Corona: Ein Erlebnisbericht aus der Sicht Chinas
In der Zeit vom 13.-17. Januar 2020 erkundeten 15 Dialogmarketer des DDV Chinas "Greater Bay Area". Dort trafen sie Vertreter von zahlreichen Unternehmen und Startups und besuchten eine reihe von Flagshipstores und digitalen Hotspots, um die neuesten Trends im Data Driven Marketing Asiens auszumachen.
Der in Shanghai lebende Scout der Reisegruppe hat nun seine persönlichen Eindrücke von der Corona-Epidemie, die im Januar in China begann, auf Englisch verfasst.
Viel Spaß beim Lesen des Erlebnisberichts vom Scout Irene.
As I’m sitting on the carpet in my living room, typing in front of the coffee table, trying to write this piece, I’m getting increasingly overwhelmed by the idea of putting the past few months into words. By now I must have written at least 5 versions – each with a different beginning, a different angle or a different storyline that I felt was symbolic to this unprecedented time. But every time when I was half way through and went back to check on what was written, it just didn’t feel right. After having what feels like the best month of 2020 in April, my mind doesn’t seem to want to register all the hardship that came before. As hard as it is for me to relive the initial shock in January, the complete isolation in February and the cautious optimism in March, with everything that’s currently going on in the world, ironically, it’s not an easy task to articulate my real personal experience throughout these months and still appear truthful and unbiased.
Though most people I know have gone back to work in March and some started as early as mid-February, nearly 3 months into working from home, yet I still don’t have a proper desk setup. I keep thinking this isn’t permanent. Having been through SARS, I actually went into this outbreak with what can only be described as “blind trust”. Memories on SARS have almost fainted away after 17 years, but I do still remember my mask while walking down the street with friends from college, my gloves while taking the bus, and specially, the obsessive shaking of my jacket and even my hair in the hallway whenever I got back home.
Yes, those days in 2003 were scary. What surprised me though was when I found out just this January that there were only 8 SARS patients in Shanghai throughout the whole ordeal. This to me means it’s either that my mind made it to be worse than it was, or that people took it very seriously back then and did a good job of containing it. With that realization and the fact that things have changed for the better for everyone in this country in the last (almost) 2 decades, I wouldn’t be truthful if I said I didn’t have confidence at the very beginning that this would be resolved fairly quickly. However, as it turned out, I was right about the China part, but failed to anticipate the scale of the spread across the world. Sadly, it was like watching the same horror movie over and over again but in different languages every week.
The truth is when I first heard about an unidentified pneumonia in Wuhan back in December, I didn’t think too much about it. Only when I came down with a strange fever just two days before the new year, I thought I ought to have it checked out, just in case “something weird” was going around. So, I put on a mask and walked to the nearest hospital, where I was taken to a fever clinic right away.
Fever clinic was a screening procedure put in place during SARS and has since been kept in the system. It’s usually located in an isolated area, often tucked away outside the main building of a hospital. I have never been to any fever clinic before, so, naturally, I was a bit wary. But it was surprisingly quick and easy. There were virtually no other patients there. I saw the doctor, got blood test, flu swab and lung CT, all within the hour, and eventually got cleared and sent home with some Chinese medicine.
I was able to make a full recovery just in time to get back to the final preparation for the DDV Dialog Tour. In the week leading to the tour, there were some updates here and there about Wuhan on TV and on social media, but nothing overly alarming. For the most part, at the beginning of January, people were just busy getting ready for the Chinese New Year.
January and February in China are the most “intense” time of the year. It’s like this “twilight zone” where all the western holidays are over and most people around the world are getting on with their new year. But here in China, it’s not a new year until the Chinese New Year is celebrated. This most important holiday of the country also embarks the biggest human migration in the world, moving people around the country for 3 billion times in a span of 40 days every year around this time.
