Somehow after three weeks in quarantine, locked up in my studio in Shanghai, while cutting the only cucumber left from the last pack of governmental supplies for dinner after scrolling over an overwhelming amount of miserable lockdown experiences online then watching them “disappear”, these four words from Steve Jobs popped up in my head: stay hungry, stay foolish.
It feels like an invisible force is shouting those words into my ears, then shouting loud and clear into the sky above 26 million souls in this city; this lone, still, empty, gigantic city that has known everything effervescent in the past 30 years.
Through my narrow kitchen window, an empty street from 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 previous life.
To begin with, this is not my first quarantine, not my second, not even my third.
As one of many Chinese who returned to China after years abroad in 2020 amid the Covid-19 outbreak, I’ve already learned and practised the art of sitting quietly in a room alone 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 sorts and food delivery guys I know well, and thought I could dive into the fourth quarantine of my life gracefully without blinking an eye, like a professional.
It started as a slow train. In the first week of March, I was aware that some compounds were locked down here and there for several days due to a new surge of Omicron variant infections, but no one I know personally was affected by the situation yet.
In the second week, everyone had a friend who was either locked up in their office or locked up in their compound. Memes and jokes started circulating around on Chinese social media: “Those who are at work spend the day worrying if they can go back home tonight, those who are at home spend the night worrying 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 started to close and people were gradually asked to work from home. Numbers of cases were still not part of daily discussion, and no one was really anxious because … come on: everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend outside China who got Covid, recovered and is having great fun now in their life. Not from the media, not from politics, not even from scientific research, but someone who has been there that they trust.
In the last week of March, we finally realised we were in deep water, and going to be there for a long time. Restaurants are semi-closed for dining in, chaotic hoarding scenes start to become creative materials for rap songs, and the city authorities finally impose a full lockdown in segments for 10 days. I reasonably hoarded food for 10 days, started downloading spiritual books and Buddhism classics for my mental wellbeing, and wrote down daily scheduling on my whiteboard while jumping from zoom calls to instant message apps while trying to concentrate on my writing.
‘The situation just got worse and worse’
By the second day into full lockdown, I tried to browse Meituan and Hema to purchase coffee. Within a few clicks, my heart skipped a beat. Nothing was available any more. From that point, the rest is history.
The more I dive into the Shanghai lockdown, the more I realised I just dived into a black hole. The situation just got worse and worse. I downloaded 30 more apps and added community service, woke up at 6am to empty my shopping list, but nothing helped. I had to come to the realisation that either stock is running out or no one is out there to deliver. It didn’t take me long to realise that everyone is in the same situation. Among friends, we reached a silent consensus: behind every smiley on WeChat at 6am is a desperate resident in Shanghai.
On day six, the expected release never came true but real anxiety kicked in. A neighbour knocked on the door to ask for rice. He is 50 years old, living alone in the building next to me, and ran out of the last grain. I poured half of my rice pack into the pot in his hands and turned him down when he insisted on paying me. The minute I closed the door I realised that the situation had reached a point where it became difficult to get the bare essentials.
As days go by, food shortage becomes more and more serious. Like many of those who were not able to buy groceries online and were provided with the bare minimum from government supplies, WeChat group buy was the only way to go. Due to limited circulation on the streets and the high risk for delivery workers during the lockdown, only food orders above a certain price or amount could be prioritised.
Group leader (团长) quickly became a trending word and heroic role to play in lockdown Shanghai: one needs to be resourceful, serviceable and organised at the same time. They’d usually launch an inquiry in the WeChat group, collect requests from neighbours, connect with food suppliers, pay in advance and distribute accordingly when supplies arrive.
I also started to know my neighbours way better in a few days’ time than in the past two years. I traded soja sauce for coffee with one neighbour and eggs for milk with another. I even started to plan a “small” celebration for a girl upstairs who would celebrate her 30-year-old birthday during this lockdown “without cake, without candles, without wine, without friends”, as she sarcastically described.
Black markets also start to emerge by week three: Coca-Cola, instant noodles, dried mango and chips are sold at twice or three times higher than their original price through the window of one resident to the rest from the same hallway. The girl who owns “the little stand” has contact with one food supplier who keeps his supermarket closed to the public.
PCR testing is the only occasion to get outside. We are asked to do these tests every three or four days, sometimes within short notice or very late in the night. Somehow most of us still feel lucky to be asked to do the test, because it is the only way to get out for a while and breathe the fresh air.
We are lucky enough that the whole compound remained negative until now. The infected people who tested positive during group PCRs are requested to go to mobile medical cabinets (方舱) where patients are grouped, separated from the “negative” world in Shanghai.
‘It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia’
I later learned from the online WeChat diary of a friend who was obliged to go there after testing positive that they sleep in a gigantic open space where lighting is on 24/7, and 10 loos are shared among 2,000 people. “It’s like a night train with no destination in sight” – I remember this line from her online diary.
The past few weeks have been depressing enough as anxiety about food slowly starts to drag people down, but daily numbers of new infections continue to increase. The date of the initial release keeps extending. Uncertainty starts to rule people’s mind: are we going back to normal ever again? Will Wuhan’s model work for Shanghai?
We are now in a country firmly abiding by zero tolerance, but cases are soaring as high as the beginning of the second wave in Europe. It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat steak, teaching an eagle how to swim: when extreme situations confront each other, drama happens.
Shanghai has always been the stage of drama in modern Chinese history, and will always be in its essence. The city is not only the economic centre of the country but is also appreciated for its dynamic middle class, diverse public life, open-minded intelligentsia and active (by Chinese standards) civil society.
Retired medical workers start to suggest alternatives to the drastic measures and question the legitimacy of the zero-Covid policy; journalists start to collect censored deaths due to inaccessible healthcare and strict PCR testing results that block patients from emergency rooms; citizens start to question how their beloved city became a hell on Earth with people starving and crying for help. Anger and frustrations start to dominate social media, with articles and videos being shared millions of times before they get brutally deleted or removed by censors.
One article titled “Shanghai people has reached the limit of their maximum tolerance” was viewed 20m times and miraculously made visible again after being deleted by authorities for the first time in Chinese internet history, due to unprecedented attention from citizens.
I know I am witnessing and living a once-in-a-lifetime experience: planned provision, barter economy, starvation, wartime anxiety, and uncertainty.
I also slowly start to become more and more uncomfortable with the public narrative around “positive cases”: every building that has known a positive case would have 14 more days of lockdown and multiple new PCR tests added, not to mention the fear of being sent into the mobile medical cabinet. This easily triggers public fear over “positive” cases and people.
In the past few days, neighbours start to denounce each other in our WeChat group. Some days it was about who didn’t get a PCR test, other times it was about who tried to sneak out for food. In my friend’s compound, neighbours even start to call the police when they see someone getting downstairs or talking in a group.
I can see the uncanny resemblance between being “positive/suspicious” now and being “ intellectual/bourgeois” in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.
To be honest, this unsettles me way more than hunger or Covid-19.