When my 73-year-old father raised concern about his shrinking food supply late last week, the catastrophe brought by Shanghai’s citywide Covid lockdown suddenly hit home.
“Will be running out in a few days if no government handout soon,” he messaged me Thursday.
Then, as if anticipating my inevitable worry, he added: “Still have some rice and crackers – and plenty of coffee.”
It was a startling revelation on the grim reality in China’s biggest city and financial hub – from a member of the generation that lived through the Great Famine and the tumultuous Cultural Revolution that killed millions during the first few decades of the People’s Republic, founded in 1949 by Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong.
Even during the darkest days in Mao’s China, my parents – Shanghai-born and bred – used to remind me that, unlike many in the countryside, they were fortunate enough not to fear the prospect of starvation.
Now, with lockdown measures turning increasingly draconian, a once almost-unthinkable topic has struck a chord with residents in the city and beyond, more so than anything else: people going hungry in Shanghai in 2022.
By the authorities’ own acknowledgment, the food shortage has been a largely man-made disaster owing to a lack of planning and coordination.
Despite official pledges, government handouts have been unreliable in many parts of the city, including my father’s apartment complex in northeastern Shanghai filled with retirees like him. The elderly crowd had mostly failed to secure supplies through online bulk-purchases, practically the only way to buy anything in Shanghai at the moment, due to their relatively small demand and lack of tech-savviness.
I set out to help but never had I thought online grocery shopping would be such an emotional rollercoaster.
Armed with a membership for a retail warehouse club – presumably allowing me to face less stiff competition than those using a general online grocer – I quickly realized it was impossible to grab one of the coveted delivery slots, which are assigned at 9 p.m. daily, even with food still available on the virtual shelves.
The retailer’s app simply crashed each night – and would only come back online a few hours later with a glaring “no more delivery slots for the day” message.
As frustration and anxiety built up, my hope dwindled along with my father’s supply. On Day 2 of my futile attempts, a friend tipped me off about a “boutique” online retailer that was still offering a grocery package with next-day delivery slots. Elated to find out she was right, I immediately ordered for my father.
When I broke the good news in the online family group chat, however, uncles and aunts – all facing their own food shortage to various degrees – jumped in to express their shock that I willingly paid 398 yuan ($62) for five kilograms of vegetables and 60 eggs.
“Highway robbery!” cried one uncle, while an aunt stressed the price was more than four times what she would normally pay for the same amount of food in the market.
“But these are boutique eggs,” my dad deadpanned.
I was relieved that my father’s fridge was replenished in time but, hearing relative’s comments, felt a sense of “survivor’s guilt”: What about the countless residents who can’t afford price-gouged groceries?
An indefinite lockdown
Literal survival wasn’t a concern for most of Shanghai’s 25 million residents before April.
For the past two years, the city had bolstered its status as the most important international gateway to China – for both people and goods. It had prided itself on its more targeted and lenient approach to Covid containment, despite Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy.
With Shanghai shunning citywide mass testing and adopting less restrictive quarantine rules, it once looked like a potential role model for the whole country as the rest of the world had largely chosen to live with Covid with an emphasis on vaccination.
Then came Omicron, with the highly contagious Covid variant sweeping through the city and infecting more than 390,000 residents since March, according to government statistics.
After repeatedly denying the city would be locked down – with police even announcing a probe into alleged online rumormongers – Shanghai authorities abruptly changed course in late March and sealed off the entire metropolis at the beginning of April.
The government initially billed it as a four-day “temporary pause” – claiming they would promptly test the entire population, isolate positive cases and then re-open the city. As a result, many residents never bothered to stock up.
Despite widespread panic buying before the lockdown, my father was among the unfazed. A retired electric engineer who enjoys travel, photography and coffee, he had recently strained his back muscles – and wasn’t going anywhere in any case.
Still, his home confinement turned out to be much longer – and more precarious – than he ever envisioned.
With tens of thousands of new infections reported daily, the government has continued to extend the lockdown – ordering any residential community with a single new positive case to be sealed for an additional 14 days.
My father’s apartment complex is currently slated to be locked down until May 2. But even that date remains uncertain, as the authorities continue to retest residents, meaning the lockdown clock could reset at any time.
For once, millions of people in Shanghai – young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative – seem united by their rising anger.
Despite the censors’ ferocious effort to erase all traces of bad news, social media users keep recounting and re-posting heartbreaking stories, increasingly disgusted by highly choreographed state media images showing an orderly and effective lockdown.
Among my friends and family, almost everyone has a personal story to share about the lockdown chaos and misery: from sneaking out in darkness to barter some food with a neighbor, to learning harrowing experiences of a friend dumped into to a hastily built isolation ward with leaking roofs and overflowing toilets, and hearing the wailing of an old woman next door whose children were unable to see their newly deceased father one last time.
Propaganda adds insult to injury
People are also seeing Chinese propaganda czars double down, painting Omicron as a potentially lethal threat while stressing that only zero-Covid can save China from the deaths and havoc caused by the virus in the West.
Officials have made it clear the policy has the personal stamp of approval from the country’s strongman leader, Xi Jinping, who has yet to visit Shanghai – a city he once led – amid the deepening crisis. Xi is expected to assume an almost unprecedented third term later this year, paving the way for him to rule for life.
Outside Shanghai, that message still seems to resonate with many, though debates have started to emerge and intensify. Inside the eerily quiet metropolis, the lockdown and its ensuing calamity have become a watershed moment for locals and expatriates.
With state media headlines screaming “it’s not the flu!” against government statistics showing only about two dozen severe cases among the infected in Shanghai so far, nearly everyone seems to agree on the apparent absurdity of “the solution being worse than the problem” – particularly as stories surface on social media about deaths relating to those unable to receive medical care for non-Covid causes due to the lockdown.
Some residents have questioned online why the authorities appear more keen to attack critics of zero-Covid than to convince residents aged over 60 in the fast-graying city – the most vulnerable group with a disappointing vaccination rate of 62% – to get the shot.
Others reflect on the current tragedy and contemplate their next steps.
“How did Shanghai fall like this?” has been the line I have heard most often lately. It’s mostly a rhetorical question – the real question seems to be “Shall I stay, or shall I go?”
For expats, many have been voting with their feet – undaunted by the bureaucratic and logistical hoops they must jump through to just exit their residences.
For locals, it involves more soul-searching but, echoing sentiment online, a growing number of Shanghainese – native or adopted – have told me they have decided to put their foot down to emigrate.
Entrepreneurs and bankers alike say the brutal lockdown has demonstrated money means nothing in a world where anyone can instantly become collateral damage in plans instigated by a distant and unaccountable leadership.
For most people in Shanghai, especially of the older generations like my father, they will always call the city home. They remain focused on surviving the ongoing nightmare, trying their luck with bulk-purchasing online.
My father said someone in his community recently initiated a coffee group-buy attempt – but quickly failed due to lack of interest.
“No one seems to be in the mood for coffee right now,” he said.