SHENZHEN, China – Signs of an impending lockdown in Shenzhen, China, had been growing for some time. The city has been registering several infections with the corona virus for days. Daily COVID testing was required to go pretty much anywhere. Individual buildings were locked.
So when a hotel employee woke me up just after 7am to explain that we weren’t allowed to go out for four days, my initial disorientation quickly turned into resignation.
Of course this happened. I live in China.
As the rest of the world imposes more restrictions by the day, China’s rules become more entrenched, along with the patterns of pandemic living under a government that insists on eliminating cases. People plan lunch breaks around completing mandatory tests. They are restructuring commuting to minimize the number of health checkpoints along the way.
A sense of potential disaster is always lurking, driven by the experiences of Shanghai and other cities, where sudden lockdowns have left residents without food or medicine. A friend bought a second freezer so she could run errands.
Yet the policy has been in place for so long, and with so little sign of easing, that navigating them — if not normal — feels at least routine. I know which test location near my home gives the fastest results, and which grocer doesn’t check that you’ve logged your visit for future contact tracing.
The disturbing becomes typical; the once unimaginable reality. The pandemic has imposed new rituals around the world, but in China the extremes are making that process even more troubling.
The most obvious shocking aspects for me were technological. China under “zero COVID” is a web of digital codes. At the entrance to every public space – restaurants, apartment complexes, even public toilets – is a printed QR code that people have to scan with their phone to record their visit. Everyone also has a personal health code, which uses test results and location history to assign a color. Green is good. Yellow or red, and you can be quarantined.
However, what determines the color of your code is vague. When a banking scandal sparked protests in Henan province this year, officials manipulated protesters’ health codes to prevent them from gathering. The morning in August when a colleague and I were planning to fly from the southern city of Guangzhou to Shanghai, her code suddenly turned yellow, without explanation, meaning she couldn’t board the plane. A health professional said the code would be reversed if she took another COVID test (let alone two weeks of daily testing). It did – barely an hour before takeoff.
Some features of COVID-era China bear witness to human creativity. Guangzhou library provides book sterilization machines, which look like high-tech refrigerators. Personal protective equipment manufacturers have designed individual air conditioning units, which inflate medical personnel’s suits with cool air as they perform mass tests for hours.
My favorite invention is the “temporary quarantine area,” where anyone who could pose a potential health risk in public can be deposited until medical care arrives. Many of these areas seem more pro forma than intended to stop the transfer. Some are tents in lobbies. Some are nooks with folding chairs. Near Beijing’s largest park, there is one with a string in the open air.
It’s possible to avoid the endless testing — by simply not going anywhere. In an area of Guangzhou dominated by a maze of small-scale textile factories, a worker told me he hadn’t noticed the city had testing requirements to go outside the district. He and his friends rarely left it anyway, sleeping in dormitories close to the factories and lounging in a nearby lemon tea shop on their days off. Factory owners were required to check for current test results when hiring, but few did, he said.
The economic effects of the restrictions are harder to ignore. He was trapped in several lockdowns, which prevented him from working for weeks. Jobs were scarcer anyway, because fewer people bought clothes. Lately, he’s been spending more time at the lemon tea shop.
There are signs of slowdown everywhere. Taxi drivers provide unsolicited assessments of how thin the traffic is. In the food court near my Beijing office, many of the stalls have gone dark, leaving diners in the remaining stores in a ghostly, semi-glowing glow.
And the cost of zero COVID is not limited to lost jobs. When my hotel in Shenzhen was locked, the staff told us to pay for our extended stays ourselves.
I managed to escape the lockdown early on. As the afternoon progressed, my colleague and I, who had been traveling together, saw people slip through a staff outlet. Under repeated harassment, the front desk staff admitted we could leave if somewhere willing to take us to a closed off area despite our travel history. Within 20 minutes we were on our way to the train station.
That’s what you can’t get used to: the total randomness. You’re locked up until someone decides you’re not.
You can take all the required tests and be perfectly healthy, but your health code may still turn yellow.
For many Chinese, the past few years of the pandemic have shaken up the spectrum of emotions, from anger to frustration to sadness. But the first word many people reach for when I ask how they feel is helplessness.
“What’s the point of upsetting myself?” said a single mother in Shenzhen, who had been incarcerated several times and worried about paying her son’s tuition. It wouldn’t change anything.
I am moved and a little impressed by the ways people are plodding through the pain. Yet I often think of a warning, or plea, written by a professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, not to get too used to this limited form of life.
“Don’t let the protracted epidemic and economic downturn make you give up on your dreams or lower your expectations,” wrote the professor, Lao Dongyan, in an essay widely shared on Chinese social media this year before it was announced. was censored. “We have to adapt and adapt to the external environment, but not by doing that.”
When I went to the test site outside my office for my regular Pap smear this week, I noticed that the station, which previously closed at 6:30 PM, is now open 24 hours a day. I was very happy – until I thought about what exactly I was celebrating.