Do not get your hopes up. This is not the title of a new Harry Potter book. As you read on, you will see that this story has little to do with fiction but everything to do with reality. It is also not a preview to a new horror flick, although the story has plenty to do with horror and the kind few of us would tolerate for long. Perhaps Count Dracula is coming clean? Blood and vampires don’t feature in the story either, but it certainly has gotten my blood boiling. The story is about the adjective draconian and how it entered my vocabulary over the past few weeks. Let me explain.
For the past four weeks, we have been living under a strict lockdown in Shanghai. We are not allowed to go outside of our apartments or homes. As a result, the city of 25 million has come to a complete standstill. Everyone is locked up in their home, and trying to adjust to — and cope with – an unsettling situation. Initially, we were told that it would not last more than five days. Today, we are in day 30, and there is still no end in sight.
As we were warned a few days ahead of time that a lockdown was coming, we could stock up a bit but food stores ran out quickly because of last-minute panic buying. Whatever we could lay our hands on, we hauled home. Those supplies are now long gone. We can still get some deliveries through online buying groups, but those are very difficult to secure. On most days, the group orders fill up by 8am. When the deliveries arrive, you are at the mercy of what the group allocated to you from what they managed to secure. Predictably, group buying has become a frantic bidding process with prices at levels that few can still afford.
Those who cannot join or afford group buying are left with what the government is supplying to every home. Sporadically and unpredictability, a cardboard box appears at the door step with some basic necessities that last for a few days. For most people in Shanghai, that is about the only source of food they have had for weeks.
Tomorrow is May 1, traditionally a major holiday in China with flowers sprucing up the streets. It will now be celebrated at home with all the streets and parks deserted. As we are going through another wave of mass testing, we are likely to celebrate May 1 poking sticks up our noses and hoping we are still negative.
When you test positive, you get picked up immediately for isolation into recovery centers. All those who were in contact with you are picked up as well and put into mandatory quarantine centers. Needles to say, none of those centers would qualify for any star in the hospitality industry’s rating of accommodations. If the images of these centers circulating on social media are accurate, you do not want to test positive.
If you face a medical emergency, you face many obstacles. Few hospitals are still open because of lack of personnel. Many frontline health care workers were the first to test positive and got taken away. Getting to a functioning hospital is not easy either. Blaring sirens of ambulances, a common sound in any big city, are rare in our neighborhood these days. Cars are not allowed to be on the road unless they have a special permit, and those are rare and difficult to obtain. You also need an official release document to be able to leave your home to get the care you need. Getting anywhere close to a hospital requires a 48h negative test result, and entry into treatment areas requires another test on the spot. None of these obstacles sits well with the term emergency. Accordingly, those in need of urgent medical care have not always been able to get it, often with dire consequences.
All these measures were put in place to contain an Omicron outbreak. China has committed itself to a zero-Covid strategy, and is determined to make it a success. The measures that are being implemented have been labeled draconian. Consulting my dictionary, severe, harsh, and unforgiving are listed as synonyms for that potent adjective that has now become part of my vocabulary.
As the adjective has been needling more than my tongue, I wondered what its etymology was. My initial thought was that the word had something to do with dragons because of the phonetic similarity. The emotional toll of being locked up for a month might have gotten me on that track as well. After all, I am stuck in my dungeon and in great need of letting off some steam.
Does draconian link back to Count Dracula and the world of vampires? The lockdown hasn’t drawn any blood yet, but it certainly has kept blood pressures up. I never heard of vampires in this part of the world, but if viruses can spread around the world so easily, why not vampires? They have certainly been biting my nerves and testing my resolve.
It turns out that the origin of the adjective draconian has little to do with either dragons or vampires, although some of the images those bring to mind seem fitting. The word draconian was derived from the name of a Greek magistrate who lived in the 7 century BC. Evidently, the adjective is not a modern invention and has been around for a very long time.
Draco, the Athenian magistrate whose name inspired the adjective draconian, put together the first written code of law enforced by a court. He did not create any new laws but simply wrote down the prevailing practices at the time. His aim was to make sure that the courts would be consistent in their judgements and sentencing.
What has made the code memorable ever since is its cruelty. For example, it demanded the death penalty for many minor offenses. Besides its cruelty, the code was also unfair in that it favored the rich and powerful landowners of the time. In the eyes of Draco’s laws, not everyone was equal.
Not much is know about the life of Draco apart from how he met his end. That happened when he was standing on the stage of a theater addressing his supporters. In a show of approval, they threw hats and pieces of clothing onto his head and he suffocated underneath them. Unfortunately for Draco, his life got cut short but the adjective derived from his name got etched in perpetuity. He suffered a weighty end in more ways than one.
What is remarkable is that the adjective has been around for so long. One can only surmise that many must have suffered severe, harsh and unforgiving treatments way before Shanghai ended up in a full lockdown.
As we clock in day 30 of the lockdown, we just hope that this dracooo…ooonian experience does not evolve into a googol nightmare.