This year’s Dialog Tour in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong flew dangerously close. But with the right contacts, planning and preparation, we were able to get all the meetings just before everyone left town and we ended up having one of the most successful tours. However, when I finally got back to Shanghai the week after, I started to notice more people wearing masks on the streets. Then, things quickly escalated – doctors and scientists were showing up on tv; rumors started to emerge on social media; masks were sold out as a result of increasing demand vs factories and deliveries shutting down for the holiday. When Wuhan’s lockdown was announced on Jan. 23rd, the day before the Chinese New Year, it was clear to all of us, that things were dire.
Traditionally, Chinese New Year requires a lot of preparation - buying new clothes, new shoes, doing hair, hoarding food, enough to feed the whole family for at least one week, preparing “Hong Bao” (red envelops packed with cash) for the youngsters, and for those who need to go home for the holiday, stressing over buying bus and/or train tickets.
Things have definitely changed in the recent years. With Taobao & T-Mall selling whatever one will want to buy and JD’s same-day delivery, everything can be done on the cellphone and just a few digits of Alipay password away. My mom sends Hong Bao to my cousin’s 3-year-old daughter via wechat. Shopping malls and grocery stores like He Ma (Alibaba’s new retail) not only stay open but also continue to deliver food and groceries during the holiday, along with other apps like Ding Dong Mai Cai, Meituan and ELEME. Many families will also choose to go out to eat in restaurants so they can spend more time with each other instead of worrying about preparing food.
Needless to say, everything went upside down this year. People stayed up, not to send new year greeting messages, or to grab Hong Bao from group chats, but to get updates on Wuhan and on their own city. TV was full of the recent studies and findings about the new virus. Articles, pictures and videos from Wuhan are the only thing people read, watched and shared on wechat and weibo. There was so much information on social media that it was hard to tell truth from rumors.
Contrary to what was portrayed, to my best knowledge, there was never a nationwide stay-at-home mandate or any literal sense of a lock-down outside the city of Wuhan and later its province Hubei. One day, streets automatically became empty, as it could be sometimes during a regular Chinese New Year, but only this year it’s more like I Am Legend the movie. SARS has made most of us vigilant - people in Shanghai and most cities across the country chose to stay at home voluntarily because we were of course scared and at the same time, because this would be the best and most effective way to stop the spread. China’s widely-used mobile payment, QR codes, and strong e-commerce infrastructure also help to make sure that minimal or zero contact can be achieved without disrupting people’s necessary daily needs.
Interestingly, when facing a new serious infectious disease, young people in this country acted on it first. They were the ones who put on masks immediately and complained on social media about how the elderly in the family were stubborn. They shared tips on how to talk their family members out of visiting relatives, kept sending vital information of the virus in their family group chats, and campaigned for traditional TV media to help them convince their parents and grandparents.
Like many, I was also glued to my phone, constantly refreshing live case maps and anxiously checking the case numbers that were reported twice a day. Every morning during the holiday, I would announce the latest number to my parents; we would go back to our own phones to read more news and keep each other updated; we would then have lunch and watch some random TV shows to distract ourselves for a little while; and back to more news on TV and on the phone in the evening. Rinse and repeat.
We were definitely NOT the only ones. It sure felt like the whole country paused what it was programmed to do for the holiday and switched their focus onto the virus together. It was the most surreal Chinese New Year ever. The only time I went outside during the week was to go back to the office and get some important documents out of there before the entire office building was closed down for sanitation. My DiDi (ride-haling service) driver was taken back when I told him why I was going. I had to ensure him it was just a precaution by the property management, NOT because any cases were found in the building, and at the end of the ride, I gave him a mask as a thank-you for taking me.
I’m growing more and more anxious about not finishing this piece in time. One month has officially gone by after I said I would “write down some thoughts”. The drilling noise from my neighbor’s renovation upstairs is not helping either. So, I decide to take a break and walk around.
As I’m stepping into the elevator, my neighbor gives me a strange glance. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am not wearing any mask! Apologetically and frantically, I’m digging through my purse trying to find any extra masks I’m hoping I still carry, and finally I manage to put one on before I exit the building.
