On Being Shanghaied

There follows a guest post by Dr. David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology in the Norwich Medical School at UEA, who says the extreme Chinese response to Covid in Shanghai gives a new meaning to an old word.

shăng-hī′, shăng′hī″

transitive verb

  1. To kidnap (a man) for compulsory service aboard a ship, especially after drugging him.
  2. To induce or compel (someone) to do something, especially by fraud or force.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

Forgive me if this verb is now unacceptable. I fear it is unwoke, but I mean no harm. My usage is apposite. It’s the poor bloody Shanghainese who are being Shanghaied.

Following rising case numbers, China is applying its ‘Dynamic Zero Covid’ strategy to its principal commercial centre, a metropolis of 25 million souls, where the old and new cities face one another across the curving Huangpu River. The old side – full of ghosts from the International Settlement – has the Bund at its heart, a few blocks of stone-built European trading houses long ago converted to Government offices. On its corner with Nanking Road stands the art deco Cathay (Peace) Hotel where I used to drink gin slings while listening to old Chinese men playing jazz, anaesthetising myself before returning to freezing quarters at the Academy of Sciences, where I was lodged. The new side – Pudong – comprises gridded neon-jewelled streets of skyscrapers, offices and restaurants. It sprang up, quite suddenly, around 25 years ago, and buzzes with China’s new wealth, though it’s thin on soul or ghosts. On recent visits, hosts have insisted on entertaining me there, though I’d rather drift back to the Bund.     

The bizarre plan was to lock down the new side of Shanghai for five days, then the old, conducting mass testing to identify and isolate cases. But this has swiftly morphed into a lockdown of the whole city. Everyone is being tested repeatedly and those found positive are sent to vast quarantine hostels, principally the ‘Expo’ international exhibition centre. Infected children have been separated from uninfected parents; a corgi whose owners were quarantined was clubbed to death, and there are widespread problems in obtaining food. Streets are empty except for robot dogs sent to bark at those ignoring the lockdown. Circling drones exhort compliance from above. Even Melbourne’s nightmare looks humane in comparison.

All this has been reported widely. What’s much more interesting and unique is an interview that Freddie Sayers of UnHerd managed with a Ukrainian marketing manager for a Chinese music company, Jane Polubotko. I urge you to watch it. She was quarantined following an ‘abnormal’ test result and has since been stuck at the Expo Centre for 11 days.

The living is very communal. Capacity is 4,000. You and a stranger share a cubicle which corresponds to the area normally allocated to a small trade stand. There are no walls between cubicles. Washing is at long rows of sinks.  The detainees wander about, laundering their clothes and awaiting their further Covid tests. These are done alternate days, with Jane’s flipping erratically positive and negative, she told us. She might be let out after four consecutive negative tests, she thinks, though she’s not entirely clear. Her consulate hasn’t been able to help and has other matters on its mind. The staff wear hazmat suits, but the inmates have only medical masks with all their questionable efficacy.   

Jane took us on a tour, filming with her smartphone. No one looked desperately sick, and Jane said nothing about anyone being so. Not a single background cough interrupted the interview. She’d been a bit unwell at the time she was first confined, she acknowledged, but now seemed fully recovered. All things considered she was remarkably sanguine. 

What Freddie and UnHerd didn’t do was to try to square this material with an Associated Press article, published on April 8th:

On Thursday, the [Chinese] Government reported 23,107 new cases nationwide, all but 1,323 of whom had no symptoms. That included 19,989 in Shanghai, where only 329 had symptoms.

This equates to only 5.7% of ‘cases’ identified nationally being symptomatic, and only 1.6% in Shanghai. Such tiny proportions are far below the international norm, where 25-75% of identified cases typically are symptomatic. They do, however, tally with the fact that Shanghai is repeatedly testing its entire 25 million population. Used 25 million times, a test with 99.9% specificity will throw up 25,000 false positives. And while we don’t know the details of the Chinese testing in terms of performance, methods, cycle threshold, let alone lab QC, it’s unlikely they’ll achieve better than 99.9% specificity.

It follows that Jane’s fellow detainees likely comprise a mix of a few true positives along with a much larger number of false positives. This inference agrees with most of those caught on Jane’s camera looking perfectly well. Incarcerating this mix together in a vast dormitory is the perfect way to ensure that the true positives infect the false positives. You might describe the whole facility as a very large Covid incubator, working exactly as U.S. military training camps did in the 1918 flu.

China’s Covid policy risks bringing a new depth of meaning to that dubious old verb.

Stop Press: Rioting has broken out in some parts of Shanghai, as starving locals loot food shops. MailOnline has more. Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reports that the Shanghai lockdown risks becoming the biggest crisis of Xi’s Presidency.

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December 2022
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