Publisher’s note: Rodrigo Zeidan He is Associate Professor of Practice at New York University in Shanghai and Affiliate Professor at Fundação Dom Cabral. Melissa Nogueira, LL.B., is a language instructor. The opinions expressed here belong exclusively to the authors.
Shanghai (CNN) –– “I check the mobile apps, while you take care of the WeChat groups, okay?”
The division of labor is paramount amid the world’s strictest lockdown. We are modern hunter-gatherers from a vantage point in a skyscraper located in the Pudong district of Shanghai.
In the beginning, we spent half our days getting food and drink. Now, it’s about two hours a day. We eat what we can get our hands on, but we’re not in danger of running out of essentials like water, soap, and other basics.
We wonder if this resembles our experience of growing up under hyperinflation in Brazil in the early 1990s, or if it is simply our minds playing tricks on us. But let’s get back to reality. There are mangoes that will last us a few months: 11 kilos, to be precise.
China is on the verge of its first significant outbreak of covid-19 in two years. Which led to the Government ordering mandatory confinement in several cities, as part of its uncompromising strategy of zero covid-19. The main focus of infection is Shanghai, the financial center of China, with 25 million residents. Also, our adopted home for the last six years and where we still plan to live for the next 40.
A year ago, everyday life reached a balance. Life returned to normal with two exceptions: We were required to wear masks on public transportation and in certain government buildings, and any news of a single positive case of covid-19 in the city spread like wildfire.
Everyone knew that if someone in their community tested positive for COVID-19, a limited lockdown would be put in place. The measure would extend for 14 days in the places where the case was detected and for two days in the places where the person passed or transited (as long as everyone tested negative for two consecutive days).
Still, with monthly cases limited to single digits, we never met anyone who was on lockdown. That changed earlier this year, when infections began to pile up and places were forced into lockdown more often.
In mid-February, cases began to rise in Shanghai. So before going anywhere, people would ask, “Does the place have bathrooms?” (People confined in a department store were given buckets, since the place did not have bathroom service)? Also: “Do you have an open space? Were there any confirmed covid-19 cases nearby?” People tried to avoid the risk of confinement at all costs and, at the same time, to prepare for the worst.
That meant bringing a bag with toiletries, a change of clothes and essentials to the office, in case of a spontaneous lockdown.
On March 10, amid a spike in cases, our 11th grade son’s school informed us that they would be switching to virtual classes. New York University in Shanghai, where Rodrigo teaches, followed suit soon after.
We could still go out, and everything was open. But we decided to avoid the crowds and even public transportation: no more basketball, tennis, or cocktail parties. The city was still a living organism, and our three-bedroom apartment has plenty of space. Many people, especially immigrant workers, are not so lucky.
After a day or two of this, we decided to isolate ourselves. We didn’t want to risk being sent to a centralized quarantine or trapped in a makeshift confinement in a department store or restaurant. We felt that a total closure was approaching.
We have experienced this before, seeing cases increase while authorities postpone the inevitable, both in Spain and Brazil, in 2020. What we did not know was that the Shanghai version would include the suspension of home deliveries, as well as the closure of supermarkets and grocery stores.
On March 24, we woke up to news buzzing through the building’s WeChat group: Our complex had a resident who had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire 18-building complex would be confined to the outside world for at least 15 days.
The specific building where the person lived would be sealed off and residents would not be able to leave unless they had a medical emergency.
Since residents of other buildings were still able to use the common areas of the complex, some of our neighbors set up tents and a picnic table on the center lawn where people would gather, exchange snacks and laughter, with children playing everywhere. No one could go out, but life wasn’t that bad in our community.
Although, the worst was yet to come. On March 27, Shanghai implemented a staggered lockdown. Pudong, east of the river, where we live, came first. Then Puxi in the west five days later. In Puxi, families ransacked grocery stores and supermarkets, leaving almost nothing in their wake.
We did not have that opportunity to buy in large quantities. Neither do our neighbors. The rigor of confinement caught us off guard, without time to stock up. We then switched to survival mode.
The fact that we are both children of Latin American hyperinflation helps us. Overnight, our minds raced to remember the lessons learned in Brazil, in the early 1990s. At that time, the norm was to spend the monthly salary as quickly as possible. Since prices could go up 10% or more each month, it didn’t make sense to hold on to cash from month to month. Do you have some money in your pocket? Spend it all before it loses its value.
So stocking up on groceries was a recurring family adventure, where the goal was to spend every penny while making sure the food would last until the next payment. Families shared lessons on how to preserve food in large quantities and the different uses of the same ingredient.
Back then, as now, there was no point in lamenting about our situation. Our mantra was “do what you must and control what you can”.
The first hurdle of Shanghai’s strict lockdown was surprisingly easy to overcome. A neighbor helped us get in touch with the community manager, who coordinates with the authorities the evolving rules and regulations that each community must follow.
We got special permission to go to the nearby clinic to pick up medications for continued use. We have a bicycle, which is useful when people fear community spread in closed settings, such as cars or buses. And we are considered responsible neighbors.
However, food and drink turned out to be a much bigger hurdle. A few small restaurants do deliver, but usually just one or two dishes. One of us spent countless hours ordering whatever was available and looked like it could be eaten. We had no news about government food packages. So far, we have received two, more than a week apart. And, although they are welcome, they would not cover all our needs.
We turned to the community group chat for help. The community came together to coordinate bulk purchases directly from growers. For each category there was a group chat: fruits, vegetables, rice, eggs, milk, etc. Without Google Translate and a helpful neighbor who speaks perfect English, it would have been much more difficult to deal with it.
Sometimes the purchases arrived. Other times, no. Minimum order thresholds varied widely. We placed an order for mangoes and strawberries. Have arrived. Beautiful and tasty fruit, but what do you do with 11 kilos of mangoes, almost 3 kilos of strawberries and 4.5 kilos of rice for three people?
Out of all the anxiety and frustration, something positive has remained. The community came together. We lend kitchen knives and donate salt; a neighbor dropped ten apples from her purchase of 15 kilos of Golden Delicious. We all contributed to some households that were running out of basic food.
Finally, some reliability. We connected, first through a Chinese app and then directly, with one of the few delivery men who could get around Pudong. We give you a good tip to buy what is available around here. The selection is austere, but we do not care. We have experienced much worse things in Brazil.
One day we woke up to a loud knock on the door. We freaked out as it could mean that one of us would be taken to a quarantine center. Opening the door, there were people in hazmat suits. Our hearts skipped a beat. Fortunately, they were there to perform rapid antigen tests.
Although things are slowly improving, the end of the lockdown is not in sight. A community is free when it has been 15 days without anyone testing positive. As cases have yet to peak, we anticipate a few weeks before we can move around freely.
Is it 1991? 2020? 2022? Frankly, sometimes we wonder. But it does not matter. Our hearts go out to migrant workers and families experiencing real hardship. We are safe, with enough to eat and we have a fully stocked library. We have a lot of space in a high-end complex where we have everything we need, but not everything we want.
There are many ways to relive childhood. Who would have chosen this? There will be a time for complaints but right now: “do what you should and control what you can”.