An expatriate who resides in New York shared her experience of working and living in Shanghai during the zero-Covid lockdown and how she finally managed to leave the country. This is her firsthand narrative detailing what she experienced from the start of the lockdown.
Around Chinese New Year, which was the first week of February, there had been a couple of Covid cases. Anytime there were one or two cases, they become the talk of the town, which is extraordinary considering what has happened during this pandemic. After the festival, there were 15 confirmed cases and the numbers started to slowly rise. The government responded by locking down those specific housing blocks and doing contact tracing and locking down anybody else who might have been in contact with someone from those housing blocks.
My Chinese co-workers who followed group chats on WeChat, read news releases, and also information by word of mouth started chattering, saying things like “There are so many cases”, and “They are starting to lock people down, we could be next”. I thought about the lockdown I went through back home in the U.S. and hated it, so when I was listening to them, I thought “I’m not going to worry about it, they’re locking down other residential buildings so I’m not going to worry”.
‘As cases started rising, there wasn’t a lot of warning about a lockdown’
As cases started rising, there wasn’t a lot of warning about a lockdown. The government kept locking down section by section based on where there were cases. Finally, they decided to do city-wide grid testing, which was weird because there wasn’t a big announcement that they were going to do that. Instead, people would wake up in the morning to find their housing compounds were closed in.
Luckily they couldn’t lock me in because I lived in a commercial building that was an expat-friendly part-hotel building and not a compound, but that was the first sign that things were going south. I went to work one day and one of the building managers contacted us and said “I’m not going to be here today because I just got locked in”. My co-workers were getting locked in and when I got back to my apartment complex, I found a paper in my room that read “Saturday and Sunday, you’re going to do two nucleic acid tests”. At the time the government kept debunking rumors that the city was going into a full lockdown, and that was leading up to the week before we actually went into a full lockdown.
After the grid testing, they found a lot more cases so they announced they were going to shut down the city in two parts, Pudong (the new area) and then Puxi (the old side where I was living on).
Since there was some time before the shutdown, I thought “I’ll keep going into the office and then go get supplies and get prepared for the lockdown”. One night I left my laptop at the office and went and got some basic groceries and supplies before going home. The next morning I got up and placed an online order to have breakfast to be delivered to the office. I wasn’t paying attention but when I got to my building’s front door, the doorman stopped me and said “No, no!” and that’s when I saw all of the caution tape in front of the building.
What happened was one of the other inhabitants had potential close contact with a case. It wasn’t even a confirmed case in our building, it was just a close contact, so they shut us down two days before the planned shutdown, which sucked because I was not prepared for it.
‘By the third week, I had done a group order but only got a bag of vegetables’
In regards to food supplies, I am thankful I stayed at this apartment complex because it was more of a commercial hotel building and the hotel staff ended up staying in the building with us. Right away, they started organizing group grocery orders but they were pretty barebone and you had no selection. Basically, for 120 RMB (around $18), you got a package of pork, whatever vegetables the grocery store had, and some eggs. It was a bit weird because you’d think if you lock people in for so long, they would give you more non-perishable items, but instead, you got these huge bags of vegetables and pork. Since I was living on my own, there was too much to cook, so after four days, things were starting to go bad.
After the first week of the lockdown around April 1, supplies started to get a lot more sparse and by the third week, I had done a group order but only got a bag of vegetables. I then tried to do an online grocery store delivery. The great thing about China is everybody uses WeChat and there are all sorts of groups you can join. When I got to Shanghai, my brother introduced me to one of his friends who added me to a group chat of foreigners and they started writing guides for trying to order from grocery store delivery services on your own.
What they suggested was to wake up at 5 am, put all of the items in your virtual basket, wait until 6 o’clock when the stores started opening the delivery service, and then just press the submit button frantically. I tried that once and a couple of times I almost got through. By 6:17 am, everything was shut down.
Eventually, I ran out of things like seasoning and salt, so I would message one of my building managers, who was like my smuggler, and asked “Do you have any salt?” She would sneak it up in a bag of toiletries because she had some but she wasn’t supposed to be sending items from her room.
There was one moment near the end of my time in Shanghai when I contacted the building manager and asked if we could get any meat delivered because I was hungry. They responded “Ok, it is coming” but that was on a Tuesday and the meat didn’t come until Thursday. I received a bag of beef bones, a pork loin, and then a whole chicken. The feet were tucked up inside the chicken butt, it was a surprise. I didn’t need the feet but in China, chicken feet are a pretty typical snack so I’m sure a lot of people were happy to get the feet. One of my co-workers, whose family buys live ducks and chickens whenever they get together was like “Big deal, at least it is dead”. But, the packaged chicken was the most exciting moment of my quarantine.