Like most people in Shanghai, I live in an apartment. Majority of the apartment buildings in China are located inside a gated community we call “xiao qu” which can be translated to “residential compound”. Each compound would have a property management company who hires guards and cleaning staff, arrange parking, take care repair, maintenance as well as trash. One “neighborhood” usually has a few of these compounds across one or several streets. There is a neighborhood organization called “Ju Wei Hui” which literally means “community residents’ committee”, but I often call it “community affairs office”.
The idea of this committee, like its name, is to have people manage their own affairs amongst themselves. My grandma used to work there after she retired from the factory. Her “job” was to dissolve any augments between neighbors and sometimes amongst family members. Most of my elementary after school time was spent in their office, finishing my homework while waiting for my mom to pick me up. So, I have seen how they work from the inside. However, ever since my grandma passed more than 10 years ago and especially in the past 4 years I have lived here, I have never come across anyone from office for anything. That is until this virus outbreak.
My residential compound was built in 1995 with 3 buildings, 2 separate entrances for each building, 26 floors per building and 8 apartments on each floor. The buildings and the facilities are not well maintained. The property management seems to be overwhelmed by lack of funding and the density of the population in this compound. In all honesty, at first, I doubted the compound’s ability to keep the virus at bay. But I was proven wrong.
Everything in this compound today looks like they’ve never seen any virus outbreak. The neighbors are hanging out and enjoying the sun. Some were chatting about their dinner plans. Others are taking kids out for a walk. Meanwhile, the food delivery guys are running towards the elevators, as they always do, in order to make the deliveries on time, and couriers are dropping off mountains of packages from the residents’ online shopping extravaganza.
The only thing that sticks out like a sore thumb nowadays is the bright red booth left at the gate. This was first set up as a temporary station for the volunteers from the community affairs office and property management staff. And later, it was used as a temporary storage for deliveries that were not allowed inside the compound until late March. Since then, the red booth has been abandoned..
Shanghai’s winter this year wasn’t harsh but being out here day in and day out for over a month could not have been easy. The volunteers were mostly residents in the compound. They, instructed by the community affair office, were there to assist property management with registration of passes provided only towards long-term tenants and property owners in this compound. They also would register any new arrivals from outside of Shanghai and make sure they were subject to a 14-day home quarantine. All of these procedures required them to be out there for at least 8 hour a day every day in February and in majority part of March. The guards arguably had it harder - they were stationed out in the open, in front of the gate, taking turns to check everyone’s pass and body temperature as residents walk in.
For those under the home quarantine, they wouldn’t be given any passes. In fact, they were not supposed to leave their apartment, hence the name “home quarantine”. Unlike some compounds who went through strict measures like putting on magnetic alarm on the door to make sure that those who need to be quarantined are obliging by the rules, my compound worked on a more trust-based system. There were additional volunteers or social workers assigned by the community affairs office to take care of the quarantined, buying food & groceries, delivering, throwing away their trash and of course checking their body temperatures twice a day.
Leaving the compound, I decide to walk down the main street that connects my neighborhood to the center of the city. Very quickly, I realize that the noise is hard to avoid as I keep seeing constructions on the street level and renovations in the apartment buildings on almost every block. As much as I’m happy that the city has gone back to life, my intent to clear my mind is not working out as planned. So, I turn around and walk into ALDI.
For those who has joined the Dialog Tour this January may still remember my declaration of love toward Alibaba’s He Ma store. When ALDI’s first store opened, I wasn’t impressed with its selection which at that time, seemed identical to any other stores in town. Later, having been spoiled by He Ma, JD and SF’s timely services, I was again disappointed when the new store that opened up in my neighborhood botched my scheduled delivery. However, during the loneliest month in Shanghai, ALDI became my safe haven.
