China's population suffered severe mental health problems during Covid

China’s population suffered more severe mental health problems than other nations during Covid pandemic due to draconian lockdowns and unpredictable restrictions, study finds

  • Anxiety and depression have increased globally due to pandemic, that figure is much higher in China where millions of people have been under strict lockdown
  • China’s strict ‘zero-Covid’ approach has had a severe mental health impact 
  • National survey on psychological effects of pandemic in China found that 35 per cent of 52,000 respondents experienced anxiety, depression and panic disorder

China’s population has suffered more severe mental health problems during the Covid pandemic than other nations due to the government’s draconian lockdowns and unpredictable restrictions, a study has found.

Whilst anxiety and depression have increased globally by 25 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, that figure is much higher in China where millions of people have been under strict lockdowns for months, studies suggest. 

A national survey on the psychological effects of the pandemic in China found that 35 per cent of the 52,000 respondents experienced a number of mental health problems – including panic disorder, anxiety and depression – due to the unprecedented quarantine measures.

China has stuck to its strict ‘zero-Covid’ approach that restricts travel, tests entire cities and sets up sprawling facilities to try to isolate every infected person. Lockdowns start with buildings and neighborhoods but become citywide if the virus spreads widely.

Whilst the strict approach has brought case numbers down, the heavy-handed measures have caused a ‘collective psychological trauma’. The measures have also fuelled anger and even rare protests against the government. 

Yu Lingna, a Chinese psychologist and founder of Tokyo-based Yingxintang, a psychological consulting service for people affected by the pandemic, told the South Morning China Post that people are ‘anxious or angry’. 

People try to break out of quarantine fence during the protest, amid new round of Covid-19 lockdowns, in Shanghai, China, on June 6

A person takes a swab test at a COVID-19 test site on June 14 in Beijing, China

“When will this all end?” is a frequently heard cry of complaint,’ she said.   

Yu added: ‘In the latest wave of this year, many Chinese people, especially the young and those with no underlying diseases, have had little worry about coronavirus. However, anxiety and panic are still prevalent.

‘They worry about shortages of essentials, living conditions in makeshift quarantine hospitals, children under quarantine alone, pets left behind after owners are sent to quarantine venues, as well as financial pressure from decreased incomes.’

For those living in Shanghai, where officials imposed a two month-long city-wide lockdown that lifted on June 1, the impact has been severe – with many residents on the brink of depression. 

A survey of more than 1,000 Shanghai residents, conducted in April, found that 40 per cent of respondents were feeling depressed about two weeks into the city’s lockdown. 

Yu said that many residents in Shanghai had developed ‘Covid fatigue’ after the two-month lockdown. 

She said that many people she had counselled were disillusioned with social distancing measures and the strict lockdown measures – and some are now worried about their economic prospects. 

‘The pandemic has changed many people’s life and work, leaving a collective psychological trauma which is to be assimilated.’ 

The rigid and widely derided restrictions have led to shortages of food and medical aid along with a wider – though likely temporary – impact on the national economy.

A boy looks trough a quarantine barrier in Shanghai, China, on 21 June

Workers spray disinfectant over colleagues in front of a residential area under a Covid-19 lockdown in the Huangpu district of Shanghai on June 4

The Lancet journal highlighted the human cost of China’s zero-Covid policy in an editorial published earlier this month.  

‘This cost will continue to be paid in the future, with the shadow of mental ill-health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come,’ it said.

‘The Chinese government must act immediately if it is to heal the wound its extreme policies have inflicted on the Chinese people.’

Desperate, outraged citizens have confronted authorities at barricades and online, screamed out of their windows and banged pots and pans in a sign of their frustration and anger.

Some have turned to blockchain technology to protect videos, photos and artwork around the topic from deletion. 

Communist authorities who tolerate no dissent have sought to scrub such protests from the internet and blamed the protests, including the banging of cooking implements, on agitation by unidentified ‘foreign anti-China forces.’

In Beijing, officials implemented curbs to stop the spread of the Omicron wave during March to May – including a ban on dining in restaurants. The ban was removed in most parts of the city on June 7.

Zhou Na, 36, said she was so anxious about losing her job as a waitress at a Beijing restaurant that she found sleep difficult. 

‘I begged my manager to mark some shifts for me so that I can raise my family,’ she told the newspaper. 

‘Consumers are coming back, but the number is fewer than before. My employer has announced a layoff plan as he said the business was at a loss.’

For those grappling with poor mental health in China, they may not be able to access services because psychiatry and mental health services have traditionally been marginalised in the country – meaning there are limited resources available.  

There are only 8.90 Chinese mental health workers per 100,000 population – compared to 20.6 in upper middle-income countries – according to data from the WHO. 

A health worker wears a protective suit as she gives a nucleic acid test to a woman at a testing site outside a community under lockdown due to a recent outbreak, on June 21 in Beijing

A woman talks to a friend in quarantine through a fence amid a new round of lockdowns, in Shanghai, China on June 4

Meanwhile, Shanghai will gradually resume dining-in at restaurants from June 29 in low-risk areas and areas without any community-level spread of COVID-19 during the previous week,a Shanghai government official said on Sunday.

The Chinese econonic hub lifted a two month city-wide lockdown on June 1, but many establishments have remained unable to offer indoor dining since mid-March.

Shanghai reported no new locally transmitted cases – either symptomatic or asymptomatic – for June 24 and June 25. 

In Beijing, officials said it would allow primary and secondary schools to resume in-person classes and Shanghai’s top party boss declared victory over Covid-19 after the city reported zero new local cases for the first time in two months.

Beijing shut its schools in early May and asked students to move to online learning amid a spike in locally transmitted COVID cases. Senior year students at middle and high schools were allowed to return to classrooms from June 2.

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