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What Was Life Like During Shanghai's Strict Lockdown: An Interview

Note: Contrary to popular belief the Chinese government did not have my video interview removed last week. My friend asked to have it taken down as some people in China started asking him about it within hours of me posting it so I clearly didn't do the best job hiding his identity. He leaves China in a month and doesn't want anything to jeopardize that but did say I could repost as a text blog (will repost video once he leaves the country)

BACKGROUND: On march 28th Shanghai entered strict lockdown due to rising cases of the omicron variant. Almost 2 months later the city's 26 million inhabitants were still not allowed to leave their apartments

Donnie: All right. So today we'll be talking to my buddy who has been in Shanghai throughout this whole Covid ordeal. How did this new round of lockdowns come about?

Buddy: Cases of the Omicron started popping up so some people started to get locked down for two days and then they said, well, it's still spreading. And they basically wanted everyone to lockdown for four days. Some people said two weeks. And currently this is day 53 of our four day lockdown. 

D: I know the first round of lockdowns in Shanghai was actually shorter than the initial lockdown in the US, but this lockdown now seems way more severe than anything we've experienced in America. Can you run us through like what the rules have been? 

B: There's a couple of things to understand about China first. So every apartment complex has a neighborhood committee, and that neighborhood committee are party members that live in your building. And they're kind of the eyes and ears for what's going on in your area. And so the government has put those people in charge. And that's why we're seeing a lot of problems, because there isn't really a policy. There's a vague general policy to keep the numbers down. And so what's happening in different places is some people are being chained in with like back bike locks on the gates. They're building fences around people's houses. 

That's not happening in my complex because my neighborhood committee hasn't decided to do that. But they've kept us in for 53 days. Like, I'm not allowed to leave my apartment except to put my garbage outside.

D: So in the last 53 days, the only time you've left the house is either to take out your trash or to get a test? 

B: Yeah, and take out my trash is only open my door and set my trash outside. 

D: Oh, I thought they would at least let you walk down. 

B: No, I put it outside my door and then someone comes to my door and sprays it with a Ghostbuster gun of bleach. And then they carry it down. And we’re only allowed to order food through group orders. Which means we have to organize among ourselves. So we have chat groups within our building. And someone will be like looking and say, “Oh, we want butter. Can we get like 100 people to buy butter with us?” And then we can get butter. We got Shake Shack. This was ridiculous, man. For Shake Shack the minimum order is 1,000 USD. So you have to get enough people in your building to order Shake Shack. And it comes a week later. And it was just like ice cold. 

D: It comes a week later?

B: A week later. 

D: So you have to be like, "Yo, you know what? Next Friday night, it would be sick to have Shake Shack" and then find enough people in the building that also want it. And I'm sure a lot of people in your building are Chinese and may have never heard of Shake Shack. 

B: Exactly. 

D: Does all your food have to be ordered a week in advance, or are there some places where you could place an order at lunch and have that for dinner? 

B: No, there isn't. And the only restaurants that are allowed to deliver are the big chains like Taco Bell, Shake Shack, and KFC. So most of the food you're getting is groceries. And most of it is random. So you'll pay 20 bucks for for vegetables and eventually get two big bags filled with random vegetables. One time we got 2 bushels of bok choy, 1 thing of chives, two tomatoes and a potato. And it's like, what do I do with this? 

D: I mean, I guess that's kind of healthy. Do the groceries take a week as well? 

B: Yeah. And you have to buy everything in huge quantities. So we bought like 40 eggs and then the eggs didn't come for two weeks, so we ordered 40 more eggs. So now we have 80 eggs. I'm so sick of eggs. 

D: Are there ways to get meat? 

B: Yeah, actually, I forgot to mention we also get government deliveries, and I'll show you this delicious meal that I got. Have you ever tried this thing? 

D: Yes, I have. Oh, my God. Not a fan.  

