Vicky, a young Taiwanese professional who lives in Shanghai, has seen her fair share of restrictions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been lockdowns and restrictions, as well as stories of friends trapped in their offices for 48 hours awaiting mass testing.
Now five days into the latest lockdown, Vicky, who prefers not to share her family name, has found herself doing something entirely unexpected: trying to convince a friend’s rescue dog, Mocha, that it is ok to go to the toilet inside her apartment.
“She is currently staring at me right now with sad puppy eyes like ‘why aren’t we going out?’ and I don’t know how to explain it to her,” Vicky told Al Jazeera by Skype. “So far, I have just tried to communicate to her that one, if you poop on the floor, I won’t be mad at you, and two, if you pee and bathroom it’s fine, I will just hose it down. It’s not a big deal.”
The workaround is just one of many being adopted by Shanghai’s 26 million residents as they find themselves confined to their homes due to a surge in Omicron cases. Under the latest lockdown, they are not allowed to leave their homes for any reason other than to be tested for the virus, and are reliant on city officials for food and basic supplies.
One viral video showed some Shanghai flat dwellers lowering a dog out of the window in a harness to mixed results, while another showed a group of foreigners on a rooftop trying to get the most out of Shanghai’s spring sunshine.
Twitter posts from Shanghai residents shared via VPN – necessary to get around China’s ban on Twitter – document the empty streets, hazmat-suited workers, mass testing, and the sometimes-questionable government food deliveries that have become part of daily life.
Shanghai reported 311 new symptomatic cases and more than 16,000 asymptomatic infections on April 5, the local government announced on Wednesday, with both measures higher than the day before. The wave has been described as China’s most severe since COVID-19 first broke out in Wuhan at the end of 2019. China’s government says it has also dispatched 38,000 healthcare workers from across the country to assist in a mass effort to test the entire population, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua. A further 2,000 military medics have also been sent in to assist.
Originally planned as a “staggered lockdown” to keep China’s most important commercial and financial city semi-functioning, Shanghai’s lockdown has been extended until an unknown date as government officials review city-wide test results, according to state media. Lockdown measures were originally supposed to have ended in the early hours of April 5.
Residents like Vicky who live in western Shanghai have only been stuck at home since April 1, but those in the city’s east have been living under lockdown since March 28. Vicky told Al Jazeera that she has about “three days” left of food but blames herself. Like many young Taiwanese, Vicky does not cook and says she even made the purposeful decision to not buy pots and pans when she moved into her apartment.
Ahead of lockdown, she stocked up on instant noodles, fruit, and multivitamins to supplement some canned food that she had but now admits that was “wildly optimistic”.
上海封城 小區住戶這樣遛狗 pic.twitter.com/R6TQ3UgrES
— 新聞看點 (@MuYangLee_XWKD) March 31, 2022
Vicky’s neighbourhood committee recently dropped off a “huge” bag of vegetables, she says, but she is not quite sure how she will prepare them. “If I get really desperate, I can probably chop the cucumbers to make a salad,” she said. Microwaving, she added, could be another option if things get dire.
While Vicky has been able to take lockdown in stride, she remains conscious of the fact that as a resident of the upscale Jing’An district, she can work from home, giving her an advantage over residents and undocumented workers living in other parts of the city.
“I’m pretty lucky. I have a nice one-bedroom apartment in a downtown area,” she said. “You wouldn’t think your neighbourhood would matter very much in lockdowns, but it does, because if you’re in a nicer neighbourhood, you get better communication, you get better resources. I got my city-gifted free vegetables before everyone else.”
Still, she has her worries.
Mocha, the rescue dog, belongs to friends who tested positive for COVID-19 – they had agreed they would look after each other’s pets if they were sent to quarantine, as everyone who tests positive is required to do.
Chinese internet, however, has terrifying stories of health workers killing the pets of patients sent into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus. Early lockdowns in China in 2020 were also accompanied by stories of neighbours breaking into each other’s apartments to rescue pets whose owners were suddenly stranded elsewhere or whisked away to quarantine.
The nerves of other Shanghai residents are also fraying, Vicky says, as China’s government perseveres with its tough “Covid Zero” approach.
COVID ‘horror’ stories
In 2020, many residents were happy to follow the rules and remain vigilant, but now Vicky says she sees a great deal of complaining and the sharing of clickbait “horror stories”.
There is also anger about the separation of children and parents if one or the other tests positive. A petition has recently made the rounds on WeChat Moments calling for asymptomatic patients to be allowed to isolate at home, rather than face a government quarantine centre. One foreign couple broke the Great Firewall that keeps China isolated from the rest of the world to tweet about their experience at one such centre, giving it a low grade due to its communal rooms and – temporarily – broken toilets.
— Shane Leaning (@leaningshane) March 23, 2022
For Vicky, there’s no easy answer to the debate over lockdown.
Her father lived with a compromised immune system before passing away several years ago, so she understands the need to protect the most vulnerable people. The unknown question, though, is how far the rules should go.
“I’m very torn. I don’t understand [why] people have no compassion for [immune compromised] residents, but I also don’t understand people enforcing the rules to the point where they kind of ignore basic human needs and well-being,” she said.
For now, however, she said she is prepared to break out an emergency stash of Lego or maybe try one of her gym’s 50 yuan ($7.86) livestreamed classes as she awaits another food delivery.
She has also made plans with friends to take turns reading Alice in Wonderland to each other over a three-hour marathon video chat session.
“I think mentally it will be difficult, but we are two years into the pandemic, which means everyone’s quite equipped at setting up online events,” she said, adding that her set-up was just fine for now. “It’ll be ok.”