We are in day 54 of a strict lockdown in Shanghai, and we have no idea when it might be lifted. Strict lockdown means that you cannot leave your home. As a result, the city of 25 million people has come to a complete standstill, and streets are empty and eerily quiet. All you can hear are birds, something I thought we did not even have in this city.
Fortunately, we were told a few days in advance that a lockdown was coming. That gave us some time to stock up on food and basic necessities. But we planned only for a week as we were told that the lockdown would not last more than 5 days. We are now in day 54 and food supplies are running low. We have had some food drop-offs organized by the government but those are few and far apart. As we do not know when the lockdown might be lifted, we had to start rationing our remaining food supply.
To put things into perspective, the Omicron outbreak that triggered the lockdown is not that major. The number of positive cases is relatively small but too large for the zero-Covid strategy which China has committed itself to. Hence, the hunt is on to identity and isolate all the virus carriers and quarantine all those they have been in contact with.
Obviously, the lockdown has been stressful. It is the first time in my life that I am deprived of my freedom to move around (and, lately, to choose what I want to eat) for an extended period of time. I can no longer walk down the street and hop into my favorite French bakery for a chausson au pommes and a hot chocolate. I would have never thought that I could do without those delicacies for over 6 weeks. Every experience is indeed an education. Here are a few other things which the lockdown has taught me.
Adapting to reality
Once you realize that there is not much you can do about a situation, you come to accept it and learn to roll with the punches. With the lockdown, we have so far gone through about five phases of adaptation. The first phase is the one where you go along with whatever is demanded of you but you see it all very much as a joke. In the first few days when we were herded into testing lines, there was a lot of laughter and joking around. No more.
After a few days, reality began to sink in and we became far more sober about our predicament. We came to accept the situation but nervously wondered how long this was going to last. While in testing lines, jokes gave way to questions and the sharing of whatever information we had on the situation. When information was lacking, we would collectively speculate on what might be cooking and coming our way.
In the next phase, we began to organize ourselves a bit for the long haul. We realized that we were all in the same boat (or at least in the same storm), and would benefit from working together. We started to form buying groups to bring more punch to the search for food supplies that could still be delivered to our building.
As more and more restrictions were being implemented and testing intensified, frustration and disbelief sat in. With the incremental tightening of the restrictions put on us, alarm bells began to go off. It became clear that the situation was serious and not quite under control. We also began to question the credibility of those in charge, and how much trust we could put in them. As official information on the situation was sparse, social media filled the void with the line between fact and fiction blurring quickly.
We also began to look at our neighbors with more suspicion as survival was increasingly being seen as a zero-sum game. We became more self-centered and exchanges with neighbors became calculated give-and-takes. This is where we are now, more than 6 weeks into the lockdown.
Silence breeds silence
Cities can be notoriously noisy, and Shanghai was no exception to that. But since the beginning of the lockdown, the streets have become eerily quiet. For anyone who could venture out, the once vibrant city must now look like a ghost town.
What is quite remarkable is that buildings became quieter as well. Neighbors used to play all kinds of musical instruments, but those have gone quiet as well. It is not clear whether this is a result of having lost the appetite to practice or whether a more considerate attitude towards ones neighbors has been adopted.
The rhythm of our lives has slowed down, and with it came a noticeable drop in the decibels inside and outside. When we sit around at home with the windows open, it is actually hard to believe that we live in a city of 25 million people.
The only people in the streets are ghostly figures dressed in full hazmat uniform. When we are herded out for mass testing, they line the streets and enforce strict social distancing. We can’t quite tell who they are as only their eyes are visible. Officials, policemen, firemen, health care workers, garbage collectors, etc. all wear the same protective suits and, hence, are indistinguishable from one another. However, all behave as if the suits have given them power and authority.
The security guards in our building wear them, and they are now empowered by the neighborhood committee to keep all residents in check (i.e., block anyone from leaving, control deliveries, enforce home testing, etc.). They used to have a marginal role but the lockdown has put them on the top of the heap and in charge of our lives. As anyone who has discovered newfound powers, they cherish them and do not hesitate to exercise them. The fact that the hazmat suits make them incognito only magnifies their resolve to wield their new stick. Evidently, some feel that the suits not only shield them from viruses but also from accountability. To many powerless residents, those hazmat suits signal hazmat.
Being under a strict lockdown for a long period of time and not knowing when it might end has been stressful. What I learned is that the mind does not give in or give up that easily. It holds on to the thoughts one had when one could still move around freely. It seems that the mind needs time to accept – and start adjusting to – a new reality. I assume that once it does, the unnerving situation becomes far more bearable. I really don’t want to find out though.
Because we retain thoughts that no longer align with the reality we live, we can easily and quickly go over the cliff. I know I have come close to the edge a few times over the past few weeks. The feeling of helplessness and not knowing when this madness might end only magnify the mental challenge to keep it all together.
The key is to keep things in perspective. The fact is that no matter how dire a situation is or becomes, there are always people who are much worse off than you are. At least, I have been testing negative, and because of it have been able to stay in the comfort of my own home. Had I tested positive at one point, I would have been hauled off to a mass recovery center where conditions leave much to be desired. Indeed, you can always find something to be happy about. Keeping such a healthy perspective takes the edge of ones predicament.
My family also realized that private space is important, and we reorganized our living quarters so that everyone has a corner where they can go and be on their own. We very much operate as a team, but the stresses of the situation require all of us to find time and space to be alone and sort things out in our own heads.
Most of the battles you need to fight are in your own head, and you cannot walk away from them. We support each other as much as we can but we all need a corner where we can escape to when minds go on tilt.
Time moves only in one direction
Incredible and hard to imagine, but we are approaching 2 months in strict lockdown. That is quite a long time to be deprived of ones freedom. The experience taught me a few things, but I am eager to put it all behind me.