My life in Shanghai’s endless zero-Covid lockdown | China
SSomehow, after three weeks of quarantine, locked in my studio in Shanghai, while chopping the only remaining cucumber from the last package of government dinner supplies after browsing through an overwhelming amount of miserable lockdown experiences online and then having “gone” them, these four of Steve Jobs’ words popped into my head: stay hungry, stay stupid.
I feel like an unseen force is screaming these words into my ears, then screaming loud and clear in the sky above 26 million souls in this city; this solitary, motionless, empty, gigantic city that has known everything effervescent for the past 30 years.
Through my narrow kitchen window, an empty street in pre-lockdown Shanghai somehow resonates with my deep consciousness: memories of those wonderful years before 2019 seem so surreal that they escape me like stories from my past life.
To begin with, this is not my first quarantine, nor my second, nor even my third.
As one of the many Chinese who returned to China after years abroad in 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak, I have already learned and practiced the art of sitting quietly in a single piece repetitively and religiously over the past two years. I already have all the indoor fitness apps, audiobooks, streaming subscriptions, meditation apps, remote meeting apps of all kinds, and food delivery people I’m familiar with, and I thought to be able to dive into the fourth forties of my life with elegance without blinking, like a professional.
It started off as a slow train. During the first week of March I was aware that some compounds were stuck here and there for several days due to a new wave of variant Omicron infections, but no one I personally know has yet been affected by the situation.
In the second week, everyone had a friend who was either locked in their office or locked in their compound. Memes and jokes began circulating on Chinese social media: “Those at work spend the day worrying if they can get home tonight, those at home spend the night worrying. worry if they can go to work the next morning”.
By mid-March, everyone knew for a fact that some sort of lockdown was about to happen. Offices began to close and people were gradually asked to work from home. The number of cases was still not part of the daily discussions, and nobody was really worried because… come on: everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend outside of China who has caught the Covid, s recovered and is having a lot of fun in his life now. Not from the media, not from politics, not even from scientific research, but someone who has been there whom they trust.
During the last week of March we finally realized we were in deep water and would be there for a long time. Restaurants are semi-closed for dining, chaotic hoarding scenes begin to become creative material for rap songs, and city officials eventually impose a full segment lockdown for 10 days. I reasonably hoarded food for 10 days, started downloading spiritual books and Buddhist classics for my mental well-being, and jotted down the daily plan on my whiteboard while making calls zoom to instant messaging apps while trying to focus on my writing.
“The situation has only gotten worse”
On the second day of full lockdown, I tried to walk around Meituan and Hema to buy coffee. With just a few clicks, my heart skipped a beat. Nothing was available anymore. From there, the rest is history.
The deeper I delve into the Shanghai lockdown, the more I realize I’ve just plunged into a black hole. The situation only got worse. I downloaded 30 more apps and added community service, woke up at 6am to clear my shopping list, but nothing helped. I had to realize that either the stock is running out or no one is there to deliver. It didn’t take me long to realize that everyone is in the same situation. Between friends, we reached a silent consensus: behind every smiley on WeChat at 6 a.m. hides a desperate resident of Shanghai.
On the sixth day, the expected release never materialized but real anxiety set in. A neighbor knocked on the door asking for rice. He’s 50, lives alone in the building next to me, and ran out of grain. I poured half my packet of rice into the pot in his hands and refused it when he insisted on paying me. As soon as I closed the door, I realized that the situation had reached a point where it was becoming difficult to obtain the bare necessities.
As the days go by, the food shortage becomes more and more serious. Like many who were unable to buy groceries online and received the bare minimum of government supplies, WeChat group buying was the only way forward. Due to the limited traffic on the streets and the high risk for delivery people during the confinement, only food orders above a certain price or amount could be given priority.
Group leader (团长) has quickly become a buzzword and a heroic role to play in Shanghai’s lockdown: you have to be resourceful, helpful and organized all at the same time. They usually launch a survey in the WeChat group, collect requests from neighbors, connect with food suppliers, pay in advance and distribute accordingly when supplies arrive.
I also started getting to know my neighbors better within days than I have in the past two years. I traded soy sauce for coffee with one neighbor and eggs for milk with another. I even started planning a “little” party for a girl upstairs who would turn 30 during this “no cake, no candles, no wine, no friends” lockdown, as she sarcastically described it.
Black markets also begin to emerge from the third week: Coca-Cola, instant noodles, dried mango and crisps are sold for two or three times their original price through a resident’s window. to the rest of the same corridor. The girl who owns “the little stand” is in contact with a food supplier who keeps his supermarket closed to the public.
The PCR test is the only opportunity to get out. We are asked to do these tests every three or four days, sometimes on short notice or very late at night. One way or another, most of us still feel lucky to be asked to take the test, because it’s the only way to get outside for a while and breathe some fresh air.
We are fortunate that the entire compound has remained negative so far. Infected people who test positive during group PCRs are asked to go to mobile medical offices (方舱) where patients are grouped together, separated from the “negative” world in Shanghai.
“It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia”
I learned later through the online WeChat log from a friend who was forced to go there after testing positive that he was sleeping in a gigantic open space where the lights are on 24/7. 7, and 10 toilets are shared between 2,000 people. “It’s like a night train with no destination in sight” – I remember this line from his online diary.
The past few weeks have been depressing enough as food anxiety slowly begins to drag people down, but the daily number of new infections continues to rise. The date of the initial release keeps getting longer. Uncertainty is starting to dominate people’s minds: are we going to get back to normal? Will the Wuhan model work for Shanghai?
We are now in a country that firmly adheres to zero tolerance, but cases are skyrocketing as high as at the start of the second wave in Europe. It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat a steak, teaching an eagle to swim: when extreme situations collide, tragedy happens.
Shanghai has always been the scene of drama in modern Chinese history and always will be in essence. The city is not only the country’s economic hub, but is also beloved for its vibrant middle class, diverse public life, open-minded intelligentsia, and active civil society (by Chinese standards).
Retired medical workers are beginning to offer alternatives to drastic measures and questioning the legitimacy of the zero-Covid policy; journalists begin to collect censored deaths due to inaccessible health care and strict PCR test results that lock patients out of emergency rooms; citizens begin to wonder how their beloved city has become a hell on earth with people starving and crying out for help. Anger and frustrations are beginning to dominate social media, with articles and videos being shared millions of times before being abruptly deleted or removed by censors.
An article titled “The people of Shanghai have reached the limit of their maximum tolerance” has been viewed 20 million times and miraculously made visible after being deleted by the authorities for the first time in Chinese Internet history, in due to the unprecedented attention of citizens.
I know that I am witnessing and living a once-in-a-lifetime experience: planned provision, barter economy, starvation, wartime anxiety and uncertainty.
I’m also slowly starting to get more and more uncomfortable with the public narrative around ‘positive cases’: every building that had a positive case would have an additional 14 days of lockdown and several new PCR tests added, not to mention the fear of being sent to the mobile medical cabinet. This easily triggers public fear of “positive” cases and people.
For the past few days, neighbors have started denouncing each other in our WeChat group. Some days it was about who hadn’t had a PCR test, other times it was about who was trying to sneak in for food. At my friend’s compound, the neighbors even start calling the police when they see someone coming downstairs or talking in a group.
I can see the uncanny resemblance between being “positive/suspicious” today and being “intellectual/bourgeois” in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.
To be honest, it destabilizes me much more than hunger or Covid-19.