B: Shanghai flavored red sausage and Chinese spam. We get one of these a week. It makes baloney look like filet mignon. But I will tell you, not everyone gets that either. We complained to our our neighborhood committee because we were getting, like, a bag of bok choy for two weeks. That's all the government gave us. And then we saw other people were getting like a whole chicken or some people got a whole duck, so we complained and we said, how come we're not getting the same food other people are getting? And then the next day we got the canned meat. 

D: Have you guys had to take COVID tests almost every day in your apartment complex? 

B: Yes, so many COVID tests. So we have the self tests and have to self-test before we go downstairs to do the actual test. I'm not sure why, but I've probably taken a test almost every day for 53 days. Going downstairs to take the test? Maybe I've done that 40 times.  And it's really funny because they don't want us to be next to each other. They have six feet apart dots painted on the ground to keep us apart. But then they put us all in the elevator at the same time. So they jam us into the elevator and then they bring us outside, and they're like six feet apart! But then, boom, jammed in the elevator with 15 people. It's crazy. Now we're starting to see a change. In the beginning, like the first couple of weeks in the group chat, everyone was saying, “we're not like America. Look how good our country is giving us vegetables and taking care of us. In two weeks, we'll be back to normal.” And now the mood has changed significantly where people are complaining. So now alot of people refuse to go downstairs to get tested, which, you know, from being in China, that's like a big deal. People don't really go against the government here. It's the first time I've seen it in nine years. 

D: Can you walk me through what happens when you go out for your neighborhood test in the morning and test positive? 

B: In my building there was actually someone who was building the COVID camps for the government, and he was curious to see how they looked. So they let him out to go check it out. And he came back and surprise, surprise, and brought COVID to him and his family. So he got sent back to the camp to get the inside view.  And since the two weeks is up, they're back now. 

D:  And  when you get sent to a camp, you're usually there for at least two weeks? 

B: Yeah, two weeks. But that's not always the case. So I have some friends that I know weren't allowed back in their building after going to a covid camp. The law is that you're supposed to be taken back after you've done your two weeks. But it's, again, the neighborhood committee's decision. And sometimes the neighborhood committee, they don't trust that you don't have COVID anymore. And they say, we don't want you. And so I know one guy that actually moved into a hotel because they won't let him back into his own apartment. So now he has to pay for a hotel because he's a bit stuck. 

D: Damn, And what are the conditions like at these camps? There was this one dude on Instagram who is kind of just live blogging. Everything he was going through there kind of just seems like one large room with a bunch of cubicle set ups, and then there's kind of like a cot in each cubicle sort of thing. 

B: Yeah. And believe it or not, those are the nice ones.

 So they have the cubicles with the cots, they have the porta potty room. They give you a couple of sheets and a little bucket to do your washing because they don't have showers. They've got a sink. They give you kind of a packaged meal that looks like a school lunch packet and you get a couple of bottles of water and that's about it. My friends that have been there said they don't give you enough water. I think they give you enough food, but the food is is terrible. And I've heard they don't shut off the lights. So there's like huge bright lights like in a stadium that are on all day. Super noisy, super smelly. And they actually have worse ones that are more temporary, like a bunch of small tents outside. They've started to take over some schools and turning them into covid camps too because they're running out of space. In fact, actually, this week there's a new policy where they said, if anyone in your building gets COVID, they want to send all of you to these COVID camps. So that's the big new panic.  Like my building is 26 storys and that's normal. So imagine everyone in the building being sent to a COVID camp, and then they come in and they they spray aerosol bleach on everything you own. They open up your closets, spray your clothes, so your clothes will be bleached. They'll spray your books or whatever. It doesn't matter what you have. I know some people that they were volunteering with the testing and they were standing near the guy spraying and their clothes that were sticking out of their protection got bleached. I mean, it's aerosol bleach. 

D: And I feel like when you send the whole building to a camp, like you might have had a few cases in the building, but once you send all 26 floors there, that pretty much guarantees everyone is going to get it.

