5-Day Lockdown: Day 32

The loudspeaker crackled into life around noon: “The community is about to begin closed nucleic acid testing. Please purchase enough supplies for at least the next two days. The Residents’ Committee will announce the exact time in due course*.”

That was how the first round started, back on 17 March. A representative from the Residents’ Committee told us later that day that testing would last for two days, with one test each day. She also told us we would, in fact, not be on quarantine (closed), but could come and go as we pleased.

Those two tests turned out to be one, taken on the 19th. This pattern of mixed messages would go on to characterize Shanghai’s seemingly unplanned pandemic response, lending a strong and pervasive sense of arbitrariness to proceedings.

More Tests and Lockdown.

The first time I knew something might be up was when my dad asked if we were in lockdown, back on 28 March. I thought it was an odd question. Up until that point, as far as we were aware, there had only been isolated lockdowns in specific communities where cases had been confirmed.

This had happened to two of our colleagues, out of a team of almost 30 people. I didn’t realise that eastern parts of the city were just beginning a five day lockdown (we were all working from home and no one on our team was effected). No one seemed aware at that time that we were slated to do the same.

I don’t check the news with any regularity, so I didn’t realise that Western media were already reporting plans to lock down the city in two five-day waves. I had assumed that if we were to be prevented from leaving our apartments for any length of time, then someone would at least flip the loudspeaker back on and let us know.

Alas, I was wrong.

Later that day, an ex-colleague shared an announcement online. It claimed that all of Shanghai west of the Huangpu river would be entering lockdown from 1 April, 03:00, to 5 April, 03:00. It didn’t come directly from an official source (it was re-shared from another group) and none of us were quite sure whether to believe it.

The original re-posted screenshot. Rumours and false information have been doing the rounds, as they tend to during times of crisis, and so none of us knew how reliable this information might be.

By now, people had been panic-buying food for days. It was difficult to find fruit, meat, and vegetables in most parts of the city. We got in what we could before the lockdown began (still unsure if it really would) but “what we could” wasn’t going to last us much longer than five days.

When the lady from the Residents’ Committee came knocking on the door to issue us with do-it-yourself antibody tests on the 31 March, I asked her if the rumours were true. She confirmed that the lockdown would be happening, and that it would be lifted on 5 April, at five in the evening (later, but still the same day).

That five day deadline came and went, without a word from those in charge, and a simple week of scheduled testing quickly became an indefinite spell of cack-handed captivity.

A Difference of Opinion.

Jilin was in lockdown long before Shanghai. I had no idea; as I said, I pay little attention to the news, and, with the greatest of respect to Jilin, it’s not the kind of place that garners much attention. I do wonder what I would have thought of it all had I known though.

It’s unlikely I’d have objected so strongly to what I now view as a disproportionately severe reaction. After all, it’s so easy to ignore things that don’t affect us. Most of the time, we only really focus on events that directly affect ourselves.

It’s also unlikely I’d have taken the time to understand what a strict lockdown is, what the knock-on effects are to people’s physical, financial, and mental well-being, and whether or not this current virus warrants such a reaction at all.

(I should stress, besides not being able to exercise and missing a routine hospital check — more on that later — we’ve not been too badly hit by this lockdown; we came very close to running out of food, but in the end we received help in time and have mostly just been suffering from the wholly unnatural feeling of being caged up in a small [now leaky] apartment 24/7.)

I worry that the more I talk about this subject, the more I sound like an angry libertarian, railing against justifiable government oversight in the name of the public good; or that I run the risk of being lumped in with the anti-vaxxers because I don’t support any and all measures to contain this disease.

I wholeheartedly supported lockdown measures in the early days of this virus. I would again if the same set of circumstances arose. Likewise, I wholeheartedly support limited restrictions aimed at mitigating the worst effects of this virus as we slowly transition towards the inevitable outcome of these past couple of years: learning to live alongside an endemic COVID-19.

I just don’t feel the current approach adopted by the Chinese government has adapted to the reality of the pandemic as it is now, as it has evolved since the early days of the first Wuhan lockdown. I don’t believe the potential benefits of this current approach, particularly with this current variant of the virus, in this current, mostly vaccinated population, outweigh the harm.

One of the many pictures shared as an outpouring of support during the Wuhan lockdown. Has enough changed since then that we no longer need such drastic measures? Or is this still the right approach to shutting down a disease that threatens us all?

Then and Now.

Two and a half years ago, a novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, triggering concerns of a deadly global pandemic.

At the time, no one knew how fatal the disease caused by this virus would turn out to be, how best to treat it, or how quickly it might spread.

Understandable parallels were drawn between the new virus and the SARS and MERS pandemics, diseases which went on to kill a tenth and a third of those infected respectively.

COVID-19 has since shown itself to be both far more contagious and, thankfully, also far less deadly than either or those previous diseases.

