A lone man wearing a face mask walks past a Wuhan street sign at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Panic, anxiety and depression. China is in a state of trauma after being in lockdown for more than two months.

As the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic across the country slows, the economic costs are expected to run into hundreds of billions of dollars. Stark statistics also show that nearly 81,000 people have been infected with the death toll hovering above 3,200.

In January, up to 15 cities close to the epicenter of Wuhan in Hubei province were placed in quarantine along with at least 56 million residents, official figures highlighted. Unofficially, up to 600 million citizens out of a population of about 1.4 billion suffered varying degrees of travel restrictions in China.

Yet being confined in their own personal prison cells created a “variety of psychological problems,” an online survey of more than 52,700 case studies has revealed.

“The implementation of unprecedented strict quarantine measures has kept a large number of people in isolation and affected many aspects of people’s lives,” the project verified by psychiatrists from the reputable Shanghai Mental Health Center pointed out.

“[But while] the Covid-19 epidemic has caused serious threats to people’s physical health and lives, it has also triggered a wide variety of psychological problems, such as panic disorder, anxiety and depression,” the study added.

The sheer scale of the poll makes the findings even more significant. People from up to 36 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities were surveyed online through a QR-coding questionnaire between January 31 and February 10. 

Respondents from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were also included.

“Almost 35% of those polled experienced psychological distress. Female respondents showed significantly higher psychological distress than their male counterparts. Women [were also] more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder,” the survey, which was put together by Dr Qiu Jianyin and her colleagues Bin Shen, Zhao Min, Wang Zhen, Xie Bin and Xu Yifeng, stated. 

“[Another vulnerable group] was young people. [They] tend to obtain a large amount of information from social media [and] that can easily [result in] stress,” the report published last week by the influential General Psychiatry, an open access-journal, added.

Dodging the online legion of censors can also carry its own health warning.

Transparency issues have bubbled just beneath the surface since the outbreak of Covid-19, triggering anger on “social media sites” and rattling President Xi Jinping’s administration.

The death of whistleblower and later “People’s Martyr” Li Wenliang sparked an outpouring of grief and calls for “political reform and free speech.”

Dr Li was hounded for trying to disclose the depth and breadth of the epidemic in Wuhan and threatened with imprisonment. When the ophthalmologist was finally heard, he was chronically ill with the disease he was fighting and finally died. 

Immediately, accusations of incompetence were leveled against Xi and his inner circle for their early response to the crisis, as well as reports of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan.

Since then, an interview with Dr Ai Fen in the March edition of China’s People magazine has been removed from WeChat’s social media app, fuelling complaints by the online community.

In the censored article, Ai admitted she was given an “unprecedented and severe rebuke” after trying to warn other doctors in Wuhan that test results from a patient showed up as a “SARS-type coronavirus.” Circling those words on the report, Ai shared it with colleagues on December 30 and urged them to take precautions against the disease. 

For her diligence, she earned a reprimand from the Wuhan hospital’s disciplinary department.

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she said in the interview.

Ai’s comments and her experience of draconian officialdom have filtered through into the social media survey along with the “availability” of hospital facilities. “Psychological distress levels were also influenced by the availability of local medical resources, efficiency of the regional public health system, and prevention and control measures taken against the epidemic situation,” Dr Qiu and her team said.

“For example, Shanghai is at high risk of carriers of Covid-19 entering the city because of the large population of migrant workers. The distress level is not spiking. This is probably because of the fact that Shanghai has one of the best public health systems in China.”

Still, the group with “the highest levels of stress” were migrant workers.

“The concern about virus exposure in public transportation when returning to work, their worries about delays in work time and subsequent deprivation of their anticipated income may explain the high-stress level,” the survey concluded.

With the economy on life-support, up to 200 million migrant workers are still struggling to return to their jobs. Amazingly, that is nearly 40 million more than the entire workforce of the United States.

Creating 60% of GDP growth, the private sector accounts for around 80% of urban jobs and is a major employer through millions of small- and medium-sized companies across China. Migrant workers tend to be the backbone of these businesses.

“If measures are not taken, a large number of small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises will fail. Just as importantly, the industrial ecology of some of the more fragile manufacturing industries will be destroyed, leading to longer-term negative effects,” Huang Qifan, the vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Financial and Economic Affairs Committee, said.

In turn, that would generate panic, anxiety and depression for a workforce already suffering from “panic, anxiety and depression.”