AP EXPLAINS: China uses metal barriers against COVID-19

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Metal barriers were erected in several districts of Shanghai last weekend as part of the city’s efforts to combat an outbreak of COVID-19, a move that sparked protests and angered some residents.

The workers, dressed in white protective suits from head to toe, erected wire mesh and sheet metal fences, blocking roads, isolating residential communities and even the entrance of some apartment buildings. Most of the metropolis of 25 million people has been in lockdown for a month, although measures have been eased in some neighborhoods.

The barriers were installed to ensure movement control and often leave a small entrance that can be easily controlled.


This system is new in Shanghai, but during the pandemic it was applied in other parts of the country. For example, in early 2020, some neighborhood committees — the lowest echelon of local government — put up metal plates and fences in parts of the capital, Beijing, to control access to housing. In Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported at the end of 2019, they were also installed.

How they are erected varies: Sometimes the government fences off entire blocks within a neighborhood, leaving just one or two entrances, while at others it isolates only designated residential buildings.

This measure has been widely applied in border regions such as Suifenhe, a northeastern city that borders Russia, where it was used to cut off entire streets.


Shanghai had not resorted to metal fencing on a large scale during the two years of the pandemic and prided itself on taking more targeted measures that did not include isolation. But that changed in the latest outbreak, fueled by the BA.2 variant of omicron, more contagious than the previous ones. The central authorities decreed a confinement that prevented the population from even going “one foot beyond the door”, according to a popular slogan.

Many residents were angry about the barriers blocking their homes, and some circulated videos online showing the protests. In footage verified by The Associated Press, residents were leaving a building in the city’s Xuhui district and breaking through a mesh barricade at the main entrance, searching for the security guard they believed responsible for their setup.

The city has adopted a tiered system that divides neighborhoods into three categories based on risk of infection. Those in the first category face the strictest anticovid controls and are the ones that mainly house the barriers.

However, some neighborhood officials place the billboards in areas that are not part of that category. A neighbor called the police to protest the closure of the streets near his building, claiming that his apartment was not on that level. He and two other residents tried to prevent its installation, but were stopped by a neighborhood committee worker. The officer told residents they had no right to leave their homes, according to the man’s account posted on the WeChat microblogging network.


In some cases, residents have been successful in their protests.

In an apartment complex in Shanghai’s Putuo district, neighbors protested angrily after the residential committee installed a U-lock on the door of their building on April 16.

“It was very sudden, without warning, and it wasn’t just the building. All areas below are locked down. Any avenue of escape was blocked,” said Zhang, a resident who asked to be identified by his last name. “If there was an accident or a fire, everyone would die for sure.”

Neighbors called the police and the city’s emergency line. The committee relented and a duct tape was placed on the door instead, but a notice sent to residents, which Zhang showed to the AP, warned that its destruction would have legal consequences.

In Beijing, many of the barriers were removed after the city went nearly two years without any major outbreaks. But now, many residential complexes where there are positive cases are once again fenced off.


Chen Si contributed to this report from Shanghai.

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