Since that first outbreak, and the subsequent global pandemic, the world has learnt a lot about the virus, including how to treat it and who requires hospitalisation.

Scientists have developed vaccines, proven to be effective at reducing the severity of the disease once caught, and rolled them out to billions of people worldwide.

For these reasons, and more, this latest outbreak is not the same as that which rocked Wuhan, Hubei, and the world from late 2019 into early 2020.

The tentative consensus from around the world appears to be that Omicron, the variant identified as being behind this latest outbreak, is more contagious and less deadly than previous COVID variants. For me, this calls into question the effectiveness, and the necessity, of citywide lockdowns.

This virus appears to be well on its way to becoming endemic throughout the rest of the world, making it hard to see how this storm can be something to be weathered, in the hopes that once it passes, it will never come back. Once lockdown has ended, the city, and country, must eventually open back up to the outside world, at which point the disease will return.

In early 2020, when it first became clear how serious a threat this virus was, nobody had any resistance to it. There were no vaccines. Nobody had developed antibodies from previous infections. It was a wildfire burning through dry grass.

It’s now 2022 and the vast majority of the Chinese population are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (89%, according to the NYT). The vaccine roll-out here was huge: Companies arranged vaccine drives, taking employees to local hospitals by the busload; there were loudspeakers in the streets, enjoining the city’s residents to sign up; and billions of doses were administered, quickly, painlessly, and (mostly) without charge.

With a milder variant of the virus, and nine tenths of the population having received at least two doses of a vaccine (over half have had a further booster shot), is this not as good an opportunity as we’re going to get to start gradually moving towards living with COVID?

If not now, when? It feels more and more like China’s policy of “Zero COVID” is just kicking the can further down the road. There was a point, at the beginning of the pandemic, when it felt, at least to regular people like me, that this virus could be eliminated before it spread too far. That hope faded a long time ago.

Policy Aside, Incompetence Is Incompetence.

When discussing the best way to handle a crisis, there is undoubtedly going to be contention. Especially when all possible solutions stand to have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

I think the real flash point for most people stuck in this current situation is not disagreement over the necessity of the response. What’s led to a lot of the anger that’s become increasingly visible on the ground and on social media over the last few weeks is how poorly that response has been implemented.

This manifests itself in three key areas: communication, planning, and logistics.

A selection of images that have been doing the rounds on social media of late, extolling residents of various communities to “strike your pans to demand supplies” (砸/敲锅求物资). Some of these organised, cacophonous demonstrations have been creatively labelled as “Music Festivals”. Many of these messages (such as that of the image in the top right) play off a general feeling that’s arisen in recent days that if one community doesn’t make a fuss, then they’ll miss out while all the food goes to the communities who demand help the loudest (“If you don’t strike and I don’t strike, then all the meat will end up in the pans of other villages.” That’s a very rough translation, and overly literal, but I wanted to convey the meaning as faithfully as possible [it also rhymes in Chinese]).

Any official notice that the city was about to enter lockdown wasn’t adequately disseminated at the community level; no announcements via loudspeaker or printed notices were made at the community entrance and businesses weren’t told to notify their employees.

If you think that’s an unreasonable complaint to make, you should know those are pretty standard practices here for anything of this nature. Those were the steps that were taken when vaccinations first became available, as well as during the first round of testing, as I mentioned at the start (also for more routine things like water stoppages due to maintenance work, etc.).

The loudspeaker that’s fixed outside has been used to announce every single nucleic acid test that we’ve been made to take, yet when the lockdown was extended beyond its 5 April deadline, it remained conspicuously silent.

This feeling of being kept in the dark (or “imprisoned in a drum” as the saying here goes) has noticeably increased people’s frustration and anger.

The general disinterest of the Residents’ Committees, shown by their outright refusal to allow residents to contact them (they routinely hang up any phone calls made to them) has been a constant complaint of residents in the community “group purchase” chats (the closest thing to official channels of communication anyone in the city has).

As for those tests we’re routinely ordered to take, at first we would receive no advance warning at all, simply a sudden loudspeaker announcement to file downstairs, line up, and be swabbed. In some parts of the city this has been happening in the dead of night.

Later, after a matter of weeks, the Residents’ Committee (acting as an organizational arm of the government) finally decided to start notifying us.

Now they frequently inform us there will be no tests on days where tests occur and tests on days where we end up waiting for a loudspeaker call that never comes. This only adds to the growing impression that no one in charge has a coherent plan.

The dates and times of tests don’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. For a while we tested every three days, then every two, then two days in a row, then six days in a row, and now we haven’t had a test for five days. During this period, not a single person in our building has tested positive (if they had, our health codes would have turned red and we wouldn’t continue to be included in group testing).

