Locked down in Shanghai

Original images by Alexandra Koch and GDJ.

Stijn Kamphuis is one of ChinaTalk’s students of Chinese Language. In October 2021 he temporarily moved to Shanghai, China. Since this month, he has been caught in the city’s strict lockdown. From his apartment in Puxi, he shares his thoughts and experiences.

Since the first virus outbreak in Wuhan at the end of 2019, the world has been under the spell of the corona virus. Despite ample proof that it most probably originated in China, the country has largely managed to prevent serious national outbreaks since the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan. In the same period, my home country The Netherlands tried to organize so-called “intelligent” lockdowns. With the wisdom of today, the intelligence of those lockdowns is being questioned by many.

For a long time, life in China was relatively normal and so-called precision measures were able to keep the virus under control. But after a rapid increase in the number of positively tested residents in Shanghai at the beginning of March, that was about to change.

Working from home … for a day?

On March 13, in response to reports of residents from Shanghai being placed in quarantine after apparently having been in contact with an infected person, the Shanghai office of our company decided that a “work from home” policy would take effect. Initially this was supposed to be just for one day. At the time of writing, it is April 7, and we have not been back to the office yet.

In the weeks that followed “work from home” policy continued, messages from colleagues trickled in claiming that because of one or more (potential) infections complete residential complexes were closing without any prior notice. Residential complexes in Shanghai often house thousands of people in multiple apartment buildings, so there is a substantial chance that a residential complex could go into lockdown at any time. When this happened, residents were often overwhelmed and did not have enough food in storage.

After working from home for a few weeks, the first official notification from the local government came on Sunday March 27. The next day, Pudong, the eastern part of Shanghai, would go into lockdown until at least April 1. That same evening, videos of residents fighting over groceries in supermarkets started appearing on social media. Under great panic the stores were completely emptied in one evening.

In the meantime, such panic was largely absent in Puxi, the western part of the city. There, “normal” life could continue for a while since a lockdown of would not start until April 1 and last until April 5. But at the time of writing, in my apartment in Jing’an (Puxi), there is still no definitive prospect of the restrictions ending. Meanwhile, there is a sharp rise in unrest among the population.

It is common knowledge that the power of the Chinese government should not be underestimated. This became all the clearer to me when the measures took effect. In the first five days of the lockdown, I was visited three times for an official PCR test and also received two self-tests, the results of which were also meticulously collected. The local government had decided to test all residents of the city of twenty-six million inhabitants at least twice within a week. Whatever you think of it, it is an impressive undertaking that stands in stark contrast to the way testing has been organised in The Netherlands.

Based on the reports circulating in Shanghai, it seems Shanghai not only wants to isolate everyone in order to reduce the number of infections, but also gather the infected people in makeshift quarantine centres. The situation in these centres seems to be very distressing. Videos and messages sent out by people in such centres confirm rumour of insufficient beds, toilet facilities shared by many and lack of privacy.

Do you need food?

Many volunteers support the government fight the outbreak of the virus. They help taking tests, deliver food and medicine where available and support the elderly. The willingness of the population to contribute is great and heart-warming. I personally experienced this when I received a message from a Chinese neighbour, asking me if I got through the quarantine okay and if I needed any food. She could possibly spare something and could put it at my front door if I needed it. She was willing to share some of her scarce supplies with me, assuming that as a foreigner I might have greater difficulty with the current quarantine measures. I kindly declined, but the gesture is heart-warming to say the least.

Stijn: Hello, neighbor.
Neighbour: Hello, I am sending you a message to tell you that if you need any food, you can tell me. I can put the food outside your door. Are you still at home? Can you cook?
Stijn: How nice of you.
Stijn: I still have some food, but not much. I hope we can go out next week.
Stijn: How are you?
Neighbour: We are fine. Thank you for asking.
You are out of your own country, family is far away. As neighbors, we should of course support each other. The virus is merciless, but as a human beings we can always see what we can do.

Like with this kind neighbour, solidarity among the population is great. Every few hours a colleague or friend asks me how I am doing and if I still have enough food. Chat groups are being set up to bring in food supplies from outside Shanghai by combining orders. The scarce food is exchanged and shared so that everyone is provided for to some extent.

Solidarity and unrest

Parallel to this high degree of solidarity and caring, discontent among the population is increasing. Despite the strict censorship of the Chinese government, there is a growing number of reports exposing worrisome practices. This concerned infected young children who were separated from their parents upon isolation and pets from infected citizens being liquidated by government staff to prevent contamination via these animals. Videos of dozens of cats tied up in bags that are circulation makes people fear for the worst.

These “special measures” are causing great unrest and minor insurrection among the population. In addition, there are different rumours about when the city government might lift the home quarantine. But for the time being, there is no official reporting from the local government on this.

This morning, the government announced that city limits will be closed until further notice. That could mean that all food deliveries from outside the city would no longer be possible after today. I would not be able to do it anyway, but it seems like the only way for people to get food. With that possibility disappearing, it would not surprise me if the unrest (and hunger) will only increase. I can only hope that either the number of positive cases decreases quickly, or that the government realizes that it might be wise to start living with the virus. Fortunately, I have gained a few kilos in recent months. Losing those might be a small silver lining!

Greetings from isolated Shanghai,


Stijn was interviewed by Dutch radio stations Radio Veronica and Slam FM. You can listen/watch these interviews below.

Interview Slam FM:

Interview Stijn Kamphuis on Slam FM.