Some Australians caught up in Shanghai’s extreme five-week lockdown say the Australian government has done little to help its citizens in distress.
- Shanghai officials require patients with COVID-19 to go to quarantine facilities
- Some Australian expats told the ABC they want Canberra to organise a repatriation flight
- Other foreign workers have also asked their consulates to do more to help them
China’s largest city was put into an increasingly restrictive lockdown in March in an attempt to stamp out an outbreak of Omicron-fuelled COVID-19 cases.
More than a month later, Shanghai authorities claim cases in the city are falling.
But most of the 25 million residents are still either locked in their apartments, compounds or their workplace with no date announced for release.
Those who are allowed out of their compounds are barred from travelling beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
Authorities are also continuing to force COVID-positive residents from their homes and place them in crowded mass quarantine centres with poor conditions, as part of a political directive to get cases down to zero.
Some Australians have been targeted with door knocks late at night from compound managers, health authorities and police in a bid to pressure them into voluntarily leaving home and “camping” at the centres.
The Australian expats in the city who spoke to the ABC all say they are at breaking point.
They are also questioning whether the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) could be more proactive about advocating for citizens forced from their homes or those seeking to leave the country.
“If I was arrested, I’d be getting better consular support than if I get thrown into one of these quarantine centres,” said Nick Oettinger, an Australian businessman who has lived in Shanghai for 15 years.
“Surely there must be a diplomatic protest from Canberra about this.”
Families fear separation at quarantine centres
One Australian family with young children forced into a mass quarantine centre after testing positive for COVID-19 erected makeshift tents to seek some privacy from hundreds of other patients sharing the room.
Another family with small children had to wage a two-week-long battle with their compound authorities to prevent them from being separated after multiple positive COVID tests in the household.
Mr Oettinger points to French and British diplomatic letters written to China’s Government in the early weeks of the lockdown requesting that parents and children not be separated in quarantine centres.
While Australia was among 30 countries represented in France’s letter, he believes the situation on the ground demands a greater response.
“I don’t think anyone is asking the Australian government to ride in on a white horse and save us, but there are practical things they could do and I can’t understand why they’re not doing them,” he said.
Among them, he said, would be more help for Australians desperate to leave the city and return home.
“How hard would it be for the consulate to organise a charter flight?” he asked.
“To pick up the phone to Qantas, to do the sums and talk to the Australian community in Shanghai with the figures of how much it would cost us each?”
When COVID-19 first emerged in China more than two years ago, the Australian Government was among dozens of countries that organised private charter flights to evacuate citizens trapped in Wuhan.
Two and a half years later, commercial airfares are available.
But hundreds of Australians are sharing information in WeChat groups titled Leaving May and Leaving June, as they try to secure scarce seats on limited flights out of the city.
Adding to their anxiety are regular flight cancellations that have left some expats stranded at airports because compound security will not allow residents who leave to come back in.
‘We feel so alone here’
Angelina Rice is an Australian who will this week mark two months of lockdown with her husband and four-year-old son in Shanghai.
“We feel so alone here with the constant ‘what if’ questions about what backing or support you’d get if something happened,” said
Ms Rice said she turned to Australia’s Shanghai consulate for advice and information in the chaotic early weeks of the lockdown on whether she could leave her compound for hospital treatment due to complications from a miscarriage.
“They offered no assistance in getting to the hospital or no reassurance or answers on what would happen to my family if I wasn’t able to get back home,” she said.
She ultimately decided against going to the hospital.
“They largely refer us to the DFAT Smart Traveller website or they tell you there’s little they can do because you have to adhere to Chinese laws.”
Like every Australian the ABC spoke to, Ms Rice is looking at leaving China due to the COVID-19 measures.
But she said Australia’s strict rules on importing pets was another practical snag complicating departures.
While the US has loosened requirements for Americans fleeing Shanghai with pet dogs, Australia maintains a strict three- to six-month quarantine requirement in a third country that is seeing some pet owners charged up to $20,000 per dog.
The American measure to ease rules is just one comparison Australians in Shanghai are drawing upon.
Many believe the French have been more assertive in advocating for the rights of their citizens.
“The Australians gave some solid moral support on a call, but none match the French for response time and the intensity of community service,” said another Australian whose family had dealt with multiple consulates after testing positive to the virus.
Other foreign nationals struggle in Shanghai lockdown
The Australian diplomatic staff are not alone in feeling the frustrations of foreign nationals under lockdown.
One British man this week posted a desperate plea on WeChat from the West Bund quarantine centre, asking friends: “Call my embassy. They may do nothing but they need to understand that I am not just at breaking point, I am broken.”
Another resident said expats at a recent meeting organised by the German consulate were “basically expecting the consulate to force airlines to fly them out with their pets”.
Messages seen by the ABC indicate that Australian consular staff are trying to help but are facing stiff resistance from a bureaucracy under extraordinary strain.
In one case, an Australian official spoke to the neighbourhood committee of an Australian woman with special medical needs but was rebuffed in efforts to allow her to quarantine at home.
The official then tried to contact a higher level of authority but could not speak to the relevant person in charge, vowing to follow up the next day.
The ABC has contacted DFAT for comment.
Natasha Kassam, a foreign policy specialist at the Lowy Institute and a former Beijing-based diplomat believes consulate officials are facing big challenges.
“While it’s completely fair that expats would be looking for Australian assistance under these circumstances, there would be very real limits on the consular services that the Australian Government can provide,” she said.
“In an emergency, with an opaque political system that is constantly changing advice, DFAT is quite constrained.”
Ms Kassam said it was particularly difficult because the situation in Shanghai seems so fluid.
“It’s unclear how Australian advocacy could lead to Australians receiving better treatment than most locals in Shanghai, though it’s always worth trying,” she said.
“But these Australian citizens also find themselves in an unenviable position where the bilateral relationship is so strained that Australian advocacy may have little effect in any case.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the ABC the Australian Consulate-General in Shanghai “continues to engage directly with local authorities on COVID-19 response measures, including in relation to the treatment of families and also to address welfare issues related to COVID restrictions”.
In a statement, the department also said the Consulate-General had raised concerns about the separation of family members “at senior levels with the Chinese government”, and is continuing to support the Australian community despite the ongoing challenges.