Shanghai: COVID-19 is Separating Children From Parents

YJenny Tao (oga instructor) was in Shanghai with her husband, two young children and their 1-bedroom apartment when the call came. Both she and her husband (a community health worker) had been positive for COVID-19.

Their 3-year-old son also passed the COVID-19 test and they were both taken to an COVID-19 special hospital. Their 10-year-old daughter, however, tested positive and was taken on her own to quarantine. She was positive for the following day and she was sent to hospital in a separate room from her family.

“My daughter was alone in the hospital for five days,” says Tao. “We made many phone calls. They kept saying that the kids have to go to the children’s ward and there’s staff there to take care of them. Our daughter was not being taken care of by anyone. Each child in the ward needed to care for themselves. The situation in the ward was a bit chaotic and they barely saw any nurses except at meal times.”

Tao and her husband regularly texted their daughter, trying to help her remotely. Eventually, after calling different departments several times a day, a doctor approved her daughter’s transfer so the family could be together.

China’s dynamic zero-COVID policy requires those who test positive, including infants and children to isolate in quarantine facilities or hospitals, with no family contact allowed. This practice was used throughout China’s cities since the start of the pandemic. TIME hears from an Israeli businessman who requested that his identity not be revealed for fear of backlash. He said that after being positive for the virus in March 2020, two of his children (aged 9 and 13) were kept in isolation at a Shanghai hospital. They were taken away by hazmat-suited health workers who arrived at their doors in the middle the night.

“I had to wake them up and tell them, ‘Boys, you are positive and you have to go to the hospital,’” he says. “That was really heartbreaking for me.”

There is outrage over child seperation

A fast-moving outbreak of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in Shanghai, mainland China’s most populous and international city, is demonstrating the drawbacks of the government’s approach to the virus. After 10,000 cases of the virus were identified, 25 million residents placed their entire city under lockdown. Since then, public anger has begun bubbling up—and spilling over onto both domestic and international social media.

The use of public transportation has been stopped, as has private transport. This makes it more difficult for those with health conditions to get to hospitals and doctors. Many residents are now unable to travel outside their home to buy essential goods, and the delivery service has been overloaded. Many people have had difficulty getting enough food to feed themselves. Many residents have had to arrange bulk orders and share them with neighbors. In many communities, an informal trading system was established.

The child separation policy is a source of particular anger. After videos showing unaccompanied children crying at a Shanghai COVID-19 Hospital, parents began calling for an end to the policy. Doctors, lawyers and therapists posted articles online arguing for separation. More than 30 foreign diplomats sent protest letters to the government. A petition online was blocked for just a short time. Many critical social media posts were also deleted. However, many other online protests have not been stopped. The U.S. ordered Shanghai’s non-essential government employees to evacuate on Tuesday. They cited the COVID-19 epidemic and restrictions placed upon the city.

Officials have now made what could be a rare concession—announcing on Apr. 6. Some children with COVID-19 positive results will not be taken from their parents.

Since the pandemic began, China’s case numbers have been kept low compared to the rest of the world because of exacting zero-COVID restrictions, and to a large extent, its people have supported stringent pandemic measures. China’s COVID-19-related deaths have been reported to be among the lowest since the outbreak. Another reason is a comprehensive vaccination program, where 87% of all the country’s population has been fully vaccinated. That includes the estimated 84 million children between three and eleven years of age who were vaccinated with two doses before November 2021. China also has a very low mortality rate: China had recorded less than 5,000 deaths between March and November 2021, with the majority occurring in 2020.

Health authorities were able to keep track of each case and prevent spread with such small numbers. However, the Omicron variant is causing a significant increase in Omicron cases. This poses a great challenge. The vast majority are not affected, but they do show symptoms. Since March’s outbreak, Shanghai has reported over 180,000 cases. (By contrast, Shanghai had reported fewer than 4500 cases in the initial two years of this pandemic.

Shanghai’s outbreak has now exceeded the 2020 outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first discovered. But for many residents, the fear of getting COVID is no longer about getting sick—it’s about the disruption to their lives that regulations entail. Parents fear being divorced from their children. Officials in public health have stated that the separation of families is essential to prevent the spread of the virus. The viral videos of children wearing adult-sized hazmat suits in China have been captured and posted online. However, it has not caused a large public outcry. It seems that this is changing.

Among the critics of family separation is Xuan Li, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University’s Shanghai campus. “Children or their families should never be subjected to this kind of stress that might have a long-term impact on child development and family functioning under any kind of circumstances,” she says. “ Keeping parents and children separated is simply counter-productive on all fronts.”

The Israeli father whose children were separated from him in 2020 says seeing these recent videos has brought back bad memories from his own family’s experience. “Back then, I could understand nobody knew what was going on,” he says. “But after two years, I would expect somebody to think a bit deeper about the fact that people will be traumatized by this experience, and it’s shocking that nobody is thinking of this aspect.”

A therapist was needed to assist his younger son who developed anxiety problems while being admitted to the hospital. His son is still anxious about the mandatory COVID-19 test, according to his father.

Since the latest ruling, at least some parents are now permitted to accompany children who test positive to quarantine facilities, no matter the parent’s COVID-19 status. Parents of children with “special needs” can also apply to stay with them if they sign an agreement saying they understand the health risks. April. Chinese media reported on April 5 that one COVID-19 quarantine facility will accept children along with their parents.

Jenny Tao, who was released from the hospital with her family the same day the announcement was made, says it’s a positive development. “I’m glad to hear about the change,” she says, because children, especially young kids, need their parents by their side to take care of them.”

But while speaking with TIME after the government statement was released, one parent heard that his son’s classmate had tested positive. Family members are still unsure if their child will go to quarantine.

Xuan Li states that experts and parents who have read carefully the language remain unhappy with it and fear separation. “There are just a lot of unknowns there,” she says. “There is very little information on how exactly that would be executed. I see no signs that this issue is effectively solved.”

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