Finally there’s logistics. As I alluded to above, stores were running low on groceries well before the lockdown began. In the first few days, basic foodstuffs were nearly impossible to obtain. Luckily, as we all thought this would only last a few days, we were well-stocked enough to get through.

Then the lockdown was silently extended and suddenly everyone in the city needed to reassess and restock.

Like the general population, the government quarantined the delivery drivers in their homes. They gave special dispensation to many of them to perform essential deliveries, but manpower is still woefully short of meeting the heightened needs of an entire city on lockdown.

The government has created a situation whereby there is plenty of food, but not enough people to deliver it.

Every morning, people are getting up early and loading their virtual shopping carts with hundreds of RMB worth of food, far more than they need, and waiting with fingers poised for the 6 a.m. start time, when they can hit checkout as frantically as possible in the hopes that maybe one tenth of the items they’ve selected might actually be in stock.

A tiny fraction of those people will succeed. Most will get six dozen messages telling them the server is busy, and to try again. By about 6:03, the messages change to “All today’s delivery slots are full”.

Ding Dong Mai Cai, one of the largest online grocery suppliers in Shanghai (if not the largest), and one of the few platforms still functioning. If you make it past this message, you’re one of the lucky few. Since this whole thing began, we’ve succeeded twice in buying food. Each time, our cart was whittled down to only three items.

I’ve seen group purchases mentioned in a few Western media articles. For many they’re the most reliable way to purchase food, clubbing together with others in their community and buying in bulk. What often goes unmentioned is how unreliable these are (“most reliable” is comparative, and right now the bar is set very low indeed), especially in smaller communities where people struggle to make up the minimum numbers required to order.

The situation has been slowly (almost glacially) improving, but many people still can’t buy enough food to feed themselves.

This is where you might expect the army to help provide logistical support. I certainly did. But for whatever reason, this doesn’t appear to have happened.

It’s clear that as far as the authorities are concerned, their sole focus is testing. Everything else comes a distant second. This stands in stark contrast with ordinary people; I haven’t heard a single person express concern over the virus itself, my conversations and “Moments” (WeChat news feed) are full of shortages of food, medicine, daily necessities, as well as dying pets.

To lessen the slack — and go at least some way towards solving the crisis they themselves created— the government eventually started delivering supplies.

Since the start of the pandemic we’ve had three government supply drops (so roughly one every ten days), with each supply drop providing enough food for maybe two or three days: a handful of vegetables and a few hundred grams of processed meat. Once we got two small bags of rice.

If it wasn’t for our employers, we’d have been eating rice gruel long ago. Both NetEase and miHoYo — that name is almost as bad as their motto, seriously, look it up — have sent us, along with all their other employees, regular and generous care packages, with fruit, vegetables, meat, and even the odd snack or two.

It’s meant that we haven’t had to endure the hardships undoubtedly faced by many, especially the elderly, whose less tech-savvy nature makes getting food during lockdown especially difficult.

Then there’s the medicine. That nobody asked for.

Despite apparently lacking the logistical capacity to deliver sufficient supplies of food, the government have managed to deliver an awful lot of “medicine” (TCM). Like those in other communities across the city, we were recently issued with boxes of unproven, quack COVID medicine.

The government has been distributing traditional Chinese medicine of dubious efficacy en masse to healthy residents. Doctors have warned that taking this medicine when healthy is harmful.

To clarify, this drug is being sent out indiscriminately to an overwhelmingly healthy population who are being told not to take it. Most people who test positive are asymptomatic and require no treatment, and the second anyone does test positive, they are taken away to centralised quarantine facilities, where presumably any necessary medicine would be better kept.

It’s not entirely clear, therefore, what the point in delivering this drug to the masses is.

The mass distribution of copious amounts of non-vital folk medicine to a population short on vital food supplies, has, rather predictably, led to accusations of corruption and profiteering being leveled at those in charge.

Imagine, if you will, that London gets put on lockdown and the city is running low on food. You, and everyone else in your apartment building, are healthy; you’ve taken regular COVID tests every day or two for a month and a half. Then, over a week on from the last government drop off of supplies you receive another, only this one contains nothing but twenty antibody tests and a homeopathic dilution of arnica.

You might just start to question who’s been taking private payments from who in exchange for purchasing what with government funds.

The lack of communication, the seemingly random way that tests are scheduled (and then cancelled), the clear disregard for the well-being of the population, the disrupted logistics and at best half-hearted attempts to remedy the situation, the farcically inappropriate distribution of medicine, all of these things have led to a palpable atmosphere of anger, frustration, and a deep-felt lack of trust.

Are the Party Trying to Milk the Pandemic?

Okay, so this is where I start to sound a little crazy. I’m not saying this response is a calculated propaganda drive, nor that the key motivator behind it is wider public opinion. But I do think it’s a factor.

