A covid chronicle from China reveals hope and despair

That sudden hint of freedom felt surreal. Has it really happened?

Less than one week before, I was still not allowed to enter a shopping mall for my yoga class because I didn’t have a 48-hour negative test result. Over the previous weekend, my friends and I were ousted out of a hotpot restaurant in the middle of our lunch, leaving a full, boiling pot of sausages, meat balls, and potatoes. A customer who patronized the restaurant three days before had tested positive.

On Monday, 5 December, after the Shanghai government said that there would be no more checks on the covid test results, the security staff at the metro station still stopped me to check my green QR code. Then on Wednesday, the central government announced the new rules, which scrapped the requirement for covid test results and green QR codes for most public places, allowed asymptomatic cases to quarantine at home, rolled back mass testing and imposed limits on lockdowns. But I was doubtful.

For three years, the whole country had revolved around the zero-covid policy. Would all those strict rules be overturned and all previous efforts be dismissed with just a snap of the fingers? I had seen how the zero-covid policy always won.

But the next day, I really walked straight into the shopping mall and the restaurants. That normalcy felt familiar and novel at the same time. The zero- covid era was officially over. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my chest.

Yet, I thought of the precautions we have taken over the past three years and the lockdowns we experienced during this year. I thought of all the time that passed and all the stories that failed to happen. All the hopes that were dampened and all the emotional toll that we wouldn’t recover from with just the snap of our fingers.

An unexpected year

I started 2022 with many hopes. I hoped to travel, meet more new friends, take more dance classes, and attend more concerts. But now the year has come to an end. It feels like I haven’t done anything. Almost three months went by during the lockdown. Then it took another three months to recover from the lockdown. Then another three months feeling stuck and unsure about what to expect next.

Lockdown was a major topic in all our conversations. The feeling of frustration and helplessness permeated all serious talks. Nothing felt certain. Life was in limbo. It seemed that the best we could do was to sit tight, hang in there and wait for the clouds to clear.

That was a 2022 that I did not expect.

When cases started to rise in Shanghai in early March, I was optimistic. The city’s precise and differentiated epidemic control strategy had worked well in the previous two years and I trusted it.

I ignored the precautions and went out to a public lecture, a reading gathering and a frisbee event. I had just bought my flying disc online. I was hoping that I would be able to play it in the park in the warm spring very soon.

But the situation quickly deteriorated the following week. We started to work from home and then our compound was officially in lockdown. We were initially told that the lockdown would only last for two days. But the two days stretched into four days, and then eight days, and then more, until no one knew when we would be out.

I enjoyed the flexibility of working from home in the first few days. I had more time for reading and writing. I took online yoga classes and also took long walks every day along different stone pathways within my compound.

But soon, life started to feel like a loop. I would wake up and check the news on my phone. And then I would work, cook, take a nap, work again, take a walk, or practice yoga, and then cook, have dinner, watch TV and sleep. The next day, it would be the same all over again. The whole world seemed to be on a pause and it felt like the lockdown would never be over.

Life under zero-covid

The lockdown eventually ended, after 77 days. I went into lockdown in early spring. When I came out, it was already summer. The best season of the year was gone.

Shanghai slowly came back to life. Yet the lost spring echoed everywhere.

A number of covid test booths sprouted in my compound and along the streets. Taking covid tests became part of my routine.

I calculated the dates when I would need to take my next test as the results expired every 72 hours. One time when I forgot to take a test in time, I couldn’t enter my office building.

A QR code was pasted at the entrance of restaurants, buses and shopping malls. Scanning those QR codes and showing my test results to the security staff at the entrance of the metro station, the shopping malls and my compound became almost a knee jerk reaction.

Travelling also became an increasing hassle. When I went back to my hometown, Chongqing, for the national holiday in October, I had to present three separate codes at different checkpoints in the airport there: the green code to show that I had a negative test result within 48 hours; the city entry code to track my entry from outside the city; another code to show that I had reported to my local community about my return. Then a whole line of medical staff wearing blue protective suits waited to test us at the exit.

When I thought that I had finally passed all the checks, I was suddenly stopped at the entrance of the bus station, where I was going to take a coach home, because I had a pop-up window on my health-code page. No one knew why the pop-up window was there. I had to urgently look for a private car to go home.

During the Shanghai lockdown, when some residents went to their balconies to sing, a drone broadcasted: “Please comply with the covid restrictions from the government during the pandemic. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window to sing.”

In the first two years, it felt fine to bear with the small inconveniences in exchange for a relatively normal and safe life. But it didn’t feel like the benefits still outweighed the damages when Omicron had been proved to be less fatal, and when the rest of the world was all opening up.

But the lockdowns continued in other cities one after another, until the whole country was in a certain level of lockdown. I repeatedly read news of people in those cities suffering in similar ways as we did during our lockdown, and there was no sign of any changes anytime soon.

