Serenitie Wang, decked out in full hazmat gear.
Shanghai, China CNN  — 

When I left a Covid-ravaged Hong Kong, I was in search of a sanctuary.

It was early March and the city was in the throes of the biggest coronavirus outbreak per capita in the world.

Little could I have known as I boarded the plane that my cunning escape plan would take me from the frying pan into the fire; that as I landed in Shanghai I would be swapping the world’s biggest outbreak for the “world’s strictest lockdown” – and 70 days of enforced confinement.

Still less could I have foreseen that, after serving three weeks of government-mandated quarantine on arrival, my housing compound would be hermetically sealed for a further 49 days straight, or that my mom and I would catch Covid, or that I would be carted off for a further spell of isolation at one of the government’s notorious “fangcang” camps.

And if you’d told me then that it would be under the glaring strip lights of one of those “fangcang” camps, amid the whiff of dubious makeshift toilets and the dirty laundry of thousands of strangers, that I would have an epiphany about the joys of communal living and the mental health benefits of enforced breaks, well … then I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

But let me back up and explain.

At the time I boarded the plane, the siren song of Shanghai – my hometown – seemed hard to resist.

In Hong Kong, Omicron was running amok, but in Shanghai cases were still in the single digits and with China’s iron-fisted approach to infections it seemed reasonable to think things would stay that way.

That was my first mistake.

Keep calm and quarantine

During my three-week quarantine on arrival, I watched in horror as the cases exploded.

And the longer I stayed inside, the higher the cases climbed.

By the time I was finally allowed out, I had one fleeting day of freedom then was forced back inside for a lockdown that would supposedly last just four days.

Nothing to worry about, I thought.

That was my second mistake.

In fact, the residential compound where I was staying with my parents was about to be sealed off for the best part of two months as the virus worked its way through its 21 stories and 300 inhabitants.

Covid could seemingly pass between the floors and walls and the realization even the strongest measures couldn’t stop it was terrifying and shocking. Each time a single person tested positive, the lockdown was extended another 14 days.

The community testing site at Serenitie Wang's residential compound on April 4, 2022. The city initially told the residents the lockdown would be lifted on April 5; in fact it lasted until June 1.

Many of us responded by becoming model Chinese citizens, volunteering to disinfect the estate and help distribute food and essential goods – all of which had to be delivered – directly to people’s doors.

And the volunteers sanitized with a vengeance, lugging around 30-kilogram (66-pound) tubs of chemicals and donning full hazmat suits to douse in disinfectant every incoming package, every nook and cranny.

By the time they had finished, the building was so awash with chemicals that some of my neighbors’ touchscreen electronic door locks had corroded and stopped working.

This might have helped ease people’s nerves, but there’s little evidence it did anything to stop the virus spreading.

Twenty-four days into the lockdown, my mom — who like my dad and I had not set foot outside the apartment except for a mandatory test – saw the dreaded double line in her daily self-administered antigen test.

I waved goodbye to mom as the government workers hauled her off to one of the 288 schools that had been converted into isolation sites. The next day, I found I too had been infected.

Laundry hangs inside the "lucky clover" quarantine center.

Welcome to the jungle

Any hopes of seeing mom again were soon dashed as people were randomly assigned to different sites. I was bused to the National Exhibition and Conference Center, Shanghai’s largest quarantine facility – nicknamed the “lucky clover” due to its shape.

Once host to the world’s biggest auto show, it was converted into a makeshift Covid hospital with 50,000 beds, one of many public venues to have been repurposed into what Chinese refer to as “fangcang”.

Fangcang date back to the original Covid outbreak in Wuhan and are widely viewed by Chinese as a success story.

Somehow though, my arrival felt less than auspicious.