It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me that those on high might want to capitalize on a bad situation by bringing the country together in support of the stellar job they’re doing (it’s not like they planned to cock it up). In this case, the cliched obsession with “face” might actually be hobbling the ability, or willingness, of the authorities to adapt to a changing situation.

Before Wuhan, China wasn’t actually doing all that well. At least, that’s how it looked from the inside (and based on reports, the outside too). Storefronts were closing and not being replaced and people were talking about the economic decline (if not collapse) in terms of when rather than if to a greater degree than ever before.

Then COVID came along, and, after the initial wave, China didn’t really do all that badly out of it, comparatively speaking; industry remained open and daily life went on largely as before.

When things started going badly in other countries, there arose a sustained sense of nationalistic pride at how well China had handled its disease control compared to other nations, especially as the economy was now doing better than expected.

The government, understandably, did much to encourage this.

A million articles have already been written about how the official aren’t-you-glad-you-have-authoritarianism-now propaganda message, focused heavily on the mess that Western nations were making of their pandemic response (and, in many cases it really was quite the mess), renders any change in policy the central government might choose to make far more difficult to sell.

When you’ve been boasting that you’re the only ones capable of doing things right, it’s then difficult to turn around and say you’re going to adopt policies that are near enough the same as everyone else.

Beyond that, as a nation, there was also a genuine, heartfelt concern for those locked down in Hubei during the early days of the pandemic, when everything was at its scariest and most unknown.

While people on the ground may have been running out of food and medical supplies, and there may have been backlash over the timing and nature of the lockdown, the story outside the province was of people coming together across the country in support of those suffering and the medical professionals working to exhaustion to save them.

One of the many pictures posted in support of Wuhan during the first outbreak. If you’re not familiar with Chinese regional cuisine, each of the characters is a famous snack or dish from a particular region of China, with Wuhan in quarantine represented by 热干面. (Interestingly, the one in the middle at the back appears to be 生煎, presumably representing Shanghai, one of the places in quarantine now itself.)

While it may sound cynical, it’s not fanciful to imagine that it’s a narrative those on high might wish to replay, if the chance were to present itself. It’s a message that is very easy for a government to co-opt and then exploit. Whereas a change of tack could be seen as an embarrassing admission of failure.

In a year where XJP looks set to push through his declaration as Emperor for Life at the 20th National Congress — a huge departure from recent political precedent and a major source of controversy — a coming together of the country in support of the government’s noble fight to eradicate a common menace might be a message too good to pass up.

Adapting to the situation as it has evolves over time can wait. After all, what’s a few more months. As big as Shanghai is, it’s a drop in the ocean of China as a whole. What does it matter if you leave 2% of the population feeling disillusioned, when you can tell the other 98% you’re saving them from a pandemic?

Beijing Getting In on the Act.

What will be interesting to watch in the coming days and weeks is what happens if the recent outbreak in Beijing continues to grow. With a rising number of COVID cases being reported in the capital, how will the government react? Are the powers that be willing to simultaneously shut down the two biggest cities in the country.

If cases in Beijing reach the same levels as in Shanghai, will the government enforce the same kind of lockdown, or will it become too big an economic hit to take? And if Beijing remains comparatively open, how long can the authorities maintain their strict lockdown in Shanghai, while visibly offering preferential treatment to the capital?

Could a major outbreak in Beijing be enough to persuade the government that Omicron is too contagious to be effectively stopped using lockdowns? Or could quarantining another city of 20 million people be enough to turn the tide of public opinion against them in a year when it’s potentially more important than ever.

A lot of the blame for the mess here in Shanghai is currently being channeled towards the local authorities. The same thing happened during the early days in Wuhan. If similar issues blight the pandemic response in Beijing, the heart of the central government, will it finally become impossible for those calling the shots to delegate blame to lower-ranking, expendable cadres?

Maybe Beijing will blow over. Maybe Shanghai will emerge from lockdown in a week or so and life will go back to normal. Maybe the country as a whole will remember this as another triumph of central policy, leaving just a minority of the young and the cynical in Shanghai with a sense of resentment (joining those in Jilin, Shenzhen, and all the other places that have experienced these excesses).

Whatever happens, as always, it will be interesting to observe from the outside and demoralizing to watch from within. I doubt we’ll ever feel quite as safe here again, especially as we move ever closer to starting a family and the the need for security and certainty that brings. As privileged as we are, I imagine this has hastened our eventual departure, even if by just a little bit.

*Or something to that effect. The original message was “居民区即将开展封闭式核酸检测,请大家预先采购好两天以上的物资,详细时间居委会另行通知”.

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ShanghaiLiving2020

ShanghaiLiving2020

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A blog about life, love, language, literature and lüyou in Shanghai, China and beyond. I’m a student, a translator, a husband, a human, or at least I try to be.