When the Chinese New Year break was over at the end of January, we were told immediately and expectedly that the holiday was going to be extended for a few days national-wide. Cities like Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing followed and extended it even longer, some for one more week and other for two. Many people started working from home and naturally ran out of food they prepared for the holiday. Dealing with increasing demand and lack of personnel, even after taking in restaurant staff whose businesses have been impacted by the outbreak, He Ma was still constantly running short on delivery capacity as early as noon. Therefore, walking to ALDI once every 5 days was the only “outdoor fun” I had in February, even if it meant I had to limp for a block with a broken toe. I have since kept going back to ALDI. Not only have them stepped out their selection of products, seeing them given away foods to those hard-working delivery guys also made me appreciated it more.
Retail therapy at grocery stores has never failed me. Now putting all the noise distraction behind, I’m finally ready to go home. On the way back, I’m seeing a lot of people hanging out at Starbucks and local cafes. Bars are also open and the business is looking good. People are not as hesitant as they were in March. The gyms in the neighborhood are finally allowed to re-open and immediately packed. Though it has been way past breakfast time, my favorite steam bun place still has a long line. As I’m walking, my mom is calling me about this new Shanghai May 5th “shopping festival”. She sounds excited about all discounts that are being promised, and she is asking me to keep an eye on any special promotion for her on JD and Taobao. A few friends of mine are making plans in our wechat group about a picnic this week during the upcoming May Day holiday. Everywhere my eyes can see, Shanghai is as dynamic as ever. The city is finally looking like what it was before.
Meanwhile, my friend’s advertising firm is barely surviving. Many high-end restaurants on the bund and 5-star hotels like Four Season have closed down and left Shanghai. Factories which previously focus on exporting now have to look into changing their product line and hope to sell domestically. A teacher from university asked in our class group chat about corporate recruitment plans for her recent graduates. My cousin hasn’t had any luck looking for a new job. I also had to downsize by giving up the office in one of my favorite locations in Shanghai and am running the team at 30% capacity. Undoubtedly, while a lot of retail and F&B seem to bounce back strong, many businesses have taken a hit and for some, this is the end of the road. It’s still too early to tell however. On one hand, people going out and spending show their confidence in the result of containing the virus as well as in the economy going forward. On the other hand, as this virus’ impact will be profound and on a long-term basis, perhaps the worst has not yet been shown.
Upon entering the compound after my walk, I notice right away the red tent was taken down during the little time while I was out. Looks like It has officially finished its mission, and hopefully it will never be used for the same purpose ever again. The only thing that still reminds me of the past was some torn-up posters about 14-day home quarantine, as well as a few QR codes for residents to scan and pick up masks.
From end of January to now, I have used 50+ masks, 5 large bottles of hand sanitizers, 4 bottles of 100ml alcohol spray, 200+ alcohol wipes, and I have also developed a rigid routine when arriving home, one that has evolved a lot from those SARS days. By now, everyone around me has become an amateur epidemiologist who can share their knowledge of testing, contact tracing and quarantine, and can tell exactly how many cases Shanghai has, where they are from, any suspicious cases that are still being investigated, how many were cured and how many still in hospital.
By the end of February, Shanghai had a total of 300 cases and new cases started to drop significantly. By March, local cases have stopped but “imported case” number started to soar and almost doubled Shanghai’s existing cases at the time. I watched the policy on these imported cases change every week from 4 counties to 8, 16, 24, until it got under control. For a city of 24 million people and 600 something cases in total, I considered it a job well done. First and foremost, we all have the medical professionals to thank for, but I also think it was a combined effort of everyone playing their part.
It would be unfair to claim my experience in Shanghai represent every person in China. I’m aware that some cities and counties are stricter than others, and as a matter of fact, even within the city, each district in Shanghai was given autonomy to implement different levels of measurements as long as it’s under the same guideline. I also can’t start to imagine what those residents in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei have been through. But the mobilization of resources and the determination of people across the country and those overseas were more than anything I have seen before.
This is not to say that all was perfect. Quite the opposite - everyday there was something to be happy or mad or criticize about. There are many what-ifs and lesson-learned throughout those battles across the country and a lot still need to be done around the world to fight the virus. But at the end the tunnel, seeing more and more light ahead, I can’t help but feeling hopeful.
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