The distant echo of a megaphone roars most mornings from the narrow street where I live in Shanghai, summoning me and my neighbors from our homes for our mandatory Covid test.
Mask on and mobile phone in hand, I step outside before the volunteers in hazmat suits have time to knock. If you miss the call, they keep knocking until someone answers. No one is exempt.
This huge city of 25 million people is at the heart of China’s efforts to eradicate the country’s largest Covid outbreak to date. No one is allowed to leave their residential areas, even to buy food, which means we are dependent on the government or private delivery drivers who are stretched out by the massive demand. This puts enormous pressure on the system – and for many people, the restrictions are more disturbing than the threat posed by the virus.
Outside my apartment, hazmat-friendly community workers lead me and my neighbors in a socially distant procession past our locked main gate, the only time I am allowed to leave my apartment. But they never lead us out of the gate – it has been sealed with padlocks and bicycle locks for more than three weeks.
As we walk to a table covered by a blue tent where doctors are waiting to take the test, I feel a surge of emotion – relief at being allowed to get out into the fresh air and spring sunshine and anxiety – what if I test positive? I worry about being sent to Shanghai’s Spartan quarantine system for days or weeks. Pictures of the facilities suggest that I could face cramped, unhygienic conditions with overcrowded bins, no running water and dirty communal toilets.
But I’m more insecure about what might happen to the Chairman, my rescue dog.
What happens to your pet if you test positive remains a disturbing gray area with no clear solution. Horror stories are circulating online about pets that have been left behind and one was recently killed with a shovel by a person in a hazmat suit.
If I get quarantined, I hope one of the local vets or community groups can be allowed to take care of my dog. I’ve packed a small bag of Chairman’s essentials standing by the door if anyone can take him in if I’m sent away.
But that may be unlikely. Apart from essential workers, the whole city, like me, is locked and locked inside.
In late March, before the city was ordered to stay home, panicked buyers left the grocery store shelves empty.
Now the desperation has set in.
Videos show people screaming at community workers, asking them for food and saying they are starving. Others show crowds at a quarantined food delivery site battling for a small supply of vegetables.
In my community, the government delivers food once every few days. Deliveries range from a box of vegetables and eggs to a vacuum-sealed piece of pork or some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The distributions alone are not enough to feed one person, let alone an entire family, beyond a day or so.
I ration my food and get the most out of what comes in the box and any extra food that my community has been able to provide. Lately, most of my meals have been a combination of eggs and carrots – you have to be creative.
Many communities have set up group chats with their neighbors on the Chinese social media app WeChat. Occasionally there are offers for group food purchases, but the possibilities are limited. Stores are closed, delivery drivers blocked, supply chains disrupted.
One of my neighbors writes in the chat group, “What should I do if I do not have food?” The community association writes back: “There are no group purchases – vegetables are in short supply now.”
I spend a large part of my lockdown days trying to place multiple grocery orders, hoping for one to arrive. Last week I was woken up by a call just after midnight – one of my orders had actually turned up.
I quickly tried to get hold of our local liaison officers to help pick it up, but after a long day’s work, they slept. So I had to let groceries sit in a box on the street outside the building until 6 p.m. 06.00 in the hope that nothing was taken or spoiled when I could get it. Luckily it was still there in the morning.
Some of us have resorted to creating contactless “drop points” where we exchange food to vary our diet.
For example, after going home from a local Covid test, one of my neighbors sent me a message: She had left a block of cheese in the shady spot above her bike. When I was later going out for my Covid test, I took her cheese and replaced it with two oranges. She then collected the fruit when she was allowed to go out for her next Covid test.
Authorities appear to be hearing the complaints. Over the weekend, Shanghai’s Deputy Mayor Zong Ming was strangled at a news conference and apologized to city residents for not living up to expectations. And on Monday, authorities promised to start easing the shutdowns in some areas.
From Wuhan onwards, I have covered all aspects of this outbreak in China. The early mismanagement and alleged disguise of the original proliferation seemed to have been forgotten by the public as the central government went ahead with its “zero-covid” policy.
For two years, China has largely managed to keep the virus out by closing borders and introducing a seemingly sophisticated contact tracking system that uses smartphone technology to track us and our potential exposure to the virus.
Officials have perfected mass testing with the capacity to quickly treat cities with populations of tens of thousands of millions. And they have mostly relied on targeted, quick closures – closing a neighborhood, office or even a mall with a confirmed case or close contact inside – to avoid shutting down entire cities to minimize social and economic damage.
In recent months, entire cities have been locked up – including Xi’an, Tianjin and Shenzhen – but nothing the size of Shanghai, where adrenaline and the common spirit of curbing the virus have been replaced by fatigue, frustration and despair.
From the confines of my 600 square meter apartment, I ask myself, is this really happening? In Shanghai, of all places?
A modern city with high-rise buildings and restaurants, Shanghai once competed with cosmopolitan centers such as Paris and New York. Now millions of residents are struggling for basic necessities from the confines of their homes.
This is not to say that life in Shanghai will not resume as it was, but the actions – or passivity – of the last many weeks, combined with the constant uncertainty over the past two years about what severe restrictions could suddenly emerge up in Covid’s name prevention, leaves many who increasingly feel disconnected to this city and each other.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department ordered unnecessary consular personnel and their families to leave the city, citing the increase in Covid-19 cases and the impact of restrictions imposed to curb it.
Most expats I know have either already traveled or are determined to get out. The reason? “This is not sustainable” is a common chorus.
Mentally. Emotional. Physical. It is not.