Shanghai’s Covid Lockdown Leaves Thousands Sleeping in Its Streets

Shanghai’s lockdown has kept tens of millions of residents trapped indoors for a month and a half. Thousands of others in China’s wealthiest city have found themselves in the opposite predicament: living in the street.

Victims of the same strict Covid-19 rules that are keeping most residents homebound, many of the newly homeless are migrant laborers from rural areas and smaller cities who often live hand-to-mouth while sharing an apartment with other workers.

For many, the companies they work for have closed down in the lockdown, including boarding up worker dormitories. Some have chosen to join the tens of thousands who zip around Shanghai on bikes or scooters for food-delivery platforms like

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But with the income comes the stigma of a higher Covid risk. While the Shanghai government has granted special lockdown exemption for food-delivery workers, residential compounds have their own rules barring them from returning to their apartments for fear they will bring the virus back with them.

A delivery worker outside a closed residential area in Shanghai on Monday. Some delivery workers are barred from living at home because of their work.



Short on money and connections to find alternate lodging, they have bought simple tents or slept under bridges with only a bedsheet or blanket for protection.

One rider who asked to be identified only by his surname, Wang, said he arrived in Shanghai on March 5 after delivering food in another city, with hopes of making more money in the prosperous financial hub.

On April 1, the residential compound where he was living locked down and wouldn’t let him leave for more than three weeks. On April 24, he restarted delivery work, which he described as his only means of survival. That meant going from being locked in his compound to being locked out. He began living under bridges.

Other food-delivery workers also described gathering under any bridges they could find to avoid the wind and rain. One worker said he shared a bridge with more than 30 people, most of whom ran deliveries like him.

“How many people can understand our situation?” Mr. Wang said. “Our suffering is real but difficult to explain.”

As Shanghai remains locked down amid China’s biggest Covid-19 outbreak, residents are taking to social media to vent about a shortage of food or they’re bartering with neighbors. Anxiety and hunger are prompting many to question Beijing’s pandemic strategy. Photo: Chinatopix Via AP

In recent weeks, the local government says it has stepped up its efforts to support the roughly 20,000 delivery drivers in Shanghai. Officials have coordinated with hotels and other institutions to create driver service stations to provide mattresses, meals and a place to charge their devices.

Though six weeks of hard lockdown has helped bring Shanghai’s daily infection count down—on Tuesday, municipal health authorities reported a seventh consecutive day of cases below 5,000—authorities in recent days have tightened restrictions, signaling that the lockdown could continue for longer.

But heightened awareness of the plight of homeless workers has generated its own trouble, some say. In the past two weeks, police officers have begun arriving in the middle of the night to disperse larger encampments and scatter them across the city.

The Shanghai government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The government also instituted a new requirement for delivery workers to carry a digital pass, which includes their Covid-testing results and authorizes them to be outside.

With the application for his pass pending, Mr. Wang once again had to pause deliveries. He hid in a park out of sight of police, relying on passing vendors or fellow authorized workers to buy food to eat.

Workers say the food-delivery platforms, which employ the laborers as contract workers, have struggled to provide alternative lodging for them, leaving them to navigate a complicated system for finding limited housing and to foot a bill with strained resources.

Authorities have ordered nonessential businesses to close and asked people to work at home in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, in an effort to avoid a Shanghai-size outbreak.


Andy Wong/Associated Press

Meituan said in a written reply to questions that it has been coordinating with hotels since March to provide temporary shelter for its workers. While they were able to find housing for roughly 15,000 workers, they are calling for more hotels to join the effort. Meituan said it has also worked with restaurants to provide free food for its workers. didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Workers said it wasn’t enough, describing the difficulty of finding an available room without knowing the right people. A driver surnamed Nie said he has stayed off the streets by relying on his network of friends to tell him which hotels will accept him and which ones have vacancies.

“I know a lot of people,” he said. “But others don’t know anyone.”

Another driver surnamed Liang said Meituan initially put him up in a hotel. But after the government requisitioned the hotel for official use, he spent nearly a month on the streets before finding another room through a friend. “I got lucky,” he said.

Others said they worry about getting locked down in a hotel if a single guest tests positive for Covid, which would deprive them of their ability to earn an income.


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One driver said he arrived in late February and began working for a catering business on March 2 only to get locked down in his residential compound the following morning because a positive case was found there.

Another came last October to work in a factory, but the factory closed at the end of February. He was also confined to his compound before he could find another opportunity.

Both turned to food-delivery work as soon as they could exit their apartments and are now roughing it on the streets, barred from living at home due to the nature of the work.

It isn’t just delivery workers who have been forced to improvise makeshift accommodations. Many others have found themselves for days without housing after falling through the cracks of the Covid rules.

Anna Xu, 42, a Shanghai-based photographer, was temporarily living in a hotel after returning from international travel when she caught Covid and was sent to a makeshift quarantine facility. Once she was out, the hotel wouldn’t let her back in.

A sweeper near an empty bus stand in the central business district during what is normally the morning rush hour in Beijing’s Chaoyang district on Tuesday.


Andy Wong/Associated Press

She spent two nights outside on a mattress she scrounged with all of her luggage, scared for her safety and the safety of her belongings. “There were so many people sleeping under window awnings and flower boxes,” she said. “The sanitary conditions were disgusting.”

On the third day, she said she checked into a hospital because she needed treatment for a kidney condition, which allowed her to sleep on the waiting-room floor. She said she has since found other accommodation.

Mr. Liang said migrant workers are more likely to face this situation, including those who live in group housing and may not be registered individually with neighborhood officials. If you are sent away to a quarantine facility, he said, “they definitely won’t let you return.”

But people who have tried to help the homeless say it has grown increasingly difficult to do so since local media reports of the issue in mid to late-April spread widely on social media. Drivers say it has become a sore spot for the government.

On Sunday, Mr. Wang said he finally received his digital pass more than a week after submitting his application. He still doesn’t have a place to stay, he said.

Write to Karen Hao at [email protected]

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