B: Exactly. Two weeks ago they were trying to take a whole building to a covid camp and two Americans were just like, "no, we're we're not going because you're going to make us get sick."  And so we've seen more people peacefully protesting or however you want to say it, and just refusing to go because they're not positive. And I know I've seen some videos where they've kicked down doors but I don't know anyone personally that's happened to. I've been on some video calls on Zoom with the American embassy, and basically the embassy said there's nothing they can do. Their hands are tied. So I don't know what I would do if that personally happened to me. I think I would be afraid to not open up the door so I think I would probably go along with it. But I know some people, especially those with kids or with pets, they're just like "no, we're not going."

D: It must be excruciatingly boring at the camps…

B: We had some of our coworkers get sent to those camps. And it's it's a mental health crisis for them, for sure. 

D: One person I saw who was at a camp, he didn't even have his own cubicle. They just pair you up with another random person. So you don't have much privacy.

B: It totally depends on which camp you get sent to. Like, for example, those schools that they took over. People are put in rooms but the room is small and you might have like five, ten people in there. I mean, you don't get to choose those people. But another reason why they chose those camps is because they are mostly on the outskirts of town. So when they move all those people there, that means they don't count for the numbers in Shanghai. So basically you could probably do like a satellite photo and see see the borders of Shanghai because it's all massive temporary buildings that they've built up.

D: This lockdown. Obviously, it's tanking the economy. It's a mental health crisis. It's leading to political unrest. But they're still committed to the Zero-Covid policy? 

B: Yeah. I mean, we thought, okay, they care about the economy. Shanghai is an the international city. There's a lot of headquarters here. The eyes of the world are here. We thought that maybe that would change something. And then earlier this week, the the WHO, they said in a very polite, very diplomatic way, China has done a great job, but zero policy doesn't work with with COVID. So hopefully they can reconsider it.  A lot of people were posting that clip but it got taken down. And then Xi Jinping gave a speech and he reaffirmed this week that, no, we will we will conquer COVID. And we are staying with the the zero cases policy, which has really, cranked up the the feelings here, because when you don't have the hope or you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, that's when it becomes a lot more stressful. 

D: Let's talk about booze. Have you been able to get beers? 

B: Well, luckily, we we saw the writing on the wall and we we stocked up big time. But also a guy I'm in the softball league with. He works as a wine distributor. And so he saw what was happening and he signed up as a delivery guy on one of the food delivery apps because he saw the lockdown coming and only those people have permission to be outside. So he quickly signed up for that. And now he's the go to guy. He's been delivering alcohol, cartons of cigarets, and chocolate. He didn't even do that before, but he's just wheeling and dealing. He's got his scooter fully charged. And basically now it's hilarious in our groups. It's like anytime someone needs alcohol, we just call this guy and he somehow has the connections to get you whatever you need. 

D: This guy's a hero. I feel that they're going to make a movie about him when this is all said and done. 

B:  And they need to, he deserves it. 

D: What are some of the horror stories that you've heard or that you can confirm are real? Because obviously everyone in the US, we see crazy things online every day. And I mean, it seems like most of it is is actually real. But I'm sure some things must be exaggerated. 

B:  I mean, you're well aware of your time here in China. The the Western media tends to exaggerate or take unique, weird stories and inflate them. But I would say this is the first time where the stuff you're seeing on the news is really happening. And the the thing that maybe people aren't aware of is it's only happening to a small percentage. So maybe 1 or 2% of people in the whole city are having those kinds of issues. But 2% is half a million people. It's a big city. So it's definitely not happening to everyone, but it is happening to a lot of people. I've seen some pictures and things from friends about pets, that's one of the big issues. When you get sent to a covid camp, the government doesn't have a policy for your pet. So either you have to leave your pet in your apartment, and they'll still spray the bleach with your pet in there. And no one's coming to feed your pet. Or some people just let their pet outside to escape. And some security guards have taken sticks or brooms and just beaten the dogs and cats to death or shoved them into bags. I had friends that saw some of this stuff happening. That doesn't seem to be happening now tho because once it became an international news thing, they told people, don't do that. It wasn't a policy from the government to kill the animals. It was, again, the neighborhood committee doesn't know what to do because there is no policy. So they made their own decision. Something even worse that I've been hearing about is the suicides. There was just a woman screaming bloody murder out her apartment saying, “I can't take this. I want to leave this country. I want to kill, kill, kill, kill."

