Shanghai used to be called ‘the enchanted city’ (modu). It seemed to be protected by a magic shield from the annual summer typhoon and other natural disasters. At first it seemed the magic extended to Covid prevention. For the past two years, Shanghai has been held up to the nation as the home of China’s ‘dynamic zero policy’, which tries to outrun the virus. We’ve seen this play out on a grand scale – a testing event at Shanghai Disneyland checked more than thirty thousand visitors while entertaining them with a firework show – and on a small: a bubble tea shop was listed as an ‘exposure zone’, the smallest of its kind. Many people had the office camping experience (lots of hotpot and card playing) for 48 hours or 72 hours when workplaces were locked down suddenly (they opened just as suddenly once the PCR results came back). People tolerated these minor inconveniences and even found the whole thing amusing. The bubble burst after Omicron swept Hong Kong in March. Xi’an and Shenzhen also suffered a surge of cases and whole cities were put into lockdown.
The breach of Shanghai’s magic shield came from one hotel. In February, Huating Hotel announced renovations and sent home all its staff. In March, it was requisitioned as the quarantine hotel for overseas visitors (some from Hong Kong). The newly employed quarantine managers didn’t realise that the old air-conditioning system was allowing the virus to circulate. Asymptomatic carriers (hotel staff, cleaning ladies, couriers, PCR testers) took the virus to almost every corner of the city. By the time scientists issued a red alert, it was too late to execute the ‘dynamic zero policy’. Since then it has been chaos. The leadership had different views on the best way to proceed. It seems the majority of medics were inclined to a soft approach: the death rate from Omicron is low and most people recover in a few days, so taking lateral flow tests and staying at home would have been enough. Some officials agreed, arguing that, as China’s main financial and trading hub, Shanghai is too important to shut down. Unfortunately, no one else seems to agree. When positive cases spilled over into neighbouring provinces, local governments reacted angrily, posting rewards for turning in visitors from Shanghai (200 RMB to 2000 RMB per capita). Then – it’s said – they complained to Beijing about the irresponsible behaviour of the Shanghainese. Beijing sent an inspection team, which didn’t like what it saw. Netizens joked that Shanghai tried to lie down still but its brother provinces kept helping it up: the result is endless sit-ups.
At the end of March, policy differences were settled and the ‘wrong thought’ corrected. The Shanghai government announced its lockdown plan: east of Huangpu river for four days, then west of the river for four days, and PCR tests for the whole population (more than 25 million). Smart people realised that four days would only allow the government to estimate the real number of cases, so they stocked up for a much longer period. All the supermarkets were emptied overnight and the e-commerce system was overwhelmed. Because nearly all the couriers are in lockdown too, placing an order is no guarantee of receiving it. In just a few days, cases ballooned (at least 26,000 a day), leading to an inspection by vice-premier Sun Chunlan. Lockdown was extended and panic kicked in. Shanghai is ill-prepared to return to the planned economy without much of a plan. It has a population twice the size of Wuhan’s, including many older people who live alone and don’t know how to use a smart phone. Without public transport and mobility, the city was paralysed. It isn’t hard to imagine how stressful this has all been for proud Shanghainese: the straight-A student has flopped the college entrance exam. Shanghai governance capability is considered one of the biggest black swan events of 2022, alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Instead of waiting for government rations, everyone desperately tried to order food. The Chinese obsession with leafy greens has been on full display. Lots of time spent playing video games is now coming in handy, with young men competing to get the first batch of leafy greens available online each morning. You set an alarm for 6 a.m. and another at 12 p.m., and then you click like mad. The food is usually gone within a second. Some men have complained: ‘My finger is fast enough to give my phone a proper orgasm, and still I can’t get a single vegetable.’ Shanghai women, meanwhile, quickly worked out that the problem isn’t a shortage of food but breaks in the supply chain. Residential compounds selected group leaders, who contacted individual vendors or farms outside Shanghai, organised transportation (vehicles now need various permits) and recruited community volunteers to distribute the food on delivery. Whether you actually get your groceries is a matter of luck – sometimes the delivery guy is pulled over midway, sometimes the entire order is cancelled. The best strategy is to join as many groups and place as many orders as you can. You can’t be picky about quality, though the market rule still applies: higher prices generally mean better quality control and a higher chance of delivery. Even (or especially) now, the brand war is fierce: on the black market, one can of Coca Cola will get you three cabbages, or five eggs, or five rolls of toilet paper, or two AA batteries, while a Pepsi will get you nothing.
Residents of compounds without resources and purchasing power have to rely on the meagre and irregular government rations, and their situation is dire. Rations are based on households rather than individuals, so a single person living alone gets the same as a family. I have a great deal of sympathy for a friend who has three children, two parents, a husband and two nannies to feed. Even the seven US marines at the Shanghai consulate had to make do with vacuum-packed food before asking for help on social media. ‘We don’t have strength to lift our guns,’ one marine reportedly said. Netizens offered to help: ‘Wanna try some Xinjiang big plate chicken and steaks from Russia?’ (both are sanctioned by the US). A group chat in which a crass guy joked about eating the foreigner on the seventh floor went viral. The joker hadn’t realised that the man was also in the group chat and could read Chinese. ‘Don’t eat me!’ he replied. ‘Why do you want to eat me?’ This became a meme in no time; ‘Don’t eat me’ T-shirts quickly sold out.