‘This is the closest thing you’ll ever get to being like a zoo animal’
In my building, we put our garbage outside our doors after 7:30 at night and the hotel staff would come in hazmat suits and collect the garbage, disinfect everything, and spray the hallways. If there were any incoming food deliveries, they would deliver them after they disinfected everything. There was one night when I could hear them from my door when they were doing the disinfecting, they had like an aerosol sprayer and I was waiting for the meat delivery. I had a split-level apartment, so I would pace the ground floor, go upstairs and come back down. I thought to myself ‘oh, this is the closest thing you’ll ever get to being like a zoo animal at feeding time’.
For some other complexes, there were some areas that had been locked in for a while and they didn’t have the same type of maintenance staff because it wasn’t an apartment block. There was some serious trash that had piled up and was not nice.
‘I don’t want to tempt fate’
There was one Chinese girl, I saw on her WeChat feed, that had left her compound because she didn’t have any food delivery. I saw her post a video where she walked through an empty shopping mall looking for some sort of food. I don’t think she got caught.
There were a couple of people who lived in row houses, which are individual apartment units on street level, and there were some that I saw weren’t locked in. I don’t know how that happened because, for others in row houses, the city workers came and chained their gates shut without telling them.
Some people claimed they walked out one day and their doorman didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to try it though because I don’t want to tempt fate.
‘I thought maybe them giving us the drug was somewhat of a trap’
At one point in time, we received Covid medicine. I didn’t take it but it’s Chinese medicine, which is typically really mild herbal remedies. Some of the other foreigners who tried it said it was like a lozenge, a menthol that opened up your airway a little bit. When the hotel staff dropped it off, I looked at it, messaged the building manager, and was like “What is this, is this medicine?” They responded, “It’s Covid medicine, you can take it but you don’t have to”. So I didn’t.
The funny thing is before the shutdown happened, I was trying to order Tylenol for headaches, and the week before the shutdown, they canceled all sales of any fever-reducing drugs as part of the testing and lockdown policy because they didn’t want you to take anything that might potentially hide your symptoms. So when I got this medicine, I thought maybe them giving us the drug was somewhat of a trap because I didn’t want to take it and have them accuse me of having Covid.
‘I have a flight out, can I go, I don’t have COVID?’ and was told “No”
To leave the country, I had to jump through a lot of hoops. My company was planning on having me leave in May for at least a break and to see if there were any projects for me to come back to. Preemptively, I had booked a flight on one airline and kept rescheduling it on a month-to-month basis. In April, the flight was scheduled for around the middle of the month. After we initially got locked in before the full lockdown, I thought “Ok, it might only be four days like they initially said” so I was planning on staying until May.
Then what happened was my building had a positive case, so we got the official quarantine, which they call 7+7. You spend the first 7 days strictly in your apartment, where you can’t leave unless to take a test, and then the next 7 days, you can stay in your building or your compound but can’t leave to go out. When that happened, I panicked a little bit so I told my building manager ‘I have a flight out, I don’t have Covid so can I go?” and she replied, “No, it’s a strict quarantine so you have to stay the first 7 days in your room”. I called the U.S. Consulate and they offered as much assistance as they could, but at that point the quarantine measures were totally in the hands of the Chinese CDC so the best they could do was offer letters to encourage release and assistance with procuring food and water if you couldn’t on your own. So I resolved to be there for the first seven days.
I told the building manager when my flight was and asked if I could leave then. She said “We’ll see what happens after the 7-day quarantine”, which was going to end several days prior. In the meantime, I asked a WeChat expat group if you could leave your compound if you have a flight? Someone in the group saw my question and told me there was another WeChat group of expats trying to exit the country and added me to their group, which was serendipitous because, without them, I wouldn’t have known how to leave.
‘This group had figured out a process of how to get permission to leave’
This group had figured out a process of how to get permission to leave. There were several steps. The first step was to get in touch with your neighborhood committee because all of the districts in Shanghai have sub-districts and each sub-district has a neighborhood and each neighborhood had this small unit of local government. Those are the people that talk to the CDC and decide if you are locked in and what your quarantine terms are. So the other foreigners figured out you have to get in contact with them to ask for permission to leave.