And everyone in the building was messaging, saying someone needs to go there and talk to her because a lot of people are jumping out of their buildings and killing themselves. In a friends building a whole family held hands and jumped out of their 20 story building. Some elderly people have been committing suicide too as they don't let you go to the hospital. And so a lot of these, you know, 89 year old people, they they need medicine. We read this story from someone my wife knows where the dad killed himself because he couldn't get his pain medicine. The daughter was our age and talked to my wife and said they were messaging, like someone needs to check on him. And, no one checked on him for a couple of days and he just he wrote a small message saying, "I can't deal with this pain without having the pain medicine. I'm old. It's not worth living anymore." So he killed himself. That's been kind of the big thing, especially maybe in the last few weeks, because now we don't know when it will end.  And some people haven't been able to get food because you need to do a group buy. If you don't have enough people to buy the food, you can't get it. And some people live in smaller building where they don't have a lot of neighbors so they can't spend $1,000 on Shake Shack, so they're not getting any food.  It's mainly old people who can't figure out the group buys and they're like "I don't have food, I don't have my medicine, I've got cancer, I'm just going to end it."  Two of my coworkers were down to a couple packets of instant noodles left, and they were honestly panicking. And we we called that guy, the alcohol guy I was telling you about. And we're like, we've got to get this guy some food. And he was able to sneak out of his apartment and hand them a box of food over their gate.

D: It seems like if you don't know how to use technology, you're kind of fucked during this lockdown because that's how most of the group buys are done. 

B: 100%. And even those group guys I was talking about, they're not open all the time. Like we had our alarm set to 5:05 a.m. because sometimes you could only order for a 30 minute window. It comes available and then as soon as they get the max orders, it closes. So in my building, you know, I live in I live in the city center. I have doctors and lawyers and stuff in my building. So all of these people are on top of their game. But the older Chinese neighborhoods are the ones having problems getting stuff. And those are also the the places that are having these kind of suicides. 

D: One thing you mentioned to me earlier is that some Chinese media is saying that COVID came from the U.S. or it was like done by the U.S. government. 

B: Yeah, it's not some. All state media says the U.S. military created COVID and released it in China to destroy China's economy. This is not a secret. The media here is is controlled by the government  and that's the narrative. I've had coworkers that are Chinese ask me like why the United States would do that. Most Chinese people, they won't get within 30 feet from me because they see me as a foreigner. They think somehow I have COVID, but then they ride the elevator with me because they don't want to wait for the next one. 

D: Yeah I heard back when COVID first broke out in China. If they saw a foreigner walking down the street, some people would cross to the other side of the road. 

B: Yeah. I mean, there has been a lot of xenophobia. I actually got attacked by a guy twice. The police came and everything. He pulled out a police baton. My wife is Asian. He was yelling at her saying she's betrayed her people and and things like that. And it was unprovoked. And he just had this hate for America now. And actually, he didn't know I'm American. He just knows I'm white. But for most Chinese, they think white people are Americans. 

D: That's so sad, because when I was in Shanghai and I lived there for about eight years, I never really experienced any xenophobia or anti Americanism. Especially in Shanghai, which has always been a city very open to the outside world and foreigners. 

B: Yeah, I've been here nine years and I've only experienced that in the last two years. I never. Just like you. It was always super easy to make friends here. If you're out at the bar, you could get involved in a dice game with random locals. It was awesome then. I loved my life in Shanghai. I loved my life in China. But unfortunately, this is a different China now. 

D: Obviously, China doesn't want to be taking all the blame for covid but I didn't know they were just pulling a 360 being like, no, it was actually the U.S. government. 

