How the city of Shanghai coped with COVID-19

The Covid-19 crisis had its epicentre in Wuhan, China. Consequently, the first experiences known by the world to understand, control and mitigate the virus came from the measures which were taken by the Chinese government. These have been a baseline for other governments to obtain ideas on how to tackle the crisis in their local context. For the Dutch context, although there were evident differences in the governance approach and the morphologic conditions of the cities, the Chinese experience gave important insights about the pandemic impacts for the urban dynamics, as well as of the first steps that were already taken by the city to reopen, recover and adapt.

Official information from the Chinese government and the media have documented the country's rapid response in terms of infrastructure, testing and caring for the sick, as well as the strong isolation measures. This note presents Shanghai’s case, based on the academic resources as well as on the insights that have been made by researchers from the Tongji University and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. 

Shanghai is one of China's most innovative cities, with a constant double-digit growth since 1992 (World Population Review, 2020). The city is strategically located at the intersection between the Yangtze River Valley and China’s eastern coast, and the country's financial centre (Sha et al., 2014). It is also home for almost 27 million inhabitants, with an average population density of 3,854 people per square kilometre in the urban areas (World Population Review,2020).

For a city of such dimensions, six important elements should be specifically noted in the way they dealt with the Covid-19 crisis:

Preparedness, quick and decisive action

After the SARS crisis in 2013, China established a National Emergency Management unit. With this, institutions (emergency management offices), mechanisms and plans were created at national and local levels allowing for a more enhanced  collaboration between the different departments, as well as the information sharing and processes were unified and standardized. This allowed the city to have a decisiveness and a quick response to the pandemic.

City planning that gives community sense

Since the 1950s, the city was structured by compartments known as xiaoqus, which are residential conglomerates in which organized committees promote community cohesion and a sense of belonging, they also ensure that the rules are followed at the neighbourhood scale (e.g., garbage collection, safety, community health). During the pandemic, these neighbourhood committees were in charge of taking the temperature of the people at the entrance of each residential compartment as well as paying more attention to the most vulnerable inhabitants (den Hartog, 2020). Depending on the socio-economic conditions of the xiaoqus, the neighbourhood committees were either private or voluntary in nature (den Hartog, 2020).

Given the population density, the xiaoqus structure and the neighbourhood committees, although sometimes intrusive in individual liberties, allowed the government to closely control whether someone had a temperature and the health conditions of the inhabitants, enhancing the government to activate fast responses to new cases and to stop the spread of the virus.

Staggered response

COVID-19 is a cascading infection, therefore the measures taken by the city sought to cut the contagion chain at three main levels: individual-infected person, community and high-risk area. At each level, there were defined failure scenarios together with their effects and control measures.

Use of technology

The presence of security cameras and taking the temperature of the people controls, at the entrance and exit of the compartments, as well as the integration of smartphone applications that indicated both the healthiness level of the public spaces and the state of health of the people, made it possible to know with a simple QR code whether it was safe to visit a person or a space. This was made possible thanks to the widespread use of smartphones in the city, including even informal workers and old aged peope.

Keep precautionary measures during the reopening of the city

As for the long-term adaptation, Shanghai feared a second wave of contagion, mainly due to cases from abroad or the confirmation of local suspected cases. Some of the measures taken during the response period were decided to remain:

  • Wearing masks was practical and a necessity, due to the high population densities, especially in the metro, it was also as a sign of respect to each other and to increase alertness.
  • Practicing social distancing
  • Using the QR Health Code
  • Taking the temperature of the people before entering public spaces, offices or neighbourhoods.
  • Ventilate public spaces, households, taxis without air conditioning but with natural ventilation (e.g. open windows).
  • Closure of (public) toilets in many buildings

Finance sectors that have suffered from the pandemic or that can contribute to the recovery of the city

The city council brought forward public investments for city greening and public transport in line with its vision to become a smart and sustainable city.  Moreover, cultural venues such as museums or galleries were supported to reopen, as a strategy to recover the city dynamics and leisure.

The above-mentioned inspirations reflect the positive experiences that occured in Shanghai during the Covid-19 pandemic, some measures were plausible due to the particular Chinese governance style, characterized by a strong top-down approach and a high degree of tightness in the management, openness and dissemination of the information, which was highly controlled by Chinese government (Shaw, Kim and Hua, 2020). Hence, some challenges such as a possible increase in inequality or unemployment in the city might have been being overlooked.

The beginning of the pandemic coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Many of Shanghai's inhabitants returned to their home towns and those who do not have a hukou (system of household registration) in Shanghai or the floating population (den Hartog, 2014), were unable to return to the city. Most of the floating populatoin in China belong to a low-wage labour force, therefore the possibility to work from home was not always available (Johnson, 2017). Currently, in the adaptation period and reopening of the city, most of these migrant workers remain in their hometowns and have not returned to their jobs, facing uncertainty and possible unemployment.

Hartog, H. den, 2020. Shanghai Na COVID-19: Global city en bouwen voor de buurt. Archined, Rotterdam . [online]. Available at: external

Johnson, L., 2017. Bordering Shanghai: China's hukou system and processes of urban bordering. Geoforum, 80, pp.93-102.

Sha, Y., Wu, J., Ji, Y., Chan, S. and Lim, W., 2014. Evolution of urban planning and city development of Shanghai: The past three eras and the present, In Shanghai urbanism at the medium scale. Springer Geography, Berlin, pp.9-18.

Shanghai Population 2020. World Population Review. [online] Available at: external

Shaw, R., Kim, Y. and Hua, J., 2020. Governance, technology and citizen behavior in pandemic: Lessons from COVID-19 in East Asia. Progress in Disaster Science, 6, p.100090.

More information

* Special thanks to professors Bo Fan, Dahai Zhao, Chuanshen Qin, Xin Liang, Feng Yu, and Harry den Hartog, for their insightful contributions

Researchers                                                                      Dr. Jan Fransen
                                                                                           Daniela Ochoa Peralta MSc
                                                                                           Naomi Sonneveld MSc

Photo credits: Alexander Kaunas on Unsplash 

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