Photos and videos showing young children isolated from their families and crying at a Shanghai hospital sparked an outburst of anger online on Saturday as China’s largest city struggled to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron version of the coronavirus.
In the pictures, a row of hospital beds, each with several young children, appeared to be parked in the hallway of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center in Jinshan District. A video showed several children crying.
The images and videos could not be independently verified, but in a statement the health center said they were genuine and did not deny parents with Covid were being separated from their children.
Parents’ anger and concern over what might become of their children if they get sick is the latest in a series of crises facing officials in Shanghai, who are in the midst of a phased lockdown to facilitate mass testing in the enable city. Things didn’t go smoothly. Lockdowns have varied by neighborhood, panic buying has emptied grocery store shelves and people with life-threatening conditions have posted calls for help online when they were unable to get to the hospital.
The whole process was also opaque. Local residents complain that they have received little warning about neighborhood closures, which have been repeatedly extended in some boroughs. Domestic news reports of an outbreak at an aged care center disappeared from the internet on Saturday.
In Shanghai, anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus, whether their symptoms are severe or not, must be isolated at a hospital or designated facility. The practice has worried parents who fear their children will be separated from them if they are forced to isolate.
A woman who said her two-year-old daughter had been detained at the Jinshan Medical Center described the situation as “completely inhuman” in a telephone interview. The woman, Lucy Zhu, a 39-year-old mother and native of Shanghai, visited Tongren Hospital in Shanghai with her daughter after feeling unwell last week. Shortly after she tested positive for the coronavirus and began her isolation in hospital, she was separated from her daughter.
Then on Tuesday, her daughter was taken to the Jinshan center and Ms. Zhu was told that she could not accompany her. From then until Saturday morning, she was unable to make direct contact with her daughter. Although officials said her daughter was fine, they offered her no proof.
“The doctor sent me a video at noon today,” Ms. Zhu said on Saturday. “There was only one nurse in the whole room, but I saw about 10 minors.”
In a statement, the health center said the children were in the process of being transferred to a new, expanded pediatric center and that the center was not a child isolation center, as claimed on the internet.
Ms. Zhu said the statement could not address the main issue. “Is it the sticking point if it’s a children’s isolation facility?” she asked angrily. “Could they treat kids like that if it’s not a point of isolation for kids? What’s the point of clearing up the rumor like that?”
After seeing the plight of infants separated from their parents spread on Chinese social media, Irene Yang took matters into her own hands and called the center on Friday. During the call, which she recorded and later released on Weibo, Ms. Yang, a 28-year-old mother, nearly burst into tears for fear that the same situation might happen to her as the coronavirus continues to ravage Shanghai.
A woman who took Ms. Yang’s call told her that there might be a “time lag” when children are moved before parents can see them.
With a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter at home, Ms. Yang said she cannot “rely on it and let her go anywhere on her own, be it for medical treatment or isolation, no matter what the situation is.”
“It’s fine for us if we can be with our children even if they are infected, but you cannot take the children away on your own. This is all inappropriate and unreasonable whether they are 10 years old, 5 years old or 3 years old or 1 year old. Why else do we have a legal guardian?”
A woman who answered the phone at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center on Saturday declined further comment.
An article in the state-run China Philanthropist detailed how a child was separated from his mother and father after they were placed in separate isolation hospitals. The article quoted the girl’s mother as expressing her concerns about her daughter after receiving no photos of her or other forms of communication from doctors. The pro-government Shanghai Women’s Federation said Saturday it was investigating the situation.
Zeng Qun, deputy director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, admitted at a news conference on Saturday that infected adults may need to be separated from their children. He described the issue as “heartbreaking” and something that needs to be “resolved well”.
Because there are already designated child support workers at the community and neighborhood levels, Mr. Zeng said, in situations like this, they “must respond quickly, considering the physical and mental safety of children as the top priority, and quickly carry emergency and relief services.”