B: Yeah, I don't remember seeing that the first year of COVID, but definitely now it's it's all the time. And they they have a new app here. And if you're a communist party member, you need to subscribe to this app. And it has all these news and will give you a score based on how many articles you read. It will count like did you look at five articles today? Then it has quizzes afterwards to make sure that you read the information and then you can get a bonus point if you share those articles on another social media app. So that also didn't exist before. But now a lot of Chinese people have that app. And so a lot of my friends that are Chinese, you know, they're always asking me questions like "why would America put COVID into China? Why do they hate us so much? Why do they want to do that to us?" And I'm like, What are you talking about? And then they show me, like, here's the news article. Like, this is this is coming from our scientists that have proven that COVID came from America. 

D: So on the app, if you share that article, you can kind of earn brownie points with the party? 

B: Yeah, yeah. My friends that have the app, they spend about an hour a day on the app and it takes about an hour to get the max points. I mean you don't need to have the full score. It's not forced on you. But there's that kind of social pressure of, well, who's going to get the next job promotion, the one that's always reading the articles or the one that's not. So basically everyone's reading that. And I can tell you, I've noticed a shift in some of these people I've been friends with for nine years where before they would see those articles and they would kind of be like, Yeah, that's ridiculous. Like, that's not true. But I think slowly over time, by reading these articles every day, they might not believe everything about it, but they're starting to believe parts of it. And there's definitely, been a shift here. Like, you wouldn't recognize the attitudes here from when you left. 

D: You mentioned that some Chinese people are starting to complain. Have they been trying to crack down on like WeChat posts or Weibo posts, which is Chinese Twitter, where people are complaining about the lockdown? 

B: Yeah. So people post on wechat all of these videos of what's going on. And then you click on the video because the thumbnail will show a picture of the video, but when you click on it, it's a 404 error. Or it says says "this person has deleted this content" but they didn't delete the content. It's almost become like a game. People will download the video and then record it so that it comes up as a different video. And everyone keeps reposting it to try to stay ahead of the censors because the censors are a little bit delayed, like it takes them probably about an hour or two to do it. So, I mean, it's honestly kind of funny to see because you envision someone behind a keyboard frantically trying to take down these videos and then they keep popping up. Personally, I'm not really posting those videos because I want to get out of here and I don't want any trouble. But but like a lot of the Chinese friends I have, they no longer care. 

D: Yeah after two months inside I imagine you stop caring about most things. 

B: I mean they spent two years building this propaganda that said, we're the ones that beat COVID. And this lockdown is really threatening this whole thing that they worked two years on. 

D: The government is worried if they say, you know what, we just have to learn how to live with COVID. They're almost. Admitting that the Western approach was right. 

B: That's totally what's happening right now. And they're willing to even sacrifice the economy to some extent for that ideological edge. And right now, like just from talking to friends and like looking at a lot of polls online, most foreigners are leaving.  if they're not leaving this summer, I would say about 80, 90% are leaving within a year. 

D: Do you need to wait for the lockdown to be to be over, to fly back? 

B: In order to get out you've got to get permission from the neighborhood committee, the people in the building. They have to sign a form. Then you're supposed to go to the hospital and get a a test ahead of time. Once you get all those approvals, then you have to book a car, which is normally about 50 bucks. But right now I've seen it as high as $1,000. And then. And then you have to hope that your flight's not canceled. I know a lot of people that have been booking like five different flights and just going they're hoping to get out. 

D: So you work as a teacher, What’s been happening with the schools? Have you been teaching from home? 

