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How I survived world's strictest Covid lockdown in Shanghai (2)
Author: EnglishTeacher    2022-06-20


Unfortunately, given the many gallons of water I was forcing down my throat in an effort to flush out the virus, I spent far more time here than I would have liked.

Then there was the problem of trying to sleep in a place where there is no darkness. Rows of ceiling lights stayed on throughout the night, so I took to wearing two face masks -- one for my mouth and nose and one for my eyes.

Others struggled with the noise; the sound of thousands of people snoring, grinding their teeth, tossing and turning and groaning and grunting in their sleep gave this the feel of a safari.

That first night, it took me hours to fall asleep, only to be woken what felt like moments later by a loudspeaker blasting "please come take the PCR test" -- at 6:00 am.

The lack of sleep was making things seem weird, but things were about to get weirder still.


'A place where there is no darkness': Beds at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai.

Seeing the light

I was in an enormous room with 3,000 strangers, and I felt all alone. All I had was a tiny cot, a corner, a cabinet and a stool. The intense overhead lights left me feeling sterile, cold and exposed. It felt like a hospital, a bazaar and a maze all rolled into one.

That's when something deep inside me stirred: memories of the communal living experiences I'd had as a child growing up in China.

As part of the state curriculum, city kids like me had been sent to countryside camps to learn how to farm and work on assembly lines. Part of the experience was sleeping on large, undivided platforms with little privacy. The living conditions were poor, but any discomfort was outweighed by the youthful excitement of having a sleepover with classmates.


The scene inside Shanghai's biggest Covid-19 quarantine facility in May 2022.

My feelings of awkwardness in the "lucky clover" fell away. What I once viewed as embarrassingly intimate now felt like a pajama party.

Most people were just minding their own business, and something not entirely unlike "normal life" was continuing. People lounged on their cots, making calls with friends and family, scrolling on their phones and laughing at TikTok-style videos.

Even those separated from their loved ones did their best to stay positive. One couple across from my cot would video-call the 12-year-old daughter they had been forced to leave at home, alone. The mom would take her through meal-prep; the dad fielded math homework questions; and when she sobbed, they would comfort her.

But the brightest spot was the food. It was no feast, but having access to filling meals seemed fortuitous during such a strange time.

Normally, people from Shanghai are spoiled by the city's vibrant food scene, but I was keenly aware that during this time of lockdown many people outside the "lucky clover" were genuinely scared of starving.

Within the clover, there was no need to scramble for groceries or make do with what came your way.

Breakfast meant congee, baozi (steamed buns), eggs and pickles. Lunch and dinner were hot, and even more generous -- usually two main dishes with a choice of protein -- shrimp and beef, chicken and pork, fish and chicken -- and three sides of vegetables. Special menus were available for Muslims, diabetics and vegetarians.


Meal boxes offered by the Shanghai Covid-19 quarantine site Serenitie Wang stayed at.

Meals were rarely repeated and neither were the encouraging fortune-cookie style messages attached to the boxes.

"Go Shanghai!", "Zero worries, endless happiness...." and "Life is always warm and bright. A stumble will be followed by further progress" were among my favorites.

I shared photos of my meals on social media, with many friends saying they wished they would get Covid just for the free food. They might have been joking, but I often saw people hoarding snacks -- milk and fruit -- and taking the goodies home when they finally left.

I soon realized, too, that for some of those around me, staying in the "lucky clover' really was a piece of good fortune, a reprieve from the hectic non-stop hustle of a city of 25 million.

That's when I met Mr. Sun.

He was a worker with a state-owned construction company who had ended up staying in the same fangcang that just weeks previously he had worked to repurpose. He told me that since March his job had felt like fighting a war as he and his fellow workers had been tasked with building fancang after fancang, day after day.

The nonstop work had left his shoulder buckled and hands calloused. Buried in work and toiling away he had lost track of time and was almost "relieved" to hear he had caught Covid.

"I could finally take a break," he said.


Volunteers in hazmat suits take a nap inside Shanghai's biggest government Covid-19 quarantine center.

'Everyone will be scared of me'

Much as I tried, like Mr. Sun, to look on the bright side, it was hard to fully banish my mental anxiety.

My routine had become monotonous, I missed home, and felt icky from not having showered for days.

It was like I was trapped in a maze, barred from leaving despite feeling fine. Even at their height, my symptoms were only mild -- fatigue and occasional coughing and sneezing -- and that was a blessing as the little medical assistance that was on offer was largely pointless. Nurses were too busy to check on us and the most you could hope for were basic remedies like paracetamol, cough syrup, sleeping pills and traditional Chinese medicine.

Alas, there was no cure for Covid, or stubborn PCR test results. Days after my symptoms had disappeared I, like many others, would continue to test positive and remain stuck in limbo.

The release of the PCR test results was itself a scene every day.

Everyone's name and results would be printed out and posted on a wall -- much like how Chinese schools publicly release exam scores -- and every day the large crowd poring over them would be a smorgasbord of emotions from joy and despair.


Covid test results are posted on the wall in the "lucky clover" quarantine site.

I learned that PCR tests are not black and white. At least five people I knew had their hopes of freedom dashed as their results oscillated between positive and negative.

Desperate to avoid the same fate, I would thoroughly rinse my nasal passage and throat with a saline solution before taking my daily test.

Whether it was the saline or fate, I tested negative on my seventh day -- and after a follow-up test 24 hours later I was told to prepare for discharge.

Mr. Sun, the constructor worker, was told the same. But while I was excited, he seemed peaceful and contemplative. He told me he was concerned his neighbors might not allow him back in his compound. "I'm someone who tested positive. Everyone will be scared of me," he said.

I tried to console him, saying the infection would have strengthened his immune system and he would be less likely to fall ill again. He smiled reluctantly and said he hoped the community would be equally understanding.

The next day, Mr. Sun was missing from the line of people to be discharged. The nurse couldn't find him anywhere. I don't know if he decided to stay or not.

Source: CNN

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