2020 has been a whirlwind. I started the year with a month long trip to Australia, hiking incredible trails by the ocean and having plenty of Shiraz. I was savoring every moment of this once-in-a-lifetime trip when the news broke about coronavirus. Reading articles about the outbreak in China while very far away was both confusing and nerve-wracking. After all, Shanghai has been my home for the past 3 years.
Like many, I had exciting travel plans lined up for 2020 (Bangkok, Tbilisi, Tokyo and more) until COVID-19 came along. As the virus paralyzed China during Chinese New Year and eventually the rest of the world, I wanted to take this time to reflect on the past 3 months. I’ve had many international friends ask after my well-being so I hope this post can show what life under quarantine (‘strict social distancing’ if you’d prefer) was like in Shanghai.
Note: As I arrived in Shanghai early February, it was quite different from how international travel procedures are now. Things are much stricter in China as of March 2020, with travelers from certain high risk countries placed in group quarantine or refused entry.
Traveling from Sydney back to Shanghai
As I prepared to fly back to Shanghai, my 3 must-haves were hand sanitizers, masks, and wet wipes. They helped me reduce anxiety and practice personal hygiene for airplane travel. But there is no denying, the flight from Sydney to Shanghai was extremely uncomfortable with a N95 mask on for 10+ hours.
By February, international travel to China had largely halted so there were no air traffic delays as we quickly landed at Shanghai International Airport. Stepping into the Arrivals Hall, we were met with temperature checks and health questionnaires to fill out. At this point, international travelers were still allowed but they were strongly advised to home quarantine for 14 days, followed by strict social distancing. The normally hectic airport was bare and intimidatingly quiet.
After airport security, the next step was getting back into my apartment compound which had started to enforce a strict entry/exit system. The purpose of which was to account for each apartment residents’ movements. I won’t share any pictures here out of respect for the security guards but they did institute a somewhat draconian procedure. First, I needed to register travel history and personal details with my property management, before a temperature check from my security guard in a hazmat suit. After entering the apartment, a strict quarantine was enforced and leaving the compound was restricted to one person a day per apartment, and only for necessities. Yes, vigilant security guards will ask you where you are going!
In my first weeks back, my impression of Shanghai was desolate, cold and eerie. Never mind that I couldn’t leave my apartment complex, I also didn’t have access to masks (I only brought 5 masks back with me from Australia). I relied on my well-stocked freezer and China’s (overloaded) delivery system for essential groceries.
Dealing with work & coming to terms with the uncertainty
Getting back into the grind of Shanghai was hard. Self-isolation made me realize a majority of my daily routines were based on physical interactions with people. At one point, I started wondering if I would ever see Shanghainese grannies chitchatting in the middle of the sidewalk again. They were essentially the vital voices of Shanghai streets.
Among all my routines, work was one of the more disorienting parts of this all. In January, the Chinese government had extended Chinese New Years holiday for an extra week to delay the mass migration of workers back into the cities. This meant factories were shutdown for an even longer period of time, causing major delays and disruptions to supply. Compounded with nearly 2 months of remote work afterwards, this was pretty much an unprecedented situation across China. Corporates and startups were all affected, from employee well-being to cashflow management.
Working from home also posed challenges for my startup team. WFH was such a foreign concept in China that the first week of remote work was all about identifying China-friendly collaboration tools and making sure all team members were comfortable with this new communication style. As I work at XNode, a Shanghai-based innovation accelerator, we needed to keep up to date with the fast-changing virus situation & consequent policies. Looking back, this seems simple enough but at the time China was the first country dealing with the outbreak and the policies literally changed everyday.
Some questions that we juggled with: What did all this mean to our overseas startup interested in acceleration in China? What about our corporate partners running innovation programs with Chinese startups that may have suppliers in high-risk areas? When should we go back to work in person and how do we check team morale everyday? Every day, the reality was so many questions and so little answers.
Cooking at home & coming up with indoor entertainment
For me, finding indoor entertainment and establishing new routines were key to staying sane. I found a lot of comfort in planning my meals and cooking everyday. In the first couple days of being back in Shanghai, the food delivery system was still under a lot of stress. Meaning I struggled to get groceries delivered to my apartment because people were waking up at 7am to order large volumes of foods, thus overwhelming the limited number of delivery men. This meant I ate a lot of shrimp wantons (a handy item I always store in my freezer) and pasta. Quickly, I learned to plan my meals ahead of time and put in my orders early for fresh groceries.
In China, home workouts also became a thing via fitness apps like Nike Workout and KEEP. Personally I enjoyed Blogilates on Youtube and loosely followed a routine of morning stretches and afternoon workouts. Many people also joined live streams of trainers doing home workouts. For those that took it chill, the running joke on social media was how little steps one took a day. For reference there were days I did only 100 steps… hence the need for an occasional sweat.
Slowly venturing back into work with all the precautions
As the number of COVID-19 cases started dipping in March, the local government loosened up policies and compounds slowly opened up. Once companies allowed for staggered working schedules, we slowly made our way back to the office. During this time, the Chinese government also implemented a health system with QR codes tied to individual IDs. Your QR code would be color coded green, orange, or red based on your travel history and health situation.
So what did this all look like? For example, going into work (and all public places) security guards will conduct a temperature check, QR health code check, name and phone number registration, and finally a visual check that you’re wearing your mask. In the buildings, we were also extremely careful and wore our masks at all time.
In late March, offices gradually filled up with staff that finished self-quarantine. Restaurants were slower to open up as local officials wanted to discourage social gatherings, but Shake Shack was among the first to get the green light. And it was such a treat to get a Shack Burger & fries!
When you emerge from quarantine, what happens next?
Shanghai as a city is 70% back to life. When the weather is nice, the streets are full of people wearing masks while soaking up the sun. Local businesses and SMEs are struggling a great deal but a sense of ‘new normal’ has emerged. This ‘new normal’ is a mask-wearing and hygiene-conscious population that can go out to public places but still prioritizes homebody life.
How did I keep myself busy and fulfilled during the 2 months Shanghai was under quarantine? The honest answer was fear mixed with social pressure and the reality that I was very privileged. Shanghai had been walled off quickly with people strictly observing all government guidelines of social distancing and mask-wearing. Access to China’s advanced delivery system also meant I didn’t have to worry about necessities, I just had to stay home and be responsible.
Some of my basic learnings over the past couple of months:
- Hygiene is everything–WASH. YOUR. HANDS.
- Wear a mask if you need to be outside and in contact with people. This is the responsible thing to do even if it’s uncomfortable. But do not hoard masks!!
- Use tissues or gloves when touching public surfaces (e.g. China started putting a tissue box next to the elevator so you would use that to press the buttons).
- Support your local F&B and small businesses when you can. They are hurting a lot.
- Social gatherings are a luxury you cannot afford until the infection rate tapers off. Find indoor entertainment and fully utilize video chat.
- Read official sources and don’t share inflammatory news. Fake news is not helpful.
- Be kind and realize we are all sharing one human experience. Discrimination generates hate. What we need is empathy and strength.
For my friends and readers that are scattered all over the world, I hope this post can offer a tiny peace of mind. This was my personal journey as someone living in Shanghai who was lucky to have a strong support network and stay healthy throughout the crisis. China had many first responders, doctors, and citizens that made many sacrifices to contain the situation. I’m immensely thankful to them. For my American friends and family, you are in my thoughts every day.
If you are interested, I’ll give an update next month of how Shanghai is recovering as the situation is easing and government policies relaxing. Please comment below or send me any questions you have, I will be happy to help answer.
Until then, stay safe & sound.