For a long time, I felt like we were walking through a long, dark tunnel and there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Abrupt changes

One night, in late November, many people gathered on Urumqi Middle Road in Shanghai to mourn those who died in a blaze at an apartment building in Urumqi. The next day, more showed up to call for a change to the zero-covid policy, which many believed had hampered the rescue effort.

When I saw the videos of the gathering, I was shocked by the large number of people there. The event was unraveling in an unprecedented way: people shouted slogans that I had possibly never imagined would even be discussed openly; then the policemen and the protesters started to clash; one person I knew was taken away in a bus by the police. It was something I had never witnessed in more than 30 years of my life in this country.

The protests in multiple cities during that weekend eventually became a turning point. Fewer than 10 days later, China announced the new rules. The light was finally visible at the end of the tunnel. The changes were long overdue.

Soon, the lines in front of the testing booths disappeared.

I didn’t take any covid test for over a week, but I took a dance class, went to a Christmas party in a restaurant and attended a public lecture. No one asked me for my green code or my test result.

Along with the changes in the policies, came the shift in the official rhetoric.

The state-owned media, People’s Daily, cited a renowned Chinese epidemiologist Li Lanjuan as saying that an asymptomatic carrier is not a patient and there is no need to panic.

Articles telling people that there was no need to rush to hospitals after getting covid, about the low fatality rate of Omicron, and on how to prepare medical supplies for quarantine at home, also started to circulate widely on social media.

This was in sharp contrast with the previous official lines that emphasized the necessity of sticking to the zero-covid policies.

The sudden shifts in the policies and messages left many people confused.

Even my mother shared with me a message she saw elsewhere: “We have been busy dealing with covid for three years. In the end, we were told that it’s just a cold…We went into lockdown for nothing and then we came out of lockdown all of a sudden.”

A different battle

The zero-covid era has come to an end. But the virus is more relevant to us than ever. As one joke goes, we have been controlling the pandemic for three years, and the pandemic is finally coming now. We have a different battle to fight now.

Within days, positive cases started to emerge everywhere. The whole family of a friend in Chongqing was infected over the weekend. Then someone in my office was infected. Then, my roommate tested positive. And then, I also started to cough.

For the past three years, I was used to treating the virus as something distant. It was prevalent in my conversations with others, the news that I read, and the measures that I followed. But, in reality, it was far from me. I often forgot to bring my masks when going out as I never really felt its necessity. I also dismissed any suggestions to wear it in shopping malls, and even on metros at times.

But the responsibility is all ours now. All of a sudden, the major topic of our conversations have turned to whether anybody we know have tested positive, the symptoms, and how to prepare for a potential infection. A close friend who had been infected told me that she experienced muscle soreness, high fever, lethargy and bouts of dizziness. Suddenly, the virus felt real and close.

I had read articles about how to prepare medical supplies for about a week, but I didn’t really pay attention. I was still absorbing the new reality. After learning that my roommate had been infected, I went to a pharmacy for the first time, only to find that all the medicines for covid symptoms had been sold out a week ago. The gondolas were mostly empty and there was not a single medicine for fever. The pharmacy hadn’t been able to replenish its supplies. I had to buy whatever I could get for the potential symptoms.

The next day, my infection was confirmed. Then, within days, my extended family of over 30 people, back in Chongqing, including my 86-year-old grandmother, my parents, and my 6-year-old cousin, all fell sick, one after the other. The virus spread everywhere in the blink of an eye.

A different world

In 2019, I quit my job and went on a gap year. I traveled to Bali, New York, and then Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Three months after I returned to China, the pandemic started.

Looking back, that trip felt like a distant dream. The whole world was there for me to explore and enjoy, and I had immense hopes for what would be possible in the future. Three years into covid, the world is not the same, and I’m no longer that young woman full of optimism and hope.

As someone born in the 1990s, I grew up used to the fast-paced development of China. Tomorrow would always be better, at least in terms of material wealth. That was what had been proved in the past decades and what I believed in. But with the economy teetering, that rosy view of the future no longer exists.

A large number of businesses have closed, and those that have survived are tightening their purse strings. Many people I know have been laid off.

I also grew up believing that the world is a global village. China opened up to the world at an unprecedented speed and I benefited greatly from it. I studied abroad, worked in international companies, and travelled abroad regularly for holidays. China’s close connection with the world largely shaped my identity and the vision for my future. But that connection has been cut off since the pandemic.

In the past three years, I have had the feeling of living in a cocoon. It has become harder to envision being a global citizen.

Since the pandemic, I have seen how a top-down system worked and failed. Our confidence in the country was boosted to the highest level and then brought down to a record low. Many issues exposed in the past year showed me how frail our society is and how vulnerable our lives are. Individual rights seemed so insignificant under the big system. That made me reconsider the kind of world I wanted to live in.

“There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” When I felt the most helpless, I also saw an awakening of the awareness of citizenship and individual rights amid the young people. In the end, their expression helped turn the tide. That gives me a glimmer of hope for a better future.

There is still a bumpy ride ahead, but the worst has passed. Soon, the winter will be over and then the warm spring will come. I won’t miss it this time.

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