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Workers in protective suits disinfect an old residential area under lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Shanghai on April 15.ALY SONG/Reuters

A strict COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai is leading to increasing tension between police, epidemic prevention officers and residents, with video footage and photos from a recent conflict at a residential compound causing outrage on social media.

One video shows a woman, as she screams in desperation, on her knees in front of a crowd of workers dressed in white hazmat gear in Zhangjiang, in the city’s Pudong area. Another person, heard in the background, says that police stormed the compound, dragging residents out. Other videos and photos from the scene showed the police and epidemic prevention officers brawling with residents, wrestling them to the ground and dragging them away. The footage circulated widely on the internet in China on Thursday night for several hours before censors began deleting them.

Greeted with shock and anger online, the videos are building on a growing body of documentation showing abuse and mistreatment by workers dressed in hazmat gear – nicknamed “big whites” in Chinese for the colour of their uniforms – as they struggle to enforce the country’s rigid anti-pandemic regulations, not only in Shanghai but in dozens of other cities where tiny numbers of COVID-19 cases have been met with often-draconian restrictions.

Parts of the compound in Zhangjiang were requisitioned this week to serve as an isolation facility for COVID-19 patients, according to residents and a statement from the property management company. After people protested the decision, residents were suppressed and greeted by carloads of police officers, one anonymous resident wrote in a now-censored account.

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A statement from the property management company confirmed that around 40 residents had been required to leave their homes, and “some tenants obstructed” officers, adding that “relevant departments handled the situation.” Affected tenants have been compensated and moved to units in the same compound, the company said.

As well as the footage from Zhangjiang, other videos have captured “big whites” wrestling people to the ground and kicking them; screaming, yelling and even throwing things at residents who refuse to comply with instructions; and beating a dog to death after its owner was sent to isolation.

Ranging from volunteers and health care workers to security guards and police officers, “big whites” – faceless and largely indistinguishable from each other in their head-to-toe hazmat gear – have gone from being widely feted for helping drive China’s effective pandemic response, to increasingly loathed and feared as a symbol of government overreach and abuse.

“They are playing their role of cogs in the wheel of a rigid, opaque, undemocratic and unaccountable system,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And the system allows impunity for the abuses they exert on residents, which encourages more abuses. It’s just one vicious cycle.”

Not all negative interactions involve abuse or mistreatment. Shanghai resident Cissie Hu described becoming increasingly frustrated with the COVID-19 workers in her neighbourhood, who often refuse to carry out their designated tasks – such as collecting trash and delivering supplies for residents confined to their apartments – for fear of getting infected.

“I understand they have their own families to take care of,” she said. “Just because they’re pictured as heroes in the media doesn’t mean they can do everything, and we have met good volunteers before. But as someone trapped in the centre of the epidemic, I would hope we could rely on these people.”

Ms. Hu said “big whites” were supposed to be quarantined residents’ bridge to the government and the outside world, “but instead they give us the feeling they can’t do anything. How can you cross a river when the bridge is broken?”

The frustration goes both ways. Neighbourhood volunteers and medical workers in particular often bear the brunt of residents’ anger, and many have spoken of receiving abuse and threats. They often have to work long hours wearing uncomfortable, sweaty hazmat suits, and face the same struggles to find enough food and supplies as other residents.

Even those higher up the chain of command face difficulties. In a resignation letter published online last week, Wu Yingchuan, who worked for a neighbourhood committee in Pudong, wrote that he and other low-level officials were often left in the dark and told to implement policies they didn’t understand. In one instance “residents had to stand outside in the cold at night and wait for several hours” to be transported to a quarantine facility, rather than be told a specific departure time.

“All the while, it was us who had to handle their anger, confusion, and abuse,” Mr. Wu said.

While Chinese police and urban management officials – low-level civil servants known as “chengguan” – have a long record of abusive behaviour, the volunteers and medical workers who make up the majority of “big whites” were previously lauded for their sacrifices on behalf of the country’s pandemic response. But as public anger over restrictions has grown, and videos of mistreatment spread online, perception has shifted, making their job all the harder and sparking more conflict.

“This is a high-stress job, no doubt,” said Ms. Wang, the HRW researcher. “People tend to lash out when they are stressed, this is universal. This gets exacerbated when you are doing a job that the people you are dealing with think is unnecessary, counterproductive and try to resist.”

The term “big white” began as a reference to the character Baymax from Disney’s Big Hero 6, a cuddly robot who only wants to help people. As public anger has grown, some have taken instead to calling anti-epidemic workers “white guards,” a reference to the Red Guards responsible for most of the abuses of the Cultural Revolution, during the last decade of Mao Zedong’s rule.

In a recent essay, Shanghai-based author Xiao Yi wrote that if there is a movie character people now think of when they see workers “under white protective clothing,” it is not Baymax, but the Imperial Stormtroopers of Star Wars.

Anonymous under their matching white shells, anti-epidemic workers have “no need to worry about being exposed and held accountable,” Mr. Xiao said. “Social responsibility is eliminated, as is regard for the rights and interests of others.”

Alexandra Li contributed to this report.

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