Expats in Shanghai endure lockdown like locals

Shanghai’s bubbly, modern mix of sophisticated urban culture and high-flying financial opportunity has been attracting expats for half a century. But today, expatriate residents are experiencing one of the world’s strictest anti-COVID lockdowns, a situation that leaves them as frustrated and fearful as their Chinese neighbors.

“I live in fear of being abducted from central quarantine facilities and held there indefinitely,” said Stan, a doctoral student who asked VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym and a few personal information to avoid retaliation from Shanghai authorities.

He arrived in Shanghai four years ago from Europe and has been in detention since March 28.

“I’m worried my cat will be beaten to death by people in white hazmat suits,” he told VOA Mandarin via email, referring to reports on social media of officers euthanizing cats and dogs owned by COVID-positive residents. “I’m afraid that (the authorities) won’t let me go to the airport and leave this place.”

This photo taken on April 16, 2022 shows a resident walking her dog in a residential compound during the Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai.

Stan is the only white resident of his apartment building in Pudong New Area. It’s an area of ​​Shanghai often called “the city of the future” with its skyscrapers, “smart” high-rise houses rising from what were once cabbage fields nearly 40 years ago, and the ambitious objective of having community centers rich in services. less than a 15-minute walk from each resident, depending on New Chinese TV.

But community-driven ambitions go no further in a lockdown where people are fighting for food. “I’m the only foreigner in the building,” said Stan, who told VOA Mandarin he was worried about his mental health. “Nobody talks to me.”

Of Shanghai’s more than 25 million residents in 2020, some 164,000 were foreigners, according to the state-controlled China Daily.

Many foreigners are excluded from group purchases that others have organized through WeChat, a Chinese social media app, for bulk purchases of available food and daily supplies. Need milk? There’s a cat for that. Ditto vegetables, rice and cooking oil.

Stan said he was at a disadvantage because he couldn’t really read Chinese.

“Placing orders was more difficult for me, and I ended up being left behind,” he said. Soon, he found himself eating leftovers that “the roommates forgot to throw away when they moved out.”

Stan relies on care packages from his school and the government, a diet of “instant noodles, some fresh vegetables and tinned pork. We get some food from the government but (it’s) very rare and random.”

Without the lockdown, Stan would be finishing his thesis and getting ready to go home. But the confinement left him there.

“My productivity is extremely low,” he said. “The first week and a half was because of hunger.”

A community volunteer wearing personal protective equipment gestures as residents line up during a test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai on April 19, 2022.

A community volunteer wearing personal protective equipment gestures as residents line up during a test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai on April 19, 2022.

Find food and water

Retrieving food and water is a top priority for most confined people, especially those with children.

Bruce, a professor at a university in Shanghai originally from one of the island nations of Oceania, moved to China in 2015 and lives with his wife and two young daughters in a downtown compound. He also asked VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym and only some of his personal data to avoid reprisals from local authorities.

“The water in Shanghai is generally not drinkable due to heavy metals,” he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview. To keep his family healthy, Bruce uses the time he is allowed out of his apartment to find bottled water, which he brings home on a granny cart.

He and his family are excluded from bulk baby purchases because there aren’t enough babies in the compound to make up a minimum order.

“I’ve never seen baby stuff and water in the bulk buy, so I literally wouldn’t know how we could actually get that,” Bruce said of the bulk buys. “I think we’d be really stuck on those two.”

After two weeks of confinement, Bruce and his family are eating canned goods and instant noodles.

“I haven’t eaten fruit in over a month, and the only fresh vegetables we have are from government grants,” Bruce said. “But it’s not much at all, in fact nowhere near enough to feed a family of four.”

He wants to leave China with his family. Although Shanghai’s airports are open and foreigners are allowed to leave the country, Bruce found that logistics made leaving nearly impossible.

In order for Bruce and his family to leave the compound, the neighborhood committee must issue them a special pass. The panel rejected Bruce’s pass application despite the help he received from his employer and his home country’s embassy.

A health worker wearing personal protective equipment performs a swab test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai's Pudong district on April 19, 2022.

A health worker wearing personal protective equipment performs a swab test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai’s Pudong district on April 19, 2022.

At all airports, China requires passengers leaving the country to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of boarding. But arranging an official test at a local hospital and getting the test results in time during the lockdown is difficult because the neighborhood committee will not allow a hospital visit in a timely manner, according to Bruce.

Transportation to either of Shanghai’s two airports is also a problem, Bruce said. “There is literally no transportation to the airport…no subways or buses. There are no taxis. There are no Ubers.”

The only way to get to the airports is on the Airport Shuttle Line 1, and the closest stop to Bruce’s home is six kilometers away, or about four miles.

“We were ready to go with the baby and a child (and) walk those six kilometres,” Bruce said, but the failure of the neighborhood committee to issue the necessary permit thwarted the family’s plans.

‘I miss this touch

For Tom Ward, a 77-year-old American who has called Shanghai home for 24 years, leaving never crossed his mind. He lives with his cat Nigel on the top floor of a residential building in Grand Plaza, a nine-building residential complex in the Jing’an district of the Puxi region, an area known for its preserved pre-World War II architecture. world and its graceful tree-lined trees. streets. During the confinement, his salvation was to take care of his private roof garden.

Ward longs for his old life.

“I miss being able to make my own selections for the things I want to buy,” he told VOA Mandarin in a virtual interview. “For example, right in front of my house, there is a big wet market where I buy my vegetables. The seller I have been buying from for 12, 13 years knows me. I go to his stall, and he knows that I likes asparagus, so he always puts asparagus in my bag. I miss that contact, the camaraderie with the vendors that we have here.

Ward said the lockdown didn’t affect him much as he was able to work from home and chat daily with friends, locals and expats. He credits his building’s management and well-educated residents for getting things done quickly. But his enclave does not represent the rest of Shanghai, he said.

“Go to an older neighborhood, a local neighborhood that doesn’t have that management expertise, that (has) older people who don’t go online. They don’t have online accounts. They don’t use Internet. There hasn’t been an organized effort to be able to source supplies,” he said. “They may not be able to communicate their needs as well.”

Because the death rate is low and severe cases are rare, at least according to official accounts, Stan, for his part, is questioning the lockdown.

“It’s not worth the human suffering it caused,” he said. “The official reason for doing this is to keep the healthcare system from collapsing, but instead they will collapse the whole country.”

A volunteer wearing personal protective equipment stands as residents line up during a test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai's Pudong district on 19 April 2022.

A volunteer wearing personal protective equipment stands as residents line up during a test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai’s Pudong district on 19 April 2022.

Others, pointing to what is happening in Hong Kong, say Shanghai officials have taken reasonable steps to protect residents. Hong Kong is reporting an average of 773 new infections each day, according to Reuters, using figures from the region’s official Health Protection Center. In total, Hong Kong has recorded 1,199,706 COVID-19 infections and 9,186 coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Among the 5,906 deaths in Hong Kong during the outbreak of the omicron variant from early January to March 21, 96% occurred in people aged 60 and over, and of these, 70% were unvaccinated, according to University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

“These elderly people (in Shanghai) who are very vulnerable and unvaccinated, at least for now, many of them are isolated from the worst,” said Jacqueline Armijo, visiting associate professor of history at the ‘New York University. Shanghai who is also trapped in her apartment. She spoke to VOA Mandarin via Microsoft Teams.

Bruce said “expats will think twice about choosing to live here in the future, for a while”.

Others are more confident in Shanghai’s recovery.

“It’s a very strong and vibrant community. It will recover,” Ward said. “But there is pain before that full recovery.”

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