Tens of thousands of medics have come to Shanghai to help with the mass testing. This put pressure on chic Shanghainese to keep up appearances, in particular for the daily PCR test – their outfits could grace any Halloween party or fashion week. This was soon stopped. The speakers began to broadcast: ‘Come down for the PCR test immediately! There are no non-local medics today. We know your natural look! No need for make-up! Pyjamas fine!’ So much for Shanghai fashion week. How I miss seeing those funny costumes under the cherry blossom.
Positive cases are supposed to be transferred to quarantine centres until they test negative, but many of the centres are ill-equipped and ill-managed. The toilets are disgusting, there are no shower facilities, no hot water, the roofs leak and a handful of exhausted doctors and nurses have to face thousands of more or less healthy patients in rebellious mood. ‘The food is terrible! Why is there no one to clean the toilets? Why is there no medicine? We want to go home!’ The conditions in the quarantine centres have shocked middle-class Shanghainese, and many have signed a pledge agreeing that everyone in a building can quarantine at home. But as soon as infection started to spread, opinion became divided and people forgot about their promise never to turn in their Covid neighbours. Those in more desperate situations envy the three meals a day you are given at the quarantine centre. One man called a police station to ask whether he would get fed in jail if he violated lockdown.
Some residents in high-rise compounds have been singing and protesting from their balconies, which leads to a visit from a drone, broadcasting with a hypnotic female voice: ‘Please curb your enthusiasm for freedom. Singing could spread the virus so please don’t sing.’ The troublemakers who organised this civil disobedience campaign received a police reprimand. One man was told: ‘You are so fat. Why don’t you use this opportunity to lose some weight?’ The man replied: ‘You are fat-shaming me. It’s not right.’ Police: ‘Fat-shaming my ass. This is an objective description of your physical characteristic. Since you are so full of energy, instead of inciting the community, why don’t you volunteer to help and do some lifting?’ Later the man was seen carrying water bottles to residents.
In Chinese, positive and negative test results are translated as yang and yin. Yang shares the same sound as the word for sheep, meaning that sheep have become the most disliked animals of all. All sheep sculptures in public spaces have been covered with black plastic bags. Small talk has changed from ‘have you eaten?’ to ‘how many sheep are in your building today?’ The strangest thing about this phase of Covid control has been the discrepancy between the results given by staff at Disease Control and the app that gives you your PCR results. Many people have received calls from Disease Control saying they are positive even though the app results are negative. This has led to verbal and even physical fights as police ask the ‘sheep’ to join the ‘quarantine herd’ and the ‘sheep’ bleats back, citing the app. Finally, the government decided to use another app for mass testing, but it crashed on the first day and had scanning problems on the second.
Following the news on social media at the moment can cause depression. A nurse had an asthma attack and was shut out by the hospital she worked for, before dying in another hospital. The hospital claimed it was undergoing a full disinfection and had no emergency services. People in nursing homes have been denied ambulances. People are dying without their family, without a proper funeral. A woman threw herself from a window after being trolled online for not giving a big enough tip to the courier who delivered supplies to her disabled father. Covid toddlers have been forcibly separated from their Covid-free parents. ‘How can I get Covid so I can be with my baby?’ one woman asked. The pet cats and dogs of Covid patients can be subjected to ‘bio-safety disposal’. People with pets are more scared of this than of the virus. A cancer doctor told me that he would usually perform a dozen surgeries each week; since the lockdown he has only performed two. Outpatient services are extremely limited: even if you can get an appointment you have to have a valid PCR test result taken 48 hours before the appointment and then another before entering the hospital. A 98-year-old woman died at a hospital entrance while waiting for her PCR result. The rate of severe infections is mysteriously low – only 150 or so cases by 21 April, and 25 deaths. People say it doesn’t matter how you die, as long as it’s not from Covid. Collateral damage doesn’t count.
One bulletin that annoyed many people concerned a foreigner with an abnormal erection who had to wait fifty hours in a quarantine hotel before he was sent to hospital. He missed the optimal time for surgery but the doctors managed to save the penis. The hospital then boasted about its excellent care, inciting locals who had been denied treatment because of Covid. There’s a mix of xenophilia and xenophobia here. Amid the jeers, Shanghai has won another nickname: Edinburgh. In Chinese, aidingbao means ‘penis loving city’.
On 11 April, the government introduced three levels of restrictions: lockdown areas, control areas and prevention areas. Fourteen days without ‘sheep’ means your district will be categorised as a prevention area, allowing you to take a walk or buy necessities. But your community might well become stuck in a loop of lockdown-prevention-lockdown, since any daily PCR test could detect some new ‘sheep’. I don’t know how Shanghainese will feel when the lockdown is finally over, but they won’t be proud, or triumphant. There is nothing to celebrate. Another spring slipped past, and a generation of youth has been consumed by Covid time. Elsewhere in China, people are panic buying. Everyone agrees that an extra fridge is essential.