B: Yeah. Oh, man. I forgot about telling you this story. You'll love this story. So one of my. One of my students, it started out kind of scary. So we got a message saying, has anyone talked to this 16 year old student?We're like, no. What's going on? And they kind of kept it hush hush. But that night, the parents said they got in a fight with the kid and the kid left and he didn't take his phone. We don't know where he is. And so the teachers are kind of talking about it. They're like, we don't want to panic anyone. But has anyone talked to this kid? Then the next day comes in the morning and he still hasn't showed up. And, you know, for us, we were already talking about the suicide things like. Honestly, in my mind, I was talking to my wife and I'm like, I don't know what I'm going to do if this kid ends up washed up in a river, jumping off a bridge. They alerted the police and the police and the police saw him crossing major roadways, but then they couldn't find him. And then it was almost two full days. They finally find him. And it's like, okay, he's alive, thank God. And then I message him. I'm like, Where were you, man? And he goes, I tried to escape. So he he took a wad of cash from his parents in a backpack. He took his passport. He snuck out of his building and found one of those rental bikes, jimmied the lock open and rode the damn bike to the airport. 

D: To the Pudong airport?

B: The Pudong Airport

D: That’s an hour drive away!

B: It's an hour drive. He rode his damn bike. Eventually, once he got to one of the major highway roads, he could find the signs for it. He biked all the way to the airport. And, you know, he's a kid, so he doesn't understand how it works. He showed up at the airport and pulled out his passport and his wad of cash and he's like, “I want the next flight out of here.” And they're like, That's not how it works. You have buy a ticket online. what are you doing here? And everyone here has their COVID information on their phones so , they're like, “Show me you don't have COVID”. And he's like, “Oh, I don't have my phone. Just let me in.” And the guy is arguing with the airport to let him in. And eventually he just gives up and they let him go, which is shocking. And so he doesn't know where to go. He's just biked all the way. You know, it's normally an hour drive. So he's like, I don't have enough energy to to get home. So he just start walking around the airport and because it's lockdown, there’s not many people there. And he just starts jamming open different doors and he finds a door open. He gets into the airport and he finds a little like medical building or like a nurse station or something like that. And he sets up the chairs and he makes a little camp for himself. And he spent the night there. He had food in his backpack and water. And then he gets up the next day and tries to book a flight again. They say no. And then he's like, okay, I better go back. So he rides his bike back Shanghai has cameras everywhere and no one is allowed outside so he assumes the police will catch him and bring him back to his apartment. But the police never show up so he's like, I don't know what to do. He wanted them to catch him because he wanted to go home, but he had too much pride to roll up at home and say, Hey, Mom, I'm back. So he just started rolling around. He went to Lujiazui where like the Pearl Tower and the skyline. He just biked around all the sights of China because he was looking for food and water.

D: And all stores are closed, right? 

B: Everything is closed. So he's you know, he's just rolling around. He said he didn't even know where he was because, you know, it's all tall buildings and he didn't have his phone and he's just like, why are they not catching me? 

D:  And the airport didn't call the cops?

B: Nope. It's unbelievable, man. I guarantee if it was you rolling around, you probably wouldn't make it very far. 

D: No. What a trooper that kid is. 

B:  He's like, I wonder if they'll they'll write an article for the school newspaper. 

D:  I'll write an article about him. Well, thanks for talking to me. I'm thinking of you guys and praying for the best. 

B: Yeah. Thanks, man. Hopefully we can meet up somewhere around the world here one of these days. 

UPDATE: Last week after 60+ days of lockdown they started easing restrictions. This is what I heard from my buddy

"They gave some people these passes to leave their apartment for 3 hours but after two days they changed their mind and said no more day passes. Then there was protest at one of the buildings where a group demanded the gate be opened and walked a block to the neighborhood committee to say that there is no policy keeping us locked down. Surprisingly it worked so they are now allowed 3 hours a day to be out. The videos spread and now many buildings are doing the same. My building planned a big protest but the day of they gave us a package of Oreos and Pringle’s and told us we each will have one day to go out for 3 hours. The people still lined up at the gate that night but it felt more like an ice cream social than a protest. So some people are now allowed out for multiple days or for just 3 hours a day.  When I was allowed out for 3 hours I was shocked how many homeless people there were now. Most of these people are delivery guys they brought in from other parts of China to keep the deliveries coming while everyone is locked down. Living in tents wherever they can find a spot. There were everywhere, it’s so sad. It really felt like a zombie apocalypse walking around with fences, barricades and makeshift homes.