How Shanghai’s scientists are coping amid harsh COVID lockdown

From laps of the apartment to fears for students who desperately need data, four researchers speak about their lockdown experience.

Workers in protective suits hold signs directing residents queuing for COVID-19 testing outside a high-rise building in Shanghai
Shanghai has been in lockdown since early April, and residents are barred from leaving their homes.Credit: Aly Song/Reuters/Alamy

As the highly infectious Omicron variant rages in parts of China, Shanghai, the country’s financial hub and the home of many of its top research institutions, was plunged into a sweeping lockdown earlier this month. With restrictions seemingly set to continue, shortages of food and other supplies are making life tough for many residents — including many researchers and scientists.

China is one of the few remaining countries attempting to quash COVID-19 outbreaks. So when daily cases in Shanghai climbed steeply — more than 280,000 people in the city have tested positive since March — the authorities ordered its 25 million residents to stay at home from 1 April. The city also suspended all public transport, moved schools online and shut down businesses.

With cases continuing to rise, the lockdown has been extended, catching many residents unprepared. In some places, people are struggling to access health care. Public anger at the government’s handling of the situation has also been rising.

Nature spoke with four researchers about what it’s like living and working in the city.

Losing a year of data

As a conservation biologist at Fudan University, being stuck at home means Fang Wang can’t conduct most of his research. Spring is the mating season for many animals that Wang studies. Before the lockdown, he had planned to visit the Qinling Mountains in northern China to study wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis), and the Liupan Mountains in northwestern China to observe endangered North China leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis). But he had to cancel the trips because of the Omicron outbreak. “For us, missing out on a season’s data is like losing a year of data,” he says. Wang hopes to do the field trips later this year.

Feng Wang studies wild animals in a wood in southwestern China's Yunnan province.
Fang Wang on a research trip in Yunnan province in 2016.Credit: Zhiqiang Zhao

Without access to his university campus, Wang and his team can’t analyse animal samples collected previously. Wang says the impact is manageable for him, but he worries about his students, whose dissertations rely on the data from such analyses.

“Over the past two years, our students have been under tremendous pressure and faced great uncertainty about their future. As a teacher, I worry such uncertainty will make my students prioritize stability over what they actually want to pursue when choosing a career,” he says.

With Shanghai at a standstill, Wang also found himself overwhelmed by fresh responsibilities. Besides conducting research and mentoring his students, he needs to take care of his young child, who is also cooped up at home, and help with cooking. He must also look for ways to get groceries, which are difficult to find because residents are barred from leaving their homes, so the city’s entire population is relying on a limited number of delivery workers to bring necessities to their doors. “I feel really tired and stretched thin,” he says.

3000 steps a day, at home

Before the lockdown, Jiahong Wen, a natural-disasters modeller at Shanghai Normal University, had planned to conduct field research in Linhai, a city nearby that was hit by a catastrophic typhoon in 2019. But Wen had to abandon his trip when the government announced that people in Shanghai could not leave home.

Wen can do most of his other work on his laptop at home. To keep fit, he’s been exercising, including lifting weights. Sometimes he just walks around his apartment. “Every day I walk about 3,000 steps just by circling my home dozens of times. I also told my students to do so, to keep them healthy,” he says.

In 2020, Wen worked on modelling the pandemic. Considering the size of Shanghai’s current outbreak and the city’s strict restrictions, he thinks COVID-19 cases will start to fall and that the city will return to normal as early as May. But he’s concerned for his daughter, who is supposed to be sitting China’s extremely competitive university entrance exam in June. “Omicron seems to be very stealthy and cases have been popping up unexpectedly. I don’t want anything to happen to my daughter that would affect her exam.”

Travel restrictions

“I consider myself extremely lucky, since our institute’s administration and logistic staff on site have been trying their best to keep us safe and fed,” says Xian Shi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory who also lives on her institute’s campus in central Shanghai. The lockdown hasn’t had a huge impact on her research — she studies small objects, such as asteroids, in the Solar System — because she’s been working from home for the past two years of the pandemic. But Shi had to cancel a long-planned trip to give a talk and meet her collaborators in a nearby city.

“I expected that the lockdown probably would not end as planned, given the highly infectious variant and stringent criteria for opening up,” she says. As a result, she brought her laptops and hard drives, as well as a lot of coffee, back to her home ahead of time.

Shi worries that China’s strict travel restrictions will make it more difficult to attend international conferences and meet colleagues in other parts of the world.

A huge social experiment

To Jia Miao, a sociologist at New York University Shanghai, the current lockdown is like witnessing the focus of her past research unfolding in front of her. She studied community resilience during the 2020 citywide lockdown of Wuhan, where SARS-CoV-2 was first detected. Now, she’s experiencing a lockdown first-hand, which has given her ideas for future research. “Although the lockdown is a misfortune for the city, for us sociologists, it’s a huge social experiment. It will give us lots of opportunities to study a variety of issues that arise.”

Her university gave staff and students a day’s notice before shutting down, so Miao had time to gather her laptop and assemble the data she needed to work from home. “Personally, I’m doing okay.” But the lockdown has forced her to postpone field trips, both for her own research and for the undergraduate classes she teaches. “I do hope there could be one last chance before the end of the term to take my students on a field trip.”

Miao teaches an urban sociology class which discusses topics such as the role of community in a pandemic. “After this outbreak, my students will have a fresh perspective when looking at communities, and they can bring their personal experience and insights to the class,” she says.

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