
While city-wide Covid testing continues, Chengdu residents in high-risk areas are confined to their homes; others must limit their movement. People who test positive must undergo quarantine. The authorities allow one person per household to go out for two hours once a day to buy necessities but they are required to produce a negative nucleic acid test result taken within 24 hours.
Even in areas where lockdowns have been lifted, the inhabitants are barred from visiting other districts or leaving the city for non-essential reasons. People must present a negative nucleic acid test result taken within 24 hours to enter public transport and venues.
Some argue that the epidemic has presented an opportunity for the government to crack down on ordinary citizen’s civil rights. “Once [our] rights are taken away, they’re gone forever,” said a post on social media platform Weibo.
Meanwhile, anger and panic are simmering in Guiyang, the capital city of Sichuan’s neighbouring province Guizhou. After more than a week of restrictions, residents in Huaguoyuan – a locked down residential neighbourhood with a population of nearly 500,000 – bitterly complained they were unable to secure food for several days.
The sudden lockdown came without warning, leaving people completely stranded at home, and with food starting to run out, many said they felt increasingly desperate. Elevators have been switched off in tower blocks to stop people from leaving.
“This so-called epidemic control wants people to stay home and starve to death?” one resident wrote on Weibo. “We would be supportive if you lock down the city and isolate us at home, but we can’t buy stuff online as they don’t deliver and supermarkets are closed … Is the government treating us like animals, or do they just want us to die?”
On Thursday, city officials apologised, saying the food shortages in Huaguoyuan had been caused by a lack of delivery workers due to Covid restrictions.
Local people interviewed by the Guardian said they had been stranded for eight days since the lockdown was implemented without warning, and were also worrying about food running out.
“It’s the government fault,” said one. “I can understand locking down a city for a little while, but no one gave us any warning. They even switched off the elevators and no one tells us how long this will last!”