When this Shanghai building went into COVID lockdown, my WeChat group exploded: NPR

A police officer watches over residents queuing for COVID testing in Shanghai.

Chen Si / AP

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Chen Si / AP

A police officer watches over residents queuing for COVID testing in Shanghai.

Chen Si / AP

For nine years I lived with hundreds of other people in the city of Shanghai in a giant apartment complex called the Summit.

My family and I left China months before the pandemic, but I still keep in touch with some of my former neighbors through the group messaging platform WeChat, where I saw this video.

That’s a government drone elsewhere in Shanghai that warns people who were singing from their balconies. The message reads: “Please follow the COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Don’t open the window and don’t sing.”

As China continues to pursue a zero-COVID strategy, the most populous city’s 26 million residents are subject to varying degrees of lockdown amid a wave of the coronavirus.

Devise coping strategies

Sometimes when a drone blows out a recorded warning against singing, all you can do is laugh.

“Honestly, one of the few ways to survive this lockdown is to see some kind of humor in it. These are being circulated and we almost laugh about it,” said Ha Chuong, one of my neighbors at the Summit. †

She and her husband, Nadav Davidai, and their two children have had to maintain a healthy sense of humor lately as Shanghai approaches the sixth week of the city-wide COVID lockdown. They have not been allowed to leave their apartment building since April 1.

Since the start of the lockdown, hundreds of people have been detained in the Summit building in Shanghai.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

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Rob Schmitz/NPR

Since the start of the lockdown, hundreds of people have been detained in the Summit building in Shanghai.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

Since then, the Summit apartment’s WeChat group has been given a new lease of life as an information center for food delivery and required COVID testing, as well as a place to complain and help each other.

“It’s really been a lifeline of sorts. We had no connection to the outside world,” Chuong said. “We even started a trivia group on Friday nights, which was pretty fun.”

For Davidai, the WeChat group now has two speeds.

“There are those fun moments, of a kind of levity and community, mixed with what the hell is going on,” he said.

Life in the Summit means near-daily COVID testing conducted by medical teams in full Tyvek suits. What would initially be a four-day lockdown is dragging on. And further.

It became a meme that riffs on the “+4” card in the popular card game Uno, which in turn became a laugh-to-love-crying crutch.

It was also a helpful way of understanding the matter for Chuong and Davidai’s two young children.

“It’s been hard for them,” Chuong said. “And so our oldest, who is 9 years old, had heard about this meme through her friends. And that really helped her mentally to get through it mentally… because she thinks about that Uno meme and says, ‘ Plus four, plus four, plus four.'”

Hit a breaking point

However, the cheerful attitude did not always last.

In a video shared on the Summit WeChat group, workers in blue Tyvek suits started erecting metal barriers at the entrance to the Summit tower earlier this month because someone tested positive the day before.

In protest, dozens of people can be heard shouting from their windows. It worked – and the barriers were removed.

“When they brought the fencing in, it was one of the lowest points in this lockdown for me,” Chuong said. “They were going to shut us in, and it was just all this pent-up frustration inside of us.”

Summit residents shout in protest at the erection of fences.

In another part of Shanghai, Ming also struggles to reconcile this new life. She is a nanny in a fairly affluent area who asked us to use only her first name for her own safety.

Ming said she “longed for freedom” but was also concerned about the risks, as Shanghai still records about 2,000 infections a day after living without peaks for the past two years.

“I’m a bit on both sides because I have my grandparents, who are old, and I have small children in my family. I don’t want to risk losing my family,” she said.

Still, she isn’t sure where to get her information from and is skeptical about how the government is handling the outbreak. She said her boyfriend lives in a building where residents have run out of food and supplies.

“And they had, like, the whole building yelling, ‘We need food!’ But it didn’t make the news… But after that they got food several times from the government,” she said.

For Chuong and Davidai, they are aware that they are luckier than many in the city. A month ago, at the start of the lockdown, when Summit residents discovered construction workers trapped in their workplaces after the complex’s closure was announced, they got together in the Summit WeChat group to organize a donation drive which resulted in bedding and other daily necessities for Summit employees who slept in the basement of the complex.

And Chuong and Davidai also have a different way of looking at the pandemic as a whole.

“One perspective that I think people in the US might not get a lot of is that 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 in the world.”

The zero-COVID policy had worked and his family could have lived a normal life: going on vacation and keeping the kids safe at school during the pandemic.

“And so, I mean, the zero-COVID policy has been really beneficial to us,” Davidai said. “It was a real blessing for us for a long time. And it feels very different now, of course, but a little on balance, I don’t know.”

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