Shanghai Avoided Covid Disaster for Two Years. Now We’re Locked Down.

SHANGHAI — The volunteers in full protective gear — called big whites here in China — have packed up and moved on for the day; the apartment complex where I live is once again sequestered in silence. From my 18th-floor window, I can see the koi ponds and gardens below, empty; the hedge maze, empty; the fountain, somehow turned off, its waters unmoving as though in allegiance, in reprieve.

It is Day 1 of lockdown here in Puxi, our half of Shanghai west of the Huangpu River, and we have just finished our first round of city-sponsored Covid testing. Through our building’s WeChat group (one of 19 group chats for the 19 buildings in my complex), we were called down floor by floor by our assigned big white.

In our lobby, a big white was stationed, taking roll call. Another acted as traffic controller, motioning for us to walk to the left. My mother-in-law, who lives with us, managed the social distancing between our family and our neighbors while my husband and I held our two children, 2 years old and 6 months old, both unvaccinated, between us. QR, or quick response, codes were scanned and uploaded onto the government-run cloud, where our results are accessed. We were swabbed and then rushed back to our apartment. In the elevator, a big white got out on the seventh floor. A few residents had not yet gone down for testing. As the elevator doors slowly closed, we saw him knocking on their door.

In February 2020, when those of us in Shanghai first locked down against Covid-19, my older child was only 9 months old. During that lockdown, Wuhan was victim to the mystery virus. Conjectures and rumors abounded. The death rate was high. Lockdown felt necessary. The fear was real.

But the two years since then have been blissfully free of the worries of Covid-19. Although the unvaccinated among us remain at high risk now, living in a country that embraced a Covid-zero policy meant our lives were largely normal. While family and friends in the United States suffered long stretches of school closures and working from home, here in Shanghai my daughter went on play dates and enrolled in preschool, and my husband and I had our second child. Occasionally we wore masks. Most of the time we didn’t.

This most recent infiltration of the Omicron subvariant BA.2 is unnerving because we are so used to a life unaffected by Covid-19. Lockdown may feel necessary and acceptable to most: a short period of suffering for potential long-term gain, even while there is grumbling about the prospect that a brief lockdown may turn into a much longer one. But so far, at least among my friends and neighbors, it is just grumbling. We are not yet victims of Covid fatigue.

People will get tired, though, if the situation doesn’t change. They will tire of lockdowns, of working from home, of entertaining children who can’t go to school. These are Covid experiences long familiar to those outside China. For those in China, they will tire of compulsory compliance (big whites knocking on their doors, criminal punishment if testing procedures are resisted). They will tire of families being separated.

Because I am vaccinated, I worry less about getting sick than about being removed from my family if I test positive. With my son still breastfeeding, stubbornly refusing a bottle and allergic to formula, this would be a nightmare scenario.

A health worker in protective gear resting in March outside a residential compound under Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai.Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

Right now in Shanghai, the just-completed half-city lockdown of Pudong is being extended in various ways. If your building has a case, the entire building will be locked down for 14 days. If your apartment complex has a case, you are locked down in your apartment for seven days, followed by a seven-day quarantine within your complex gates. If your subdistrict has a case, you are locked within your complex grounds for seven days. If your subdistrict has no cases, you are free to move around. In all cases, the person who tested positive for the coronavirus is taken away to central quarantine.

I told my husband that I would be happiest if we happened to fall under the third scenario: Our apartment complex would be locked down, but we could go out to enjoy the air, the community gardens, hedges and paths. I realized that my thinking was very Chinese: to enjoy freedom within strict borders, albeit with a virus raging rampant outside. The fourth option, the freedom to move around Shanghai, felt too large, too precarious. I have, over the past couple of years, become more and more isolationist — within China, within Shanghai, within Changning, within Gubei.

The Chinese strategy of regional lockdowns makes it so that individuals become fiercely protective of their tiny piece of land. People are hoarding food and supplies, getting into fights over resources. Neighbors are ratting one another out as potential carriers.

In our apartment complex last week, one antigen test came back positive in a building nearby. As a result, all residents of that building would be placed under lockdown. In my building, which was all clear, a man had spotted a woman bringing a box of household items in through the basement. He asked where she was coming from, and when she said the locked-down building, he informed our group chat about her. It so happened that she was also in the group chat because she owns apartments in both buildings and she had been told by the management to leave the building with the positive case. A vicious and long argument ensued between the man and the woman in the form of voice memos. Various allegations and insults were thrown, the most innocuous of which were “coward,” and “traitor.” In the end, the test had been a false positive.

At the same time, there are multitudes of volunteers who are selflessly giving their time and energy to assist with the citywide testing effort. Some neighbors in my community are sharing produce: One man who owns a local gym lays out bags and bags of groceries daily outside his business for anyone to take. So far, the situation doesn’t feel dire and hostile. People are still mostly energetic, optimistic and generous.

China is now following the rest of the world, experiencing major surges in cases. We are lucky to have been protected for two years and to now be exposed to the virus when more people are vaccinated. Before Covid fatigue sets in and before lasting damage is done to communities, families and relationships, I hope we can figure out a way to gracefully let down our boundaries.

Juli Min is a writer and editor based in Shanghai. She is the editor in chief of The Shanghai Literary Review.

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