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Hungry and scared: Inside Shanghai’s disastrous zero-covid lockdown

A global capital of culture and finance now has residents bartering for food and going without critical medical care. When will it end?

What does life look like for a city of 25 million people in China’s largest-scale urban lockdown?

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“Every morning when I wake up, what I worry about is no longer work, it’s what we are going to eat today. Almost all of my time is spent on this.”

That’s what Liu Jie, a university professor in Shanghai, told Grid on the 15th day he’d spent confined to his small apartment with his wife and toddler.

“I thought it would be two weeks at most,” said Liu, who requested Grid use a pseudonym because of the political sensitivity of the topic. “But I’ve already been here for two weeks, and the city clearly isn’t going to reopen. In fact, I don’t even know if it’s going to open up in another two weeks.”

The Shanghai lockdown has sowed chaos in one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities, a place long known as a hub for culture and high finance. At the moment, it’s a hub for stress and worries about the basic supply of food, medicine and other necessities.

The measures also have yet to stop the virus. On Wednesday, cases hit a new high of 27,719.

But Shanghai is different — given its size and its importance — and so the consequences of the lockdown have been harder to ignore. A broken food delivery system has left people desperate for basic groceries. Non-covid medical emergencies have gone unheeded. Parents have been separated from their children in quarantine. Residents have faced conditions they never imagined possible in such an affluent and politically important city.

“What has happened in Shanghai has really made people realize there’s no exception in China in terms of control,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

How did it come to this in Shanghai? And how exactly have people been able to survive under a lockdown of this scale and stringency? Grid spoke to Shanghai’s holed-up residents about what happens when a city of 25 million shuts down — indefinitely.

Shanghai’s frenzied search for food

Stuck at home, people have turned to food delivery companies to buy groceries — a delivery person is considered an “essential worker” — but the apps have struggled to keep up with a torrent of traffic. Ordering meals online is common in Shanghai, but companies short of staff due to the lockdowns and covid outbreak have been overwhelmed.

To secure coveted groceries, people across Shanghai have been waking up in the early hours of the morning to place online orders when the supplies are restocked, clicking again and again on the checkout button to try to get their transactions through.

A woman with the surname Zhao, who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity because of the topic’s political sensitivity, told Grid she stocked up before the lockdown but wound up joining the online fight for food when it was extended. “Everybody is competing and trying to see who has faster hand speed and Wi-Fi speed,” she said. Realizing that the system was crashing under the weight of the orders, she enlisted a friend in Beijing (more than 700 miles away) to try to place an order for her. That worked — but only once over four days.

Shanghai residents have had some help. The government has been distributing food throughout the city, and sources Grid spoke to have received packages containing vegetables, fish and other food items. These packages are delivered through each community’s neighborhood committee, the lowest rung of government in China.

But those supplies alone don’t suffice, said Zhao. “You can’t really rely on the city giving you food because I only got two packages in 12 days. I live with my boyfriend, and so it’s two people in our household. That food won’t last long,” she said. She estimated the two government packages would cover only two to three days of meals.

With the lockdown dragging on, the food delivery service faltering and provisions from the government running short, Shanghai residents have felt a rising anxiety. “After the first week, everyone had a feeling of panic because if delivery services and the supply of goods didn’t recover, eating would become a problem,” said Liu.

Facing this systemic failure, Shanghai residents have gotten creative. People in apartment buildings have self-organized through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, to place bulk orders of bread, vegetables, fruits and other goods. Rather than going through an intermediary, residents have used their networks to find wholesale suppliers who can deliver large-scale orders directly. The prices are higher than normal, and incoming trucks can get delayed, but sources told Grid that group ordering has quickly become a backbone of the lockdown food system.

Image of vegetables on tray
Zhao received vegetables through a bulk order placed with neighbors in Shanghai, China.

Some communities have started running like small businesses. David Fishman, an American energy consultant in Shanghai, described how his building of 160 units has organized its operation: rolling out a building-wide survey to make sure everyone’s food needs are met, tracking those needs on a spreadsheet and even creating a procurement schedule for their group orders.

Meanwhile, people have taken to bartering their goods, facilitated by the same compound- or building-wide WeChat groups. Zhao said she had exchanged different types of cat food with a neighbor and received rice from another.

As much as these creative solutions have helped people to put food on the table, they are no panacea for the city’s food woes. For some people who aren’t as dexterous on their phones — or those who don’t use phones at all — the lockdown has been particularly dire. Liu described the ordeal of a retired colleague who lives alone. The elderly man’s former employees discovered he had been subsisting on one steamed bun a day and was at risk of starvation when they found out. They were able to deliver additional food to him, but other elderly people in Shanghai are certainly still suffering under the radar.

Medical nightmares — covid and beyond

As difficult as being trapped at home has been for all these millions of people, testing positive for covid is even worse.

Fear of these kinds of delays has left many on edge. “We feel that we definitely can’t get sick in this period, especially our kid,” said Liu. “If you get sick and go to the hospital to see a doctor, it is a very difficult thing because most of the medical resources are being spent on covid.” Liu said that upon arrival at a hospital, you must get a PCR test and wait four hours for the results before being admitted.

Just as devastating — if unsurprising, perhaps — is the psychological toll. “Mentally you have to suffer from not knowing what happened or not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Zhao. “And also, you can’t do anything about it. You’re just like, ‘This thing is totally out of my control.’”

Living at work

Across Shanghai, work and school routines have been upended. Schools have gone entirely virtual. At some universities, lockdowns began even before the citywide mandate. Liu described how students at his university have been stuck in their dorms, three to four students packed into a room, trying to attend online classes. For a while, the students were even told they weren’t allowed to shower because that could spread the virus.

For Zhao, whose teaching job was interrupted by the pandemic, the lockdown has set her job search back. And for Liu, his academic research has been set aside. Previously, he and his wife got child care support from her parents and a maid, but now that they are isolated, he spends most of his day cooking or trying to procure food.

When will it end?

But as for the larger “one-size-fits-all” covid strategy, China appears to be standing firm. Since the beginning of the pandemic, government officials have promoted the success of China’s zero-covid approach in limiting infections and keeping deaths far lower than the U.S. and many other countries. Now that the message has been so widely broadcast, it’s hard to change course.

“The government feels it cannot back down from that policy, because they made that policy a political issue … ’Our system is better,’” said Wang. “So it makes turning around harder.”

The drumbeat of harsh lockdowns in recent months has left many with the feeling that things are trending in the wrong direction. And the nightmarish stories from Shanghai haven’t helped. “We are already in the third year,” said Liu. “Based on logic, things should be getting better and better, but things don’t seem to be getting better. In fact, they seem to have become increasingly bad.”

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