Reporter’s diary: In the seventh straight week of Shanghai’s lockdown, it feels like I’m living in a parallel universe


The start of another week in Shanghai – the seventh straight one under lockdown – and breakfast this morning was shumai, a traditional dim sum snack. These haven’t been available until recently, so it was a nice change from my usual meal of bread and porridge.

As I enjoyed the dim sum, I watched a live television broadcast where local officials, for the first time, provided a timeline for a gradual return to normal life in this city of 25 million.

But my joy was short-lived. A new “quiet period” notice popped into my message box, ordering everyone in my residential compound to stay at home unless they are taking a nucleic acid test. Delivery services will be strictly limited to essentials such as rice, noodles, meat and milk, said the notice, issued by the neighbourhood committee – a grass roots, self-managed group that rarely was involved in people’s lives before the pandemic, but now carries out orders from above.

It was the third such notice this month. The first covered May 9-11, and the second extended the period to May 15. The new notice did not even provide an end date.

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Shanghai’s lockdown easing doesn’t mean end of shipping snarls

Meanwhile, the live government press conference was still on television, with officials saying Shanghai had already opened some shopping malls and would aim to end the lockdown by June 1. Looking again at the notice on my phone, it felt like I was living in a parallel universe.

Others feel the same way, apparently. Some confined residents even left comments on the social media account of the National Anti-Fraud Centre, asking the watchdog to discipline the Shanghai government for presenting an image of the city “back to normal” when many people were still locked up. The comments were quickly removed by the censors.

Despite all the strict rules enforced in recent days, my building reported a new positive Covid-19 case on Wednesday, which means I can’t go for any more walks in my residential compound. To enforce that rule, a medical worker in a white hazmat suit, known locally as dabai or “big white”, will set up a bed on the ground floor of our building to make sure nobody leaves the building – 24/7.

Medical workers and volunteers in white hazmat suits, known locally as dabai or “big white”, conduct coronavirus tests in a Shanghai residential compound. Photo: SCMP/ Tracy Qu

To be sure, it might take some time for a policy of relaxation announced by officials on TV to trickle down to 25 million residents, helping improve our day-to-day life. Friends living in the Pudong area have told me they received a pass that allows them to leave their residential compound twice over the next six days, even though the streets remain quiet. There are also photos circulating online that show some of the fences erected along streets have been removed.

On delivery apps like Meituan and Ele.me, some restaurants are starting to provide takeaway meals, something I have not seen since the lockdown began.

Nonetheless, reminders of the daily reality come everyday, when I am awoken at 8am by coronavirus test reminders broadcast over loudspeakers.

Medical workers broadcast a pre-recorded message that automatically repeats. Pre-Covid, you could hear this type of thing in department stores, where the message was “come and get the best-deal”. Now the message is, “come and get tested”.

Taking a Covid-19 test feels like gambling. Being locked up in your flat for 50 days should mean you don’t have any chance of catching the virus, but every week a new positive case is found in my building – and nobody knows how they got infected. A positive test means the dabai come to your door and take you to a quarantine facility.

On Wednesday, a fresh infection triggered a new warning from the neighbourhood committee – sent out in large, red Chinese characters: “Don’t go for a walk in the residential compound, don’t walk your dog, don’t gather and chat with your neighbours.”

There has been some pushback by residents, for sure. Residents in a compound in Huangpu district sent a letter of complaint earlier in May, after some of them received false positives from the Shanghai Zhongke Runda medical laboratory. The Shanghai government said it will investigate the situation.

The post reporter’s photo of Monday’s ‘super moon’ was shared on WeChat. Photo: SCMP/ Tracy Qu

In the seventh straight week of lockdown, we have become more creative when it comes to using tech tools to entertain ourselves and connect with friends. On weekends, I watch films “with friends” – only they are locked down somewhere else in the city. We have the movie playing at the same time, and our phones open, so we can chat and comment along the way.

On Monday night, I saw the “super moon” from my window. Everyone who could see it took photos and shared them on WeChat messaging groups. At least we were looking at the same sky, I thought.

Indoor farming, especially growing scallions at home, is Shanghai’s new fashion. The vegetable, which is used in nearly every Chinese dish, has become an object for art creation. Someone even organised a photo exhibition on WeChat, where Shanghai residents shared pictures they took of their home-grow scallion. I carefully arranged my pot of scallion against my kitchen wall, and shared the photo with friends. I missed the deadline for submitting it to the online exhibition.

Scallion, a vegetable used in nearly every Chinese dish, has become an object for art creation during the Shanghai lockdown. Photo: SCMP/ Tracy Qu

My local contemporary dance studio, which I used to attend most Saturday afternoons, started to offer online courses that involved meditation sessions. I have taken these on weekends, and they have helped me stay calm during the lockdown. Strangely, doing the classes via a Zoom-like video link and not in a physical classroom, I have found that my classmates are relaxed and more immersed in the experience.

As the lockdown drags on, I start to worry about my dwindling supplies of essentials like toothpaste, laundry detergent and face cream, as I did not stock up on these before the lockdown. I used to buy two tubes of toothpaste at a time, and only bought a new face cream when the one on hand ran out. I was quite proud of that habit – until the lockdown.

Now the most frequent question I ask when ordering items on e-commerce platforms is, “can you ship to Shanghai”. The answer is always, “not yet”. According to the tracking information, the closest item to my physical location is a book I had planned to read during lockdown. It has been stuck in a warehouse 20 kilometres from my flat for 10 days now.

As of this week, my shopping cart has another new item waiting to be delivered: an electric mosquito killer. Summer is already here, but when I can use the new device is anyone’s guess.

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