By Angie Ye
Boston University News Service
Wenshu Zeng turned off the alarm clock in the early morning and the first thing she did was check food delivery apps to get groceries for her following quarantine. She never thought that vegetables could be such a luxury in Shanghai, one of China’s wealthiest cities of 26 million people.
Zeng, a resident of downtown Shanghai, Puxi, has been under home quarantine since early March after the government traced close contacts of someone who tested positive in her neighborhood.
The panic-buying deepened after China announced its citywide lockdown at the end of March — it has been the country’s most severe outbreak since the pandemic started in the city of Wuhan two years ago.
“At the very beginning, Shanghai still adopted the ‘precise prevention policy.’ Normally residents were confined to their apartment complex for 48 hours if there were infected people or close contacts,” Zeng said.
With the surge of cases, the city began a two-part lockdown divided by the Huangpu River (a tributary of the Yangtze): the district east of the river, Pudong, would be shut down for testing for four days starting March 28; the west of the river, Puxi, has its own four-day lockdown from April 1.
Before the strict citywide lockdown, Shanghai authorities had insisted on the “precise prevention” approach and resisted locking down China’s financial hub to minimize disruption of the economy. Shanghai is not the only city that is closed right now; but it, as a metropolis, is testing the limits of the country’s zero-COVID strategy facing the public’s strain and anger over confinement. The city reported 26,330 infection cases on April 13, making the over-one-week lockdowns and quarantines to be entrenched.
“The thing is even after the initial relatively short lockdown, the current policy indicates you still need to stay at home and cannot go outside freely if someone in your building, street, or neighborhood tested positive,” Zeng said. “But it turns out that nearly every neighborhood in downtown Shanghai has positive cases.”
The COVID-19 lockdown was thus extended indefinitely.
Suffering from intermittent shortages during the lockdown, Zeng and her neighbors came up with ways to feed themselves. They began buying groceries in bulk together. Chinese delivery apps such as Meituan and Alibaba struggled to place orders due to the shortage of delivery workers on the streets. Groups on WeChat, the most popular Chinese messaging platform, addressed the problem — people in one building or an entire neighborhood created the group and combined individual requests into one bulk order.
As a graduate student at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), Zeng said she had “attended the Zoom University” again in her off-campus room since the outbreak. Her school was one of the first campuses to lock down in early March. Students have been banned from leaving campus and were later not allowed to leave their dormitories, except for taking PCR tests. They had no access to a shower for days at first because the university’s dormitories only have public bathhouses.
Being a college student in Shanghai at this moment is a double-edged sword. One of the few advantages is they don’t have to hunt for fresh produce. “The canteens open as usual and the price has never gone up,” said Xiaowen Wang, another graduate student at SISU who lives in the school dormitory.
Students started their bartering business to cope with the campus lockdown. In WeChat group chats, they sent messages to ask to exchange food or groceries. “It’s quite funny. Sometimes people just offer packs of Coix seed powder there in exchange for daily supplies,” Wang said. “I feel like we treat each other more nicely during the lockdown … It’s not an easy time for us and everyone is thoughtful toward one another.”
Wang said she realized she had gotten accustomed to her current life. Instead of complaining as she used to do, she gradually “found her own peace and pace” living under the lockdowns.
However, it seems not to be the case with Zeng. “As a college student, it didn’t affect my life as much as it did to most local people, but I still felt so bad from day to day, especially seeing how the society stopped operating,” Zeng said.
While residents found the lockdown with no end in sight, the reported number of cases was also doubtful. In a leaked recording of a phone call between a local resident and an alleged official of the city’s Center for Disease Control, the official acknowledged not all the positive cases have been reported accordingly.
“The hospital wards are full to bursting now; there’s no space left in isolation facilities and no ambulances available because they are answering hundreds of calls a day,” the official described the chaos in the recording. “Our professionals and experts are being driven crazy because nobody listens to what they have to say.”
The recording disappeared soon from the Chinese Internet, leaving the situation murkier. It’s still unclear what awaits the residents next, but many residents faced it with as much positivity as they could.
Under the hashtag “Shanghai people do PCR tests with ceremony” on Weibo, the residents posted photos of women in heels, evening gowns and fur coats, men in fitted suits and designer belts lining up for the COVID tests, and some dressing up as dinosaurs, ducks and superheroes in a subtle show of resistance. At least they would never lower the standards for fashion.
(Some parts of the quotes are translated from Chinese to English)