The city of Shanghai has been in lockdown for several weeks now in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. Neighborhood committees (or juweihui), composed of community residents working to implement government policies and address the concerns of fellow residents, have played a vital role in organizing mass testing, procuring and making grocery deliveries, and transferring residents who test positive to hospitals and isolation facilities.
In early 2020, NYU Shanghai’s Assistant Professor of Sociology Miao Jia studied how neighborhood organizations such as the neighborhood committees and volunteers helped alleviate stress among locked down Wuhan residents during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in their city. Now witnessing a similar situation unfolding in front of her, Miao reexamines the role neighborhood committees have played in the Shanghai lockdown and how they can better assist people in need.
How has your experience in Shanghai helped further your research on neighborhood committees?
In our Wuhan study, we found that neighborhood organizations, residential committees and voluntary groups played a vital role in supporting residents during the lockdown. In neighborhoods where residential committees gained more support, trust, and respect among residents, people reported increased social cohesion and reduced mental distress.
I observed a similar situation in Shanghai. This time, I have firsthand experience. For instance, I am a volunteer in my compound. We closely work with the residential committee to coordinate bulk buying, serve older adults and international residents, and solve disputes between various parties. These experiences have helped me reflect on crucial issues, such as how various neighborhood organizations cooperate and compete, and how social cohesion is possible. Although the lockdown is unfortunate for the whole city, it also provides unique opportunities for social scientists to re-examine how our society is organized and how the city is governed.
As a sociologist, what aspects are you paying attention to this time?
I am particularly interested in how to build resilient neighborhoods and the role of social cohesion. Social cohesion is a valuable and powerful collective resource for dealing with common threats. We all have heard tons of good and bad stories every day. But why do some neighborhood organizations perform better than others? Why are people in certain neighborhoods happier and more cohesive than their counterparts elsewhere? I am eager to learn the micro- (i.e., interpersonal interaction), meso- (i.e., neighborhood organizations and governance), and macro-level factors (i.e., district or citywide strategies) that shape social cohesion. Moreover, If we find that social cohesion can be fostered by working together to deal with COVID-19, maybe we could apply this collective resource to address other challenges in the future.
Is there any difference between Wuhan lockdown and Shanghai’s response to the pandemic, in terms of the role of neighborhoods?
In both Shanghai and Wuhan, neighborhood organizations are the strongest pillars supporting residents during the lockdown. However, Wuhan is the first large city that encountered the pandemic and lockdown in the world. We had very limited knowledge about COVID-19 during that time. The early variants caused a much higher death rate than the omicron variant we are dealing with in Shanghai. Thus, there was widespread fear, anxiety, and even helplessness among many residents and neighborhood staff. It was a question of survival. People generally believed that a lockdown was necessary to stop the further spread.
Two years on, while we have accumulated substantial knowledge about COVID-19, the Omicron variant spreads faster and causes less severe disease than infection with prior variants, which poses new challenges to the health measures we have adopted before. The lockdown has overwhelmed the health care system, causing serious concerns and even conflicts in many neighborhoods. The debate over the most effective strategies may have disappointed some Shanghai locals and divided the neighborhood. And it is incredibly challenging to balance pandemic control and social and economic development at this stage.
Lockdowns have caused disruptions to cities’ healthcare systems. Have you seen any changes in Shanghai?
I noticed that the guideline for the COVID-19 treatment had been modified multiple times in Shanghai this time around. We’ve shortened the length of hospital stay for positive cases, aiming to alleviate health care burdens. However, Shanghai is an aging city. About 36 percent of its permanent residents are aged 60 and above. The population age structure indicates a massive demand for health care. Although volunteers and neighborhood staff actively assist people in contacting hospitals when urgent needs arise, ensuring a bed in the overwhelmed hospital is far beyond their control.
How has the role of neighborhood committees changed since its establishment? And how do you think it would evolve in the future in accordance with the development of Chinese society?
Neighborhood committees have played more and more critical roles in Chinese cities since the economic reform. These committees function as a link between residents and the municipal authorities. They perform a wide range of tasks, such as handling welfare services, collecting residents’ opinions and requests, and mediating disputes among residents. As the urban population becomes more and more diverse and mobile, neighborhood staff feel increasingly challenged to complete their task.
We've seen many versions of lockdowns across Chinese cities, townships, and villages, since the beginning of the pandemic. While they might seem to work in terms of slowing the spread of viruses, how could they be improved to suit people's basic needs for living?
In order to achieve the balance between economic development and pandemic control in the long run, there are multiple preparation works.
First, we need to further increase the vaccination rate, especially among vulnerable populations such as the elderly. The vaccine rate among the elderly population is relatively low in China right now. Second, we need to make the home test kits more accessible and affordable. Home quarantine should be considered. Special attention should be given to the older population who don’t have access to the internet or have difficulty conducting self-testing. Third, public education is urgently needed to reduce the fear of COVID-19 – many people still believe that the Omicron variant could cause severe illness or death, which may lead to an unprecedented ramp-up of the hospital system, and causing discrimination against people at high risk of infection. Lastly, we need to strengthen the hierarchical medical system. By channeling patients to different levels of health facilities, we can optimize the allocation of medical care resources. Health care workers at neighborhood or district level need to receive training about diagnoses and treatment of COVID. At the same time, we should increase ICU capacity to accommodate potential higher demand. The later one is a long-term investment. We believe that the sooner the better.