For nine years, I lived in a giant apartment complex called the Summit with hundreds of other people in the city of Shanghai.
My family and I left China months before the pandemic, but I still stay in touch with some of my former neighbors through the group messaging platform WeChat, which is where I saw this video.
As seen on Weibo: Shanghai residents go to their balconies to sing & protest lack of supplies. A drone appears: “Please comply w covid restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.” https://t.co/0ZTc8fznaV pic.twitter.com/pAnEGOlBIh
— Alice Su (@aliceysu) April 6, 2022
That’s a government drone elsewhere in Shanghai, warning people who were singing from their balconies. The message says: “Please comply with COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”
As China continues to pursue a zero-COVID strategy, the 26 million citizens of its most populous city are subject to various degrees of lockdown amid a surge of the coronavirus.
Coming up with coping strategies
When a drone blasts out a recorded warning against singing, sometimes all you can do is laugh.
“One of the only ways, honestly, to survive this lockdown is to have to see it through some kind of humor. These get circulated, and we almost laugh at them,” says Ha Chuong, who was one of my neighbors in the Summit.
She and her husband, Nadav Davidai, and their two kids have had to maintain a healthy sense of humor lately as Shanghai approaches its sixth week of the citywide COVID lockdown. They haven’t been able to leave their apartment building since April 1.
Since then, the Summit apartment’s WeChat group has taken on a new life as an information hub for food delivery and required COVID testing, and as a place to complain together and help each other out.
“It’s been really a kind of lifeline. We had no connection to the outside world,” Chuong said. “We even started a Friday night trivia group, which was quite nice.”
For Davidai, the WeChat group has two speeds right now.
“There’s these nice moments, of kind of levity and community, mixed in with what the heck is going on-type of stuff,” he said.
Life inside the Summit means near-daily COVID testing, done by medical teams in full Tyvek suits. What was initially going to be a four-day lockdown has dragged on. And on.
It became a meme that riffs on the “+4” card in the popular card game Uno, and that in turn became another laugh-to-keep-from-crying crutch.
It was also a helpful way to conceptualize the issue for Chuong and Davidai’s two young children.
“It’s been tough for them,” Chuong said. “And so our oldest, who is 9 years old, she had heard about this meme through her friends. And that actually, in the end, really helped her mentally get through … because she’s thinking about that Uno meme and saying, ‘Plus four, plus four, plus four.'”
Hitting a breaking point
The upbeat attitude hasn’t always held, however.
In a video shared on the Summit WeChat group, workers in blue Tyvek suits began to erect metal barriers at the entrance to the Summit tower earlier this month because somebody tested positive the day before.
Dozens of people can be heard screaming from their windows in protest. It worked — and the barriers were taken down.
“When they brought the fencing in, that was, for me, like, one of the lowest points so far in this lockdown,” Chuong said. “They were going to fence us in, and it was just all that pent-up frustration inside of us.”
Residents in the Summit scream in protest to fences being erected.
In another part of Shanghai, Ming is also struggling to reconcile this new life. She is a nanny in a fairly well-to-do area who asked that we only use her first name for her own safety.
Ming said she was “yearning for freedom” but was also worried about the risks as Shanghai still records about 2,000 infections a day after living without any surges for the last two years.
“I’m kind of on both sides, because I have my grandparents, which are old, and I have little kids within my family. I don’t want to take the risk of losing my family,” she said.
Still, she isn’t sure where to get her information from and is skeptical of how the government is handling the outbreak. She said her friend lives in a building where residents ran out of food and weren’t able to get any more supplies.
“And they had, like, the whole building screaming, ‘We need food!’ But it didn’t go on the news … But after that, they got, like, several times of food from the government,” she said.
For Chuong and Davidai, they are aware they are more fortunate than many in the city. In fact, a month ago at the beginning of the lockdown, when Summit residents discovered that there were building staff who were stuck at their workplace after the complex’s lockdown was announced, they came together on the Summit WeChat group to organize a donation drive that resulted in bedding and other daily necessities for Summit employees who were sleeping in the basement of the complex.
And Chuong and Davidai also have another way of looking at the pandemic as a whole.
“One perspective that I think maybe people back in the U.S. don’t get very much is, they see this [lockdown] and this makes for horrible optics,” Davidai said. “But we felt incredibly lucky to be in China. From March 2020, when we came back from Singapore, until a month ago, it was the best place to be in the world.”
The zero-COVID policy had been working, and his family had been able to live normal lives: Going on vacation and keeping the kids safely in school throughout the pandemic.
“And so, I mean, the zero-COVID policy was really beneficial to us,” Davidai said. “It was a real boon for us for a long time. And it feels very different now, obviously, but kind of on balance, I don’t know.”
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