The second part is there was no public transportation running at all, no taxis or DiDi, which is a ride share, and the only way you can get to the airport is by private car. The other foreigners found drivers, maybe 5 drivers with epidemic pass, which meant they could drive and be on the road.
The third part is at the time, you had to have a 48-hour PCR test to get into the airport and also a 24-hour PCR test to take a flight back to the U.S. The foreigners found one hospital that was still open and accepting people to take tests and you could also do an English language test, which was key because these airlines require an English language test. They had also found home testing people, so women would come and do the tests at home.
‘They would just reset the clock every time there was a positive case’
After the first seven days passed, I asked the building managers if I could leave yet. They responded “We had another positive case in your building so now we have another 7+7 quarantine” and I’m just thinking, “are you kidding me?” I did the 14-day quarantine to get into China, for which I fully prepared myself. But not knowing when this was going to end and that they would just reset the clock every time there was a positive case, I just couldn’t do it. I told the expat group on WeChat that my building manager said I still can’t leave. One woman said, “you really have to beg and plead and play it over the top”.
Not to make myself sound terrible but I lost my dignity. I was really desperate to get out so I called one of the building managers and said “You have to let me out, I’m claustrophobic, I’m having anxiety here, I got to go home, I have this flight, please just let me leave”. This time they responded, “Oh ok, let me ask the neighborhood committee again, why don’t you get in touch with your consulate again?”
I didn’t think the consulate would be much help because the first time I called, they said all we can do is write a letter and help you get food. So I called the consulate and this time I lucked out because that was right when the U.S. consulate started allowing their employees to leave Shanghai, which meant they had to do the same for all American citizens. They said they would call my building manager and try to get in touch with the neighborhood committee.
About two hours later, both my building manager and the consulate messaged me and they came to an agreement that I could leave to catch my flight. As I mentioned, I had a flight already booked but that airline had canceled all of their flights for April. There was only one flight left through another airline, which was a direct flight to the U.S. Luckily I had booked that one as a backup. So I followed the steps, booked the car, booked the tests, and managed to get all of that squared away.
‘If it was something terrible, like reports of people being sold rotten meat in their group orders, they would say that it is a myth’
Looking back, there were some news sources like the City of Shanghai WeChat feed, which you can translate, but the only things they sent out were the number of cases every day. Sometimes they would send out notices and other times they would post propaganda posts like “As a resilient city, we will overcome this” or “We must all subscribe to the dynamic zero-Covid policy because this is the only way to protect our citizens”.
Meanwhile, on the English language news source, they would repost in English what the City of Shanghai news feed would share. Then they would post these uplifting articles like “Expat helps with food delivery in his community” or “Workers in white (hazmat suits) are real philanthropists and they help all the citizens”. Then they post articles about why dynamic zero-Covid is the most important thing to uphold right now and why we can’t abandon it.
There was a lot of positive news so they didn’t comment on things like how people were protesting by banging pots. They did comment on how one or two people were caught leaving their compounds. One guy went jogging and they took him in and fined him. They didn’t report on anything too terrible, and if it was something terrible, like reports of people being sold rotten meat in their group orders, they would say that it is a myth.
‘I don’t think cases in China were ever as low as they counted’
With Covid numbers, I don’t think cases in China were ever as low as they counted. In my experience, people wouldn’t test if they catch a cold, or if they are sneezing or coughing. They only really test if their building requires it or if they are traveling out of Shanghai. So imagine everybody comes back from Chinese New Year to Shanghai after traveling and they don’t test when they come back. The other thing is, there was still a lot of travel between Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Everybody lives right on top of each other in this country. I think culturally, social distancing is not a thing that people do. I don’t want to generalize but it’s a huge country with billions of people and when you live so close to everybody and in such confined quarters, you can’t distance yourself. Even standing in line, personal space is not the same in China as it is in the U.S. I’d be standing in a line to take a test and there would be somebody right over my shoulder coughing.
‘I don’t blame the country or the people for the difficult circumstances currently’
I had the adventure of a lifetime in China, I love the culture and the people and I had never anticipated my amazing time there coming to an end with having to escape confinement. There are innumerable positive aspects of living in China and I don’t blew the country or the people for the difficult circumstances currently. It is my utmost hope that China can resolve its battle with COVID-19 and open up again for its own citizens and foreign citizens like me to have the opportunity to come back and experience more of the country.