Editor’s Note: Rodrigo Zeidan is an associate professor of practice at New York University Shanghai and an affiliate professor at Fundação Dom Cabral. Melissa Nogueira, LL.B., is a language instructor. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“I’ll scour the apps while you manage the WeChat groups, OK?”
Division of labor is essential amidst the world’s toughest lockdown. We are modern hunter-gatherers from a privileged position in a high-rise building in the Pudong district of Shanghai.
In the beginning, we would spend half our days procuring food and beverages. Now, it is more like two hours a day. We eat what we can get our hands on, but we are in no danger of running short of essential items such as water, soap, and basic staples.
We wonder if this is similar to our experience growing up under hyperinflation in Brazil in the early 1990s or if it is just our minds playing tricks on us. But back to reality. There are mangoes to last us a few months – 25 pounds of the fruit, to be precise.
China is in the grip of its first significant outbreak of Covid-19 in two years, prompting a government-mandated lockdown of multiple cities as part of its uncompromising zero-Covid strategy. The primary hotspot is Shanghai, China’s financial hub of 25 million residents, our current adopted home for the last six years, and where we still plan to live for the next 40.
A year ago, daily life reached a balance. Life was back to normal with two exceptions: we should wear masks when using public transportation and in certain government buildings, and any news of a single Covid-19 case in the city spread like wildfire.
Everybody was aware that if somebody in their community were to test positive for Covid-19, a targeted lockdown would ensue. It would last 14 days in the places where the case was found and two days in places where the person had passed by (as long as everybody tested negative for two consecutive days).
Still, with monthly cases in the single digits, we never met anybody who was locked down. That changed early this year when cases started to mount and places were more often forcefully closed.
In mid-February, when cases started climbing in Shanghai, people would ask themselves before going anywhere: “Does the venue have toilets?” (People who got locked down in a department store were handed buckets, as there were no facilities on the premises)? Does it have an open space? Were there any confirmed cases nearby?” People would try to avoid lockdown risk at any cost and, at the same time, be prepared for the worst.
That meant carrying a bag with toiletries, a change of clothes and essential items to the office in case of a spontaneous lockdown.
On March 10, amid rising cases, our eleventh-grader son’s school informed us they were switching to virtual learning. New York University Shanghai, where Rodrigo teaches, did the same shortly after.
We could still go out, and everything was open. But we decided to avoid crowds and even public transportation – no more basketball, tennis, or happy hours. The city was still a living organism, and our three-bedroom apartment has plenty of space. Many people, especially migrant workers, have no such luck.
After a day or two of this, we chose to self-isolate. We didn’t want to risk being sent to centralized quarantine or getting stuck in an impromptu lockdown in a department store or a restaurant. We sensed a complete shutdown coming.
We have been there before, watching cases rise while authorities postpone the inevitable, in both Spain and Brazil, in 2020. What we didn’t know was that the Shanghainese version would include shutting down deliveries and closing supermarkets and grocery stores.
On March 24, we woke to the building WeChat group buzzing with the news that our compound had a resident who had tested positive for Covid-19. The entire 18-building compound would be closed off to the outside world for at least 15 days.
The particular building where the person lived would be sealed, and residents there wouldn’t be able to leave unless it was a medical emergency.
As the residents of other buildings were still allowed to use the compound’s shared areas, some of our neighbors set up tents and a picnic table on the central lawn where people gathered, trading snacks and laughter, with kids playing all around. Nobody could go outside, but life was not that bad in our community.
The worst was yet to come. On March 27, Shanghai instituted a staggered lockdown. Pudong, east of the river, where we lived, was closed down first. Then Puxi, in the west, five days later. In Puxi, families swept through grocery stores and supermarkets, leaving almost nothing in their wake.
We had no such chance to bulk buy. Neither did our neighbors. The stringency of the lockdown caught us unprepared, with no time to stock up. We switched to survival mode.
It helps that we were both children of Latin America’s hyperinflation. Overnight, our minds raced to the lessons learned from Brazil in the early-1990s. At that time, spending one’s monthly salary as quickly as possible was the norm. As prices could rise by 10% or more each month, every month there was no point in holding on to cash. Got some money in your pocket? Spend it all before it loses all its value.
Thus, stocking up on food was a recurrent family adventure, in which the goal was to spend every single dime while ensuring that the food would last until the next paycheck arrived. Families shared lessons about preserving food in bulk and using the same ingredient differently.
Then, as now, there was no point in wallowing about our predicament. Our mantra was “do what you must and control what you can.”
The first hurdle of the Shanghai’s severe lockdown was surprisingly easy to overcome. A neighbor helped us communicate with the community manager, who coordinates with official authorities about the evolving rules and regulations that each community must follow.
We got a special dispensation to go to the nearby clinic to pick up continued-use medicines. We have a bike, which is useful when people are afraid of community spread in closed environments like cars or buses, and we are considered responsible neighbors.
However, food and beverages turned out to be a much more significant obstacle. A few small restaurants delivered, but usually just one or two dishes. One of us would spend countless hours ordering anything that became available and looked edible. There was no news about food packages from the government; we have received two, more than a week apart, and while welcome, they would not cover all our needs.
We turned to the compound’s group chat for support. The community came together to coordinate bulk purchases directly from producers. For each category, there was a group chat: fruits, vegetables, rice, eggs, milk, and so on. Without Google translate and a helpful neighbor who speaks perfect English, it would have been much harder to navigate it.
Sometimes, purchases would come through. Other times, not. Minimum order thresholds varied widely. We placed an order for mangoes and strawberries. They arrived. Beautiful and tasty fruit, but what do you do with 25 pounds of mangoes, 6 pounds of strawberries, and 10 pounds of rice for three people?
Out of all the anxiety and frustration, there has been one silver lining. The community banded together. We lent kitchen knives and donated salt; a neighbor dropped ten apples from her purchase of 35 pounds of Golden Delicious. We all contributed to a few households that were running short of basic staples.
Finally, some reliability. We connected, at first through a Chinese app and then directly, to one of the few delivery persons allowed to move around Pudong. We tip him well to purchase what is available around here. The selection is stark, but we don’t care. We have lived through much worse in Brazil.
One day we woke up to a loud banging on our door. We got scared, as it could mean one of us would be carried away to a quarantine facility. Opening the door, people in hazmat suits. Our hearts skipped a beat. Luckily, they were there to deliver rapid antigen tests.
Although things are slowly getting better, there is no end in sight to the lockdown. A community is clear when it goes 15 days without anybody testing positive. As the cases still have not peaked, we foresee a few weeks before we can move about freely.
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Is it 1991? 2020? 2022? Frankly, sometimes we wonder. But it doesn’t matter. Our hearts go to the migrant workers and the families suffering real difficulties. We are safe, with enough to eat, and have a fully stocked library. We have plenty of space in a high-end compound where we have all we need but not all we want.
There are many ways to relive one’s childhood. Who would have picked this one? There will be a time for complaints but right now: “do what you must and control what you can.”