SHANGHAI — Normality appears to be returning to China’s eastern metropolis. The roads are gridlocked. Metro stations are crowded once again with commuters. Over the past week, only 13 new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed citywide — all of them imported.
But for many Shanghainese, the crisis feels far from over. The pandemic continues to shape their lives in myriad — and sometimes distressing — ways.
To document the reality of life in a city struggling to emerge from lockdown, Sixth Tone asked three local residents to share their experiences over one 24-hour period: March 3. This is their story.
7:20 a.m.: The Daughter
Bao Wei has a full day of work ahead of her as a human resources manager. But first, the 37-year-old stops at the Shanghai Cancer Center in downtown Xuhui District. She’s there to try — again — to secure an operation for her mother, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer this past October.
China’s health care system has been disrupted by COVID-19 — which had infected over 80,000 people and killed nearly 3,000 nationwide by March 3 — and scheduling nonessential procedures has become difficult. For Bao’s mother, the situation is even more complex, because the 64-year-old isn’t a registered Shanghai resident. She’s originally from the northeastern Heilongjiang province and only moved to the city four years ago to assist Bao with child care after she gave birth.
Only patients with a Shanghai ID are able to make appointments at the cancer center, but Bao feels she has no choice but to try anyway. Since her diagnosis, her mother’s cancer has already spread from her thyroid to the surrounding lymph glands. “My family can’t deal with the risks that a further delay of the surgery might bring,” says Bao.
At the front door, security guards perform temperature checks on visitors using infrared scanners. Then, there’s another round of checks at the outpatient department: a second temperature test, a form detailing each person’s health conditions and travel history, and a check of each visitor’s health QR code — a new surveillance tool used by cities to track whether users have come into close contact with virus carriers.
Bao insisted on coming alone to the cancer center, ordering her mother to stay at home. A large number of COVID-19 infections have taken place inside health care facilities in Wuhan, the heart of the initial virus outbreak, due to the large crowds of patients. After her first visit in mid-February — when the epidemic in China was at its peak — Bao isolated herself in a rented apartment for two days, terrified of endangering her 3-year-old daughter.
After completing the security checks, Bao heads to the nurses’ station outside the doctor’s office. She explains her situation. Luckily, the nurses are sympathetic and assure her she’ll get a chance to talk to the doctor, who only has three appointments booked this morning.
At 8:15 a.m., the doctor calls Bao into his office. But as soon as the doctor hears Bao’s mother is not a Shanghai resident, he rejects her request for an appointment.
A notice on a chair saying, “Please don’t enter and call for nurses” inside the in-patient department of the Shanghai Cancer Center’s Pudong site, in Shanghai, March 2020. Courtesy of Bao Wei
Bao pleads with the doctor, explaining the urgency of her mother’s situation. The doctor relents slightly and suggests a possible workaround. He tells Bao to meet him at the cancer center’s Pudong site, on the other side of town, in the afternoon. Nonlocal patients can register there. But he advises Bao to bring documents proving her mother hasn’t left Shanghai during the past two weeks.
Bao leaves the cancer center and heads back to her apartment, to search for the proof she’ll need.
8:30 a.m.: The Working Mom
A few blocks away, Shen Dongmei is rushing to get ready for work. The 31-year-old is a teacher at a primary school in central Huangpu District, and today is the second day of classes since teaching resumed on March 2.
For the time being, Shanghai’s schools are conducting all classes online, and this is putting working mothers like Shen under additional pressure. She has to take care of her students while also supervising her 4-year-old daughter.
Shen was up early to make sure her daughter was washed, dressed, and fed by 8:30 a.m. Now, she gets the child settled in her bedroom with a radio app playing a story, so she can prepare for her first class of the day.
“I told her to listen to the stories and play with her toys on her own and not make any noise because Mom will be working,” Shen tells Sixth Tone.
In Shanghai, each online class is split into two parts. First, a prerecorded 20-minute lesson is broadcast on TV to all students in town, from grade one to grade 12. Then, class teachers like Shen answer students’ questions about the lesson’s contents and help them complete the assigned homework.
At 9:00 a.m., the first lesson begins. Today, it’s Chinese — the subject Shen teaches to a class of 31 fourth graders. After the video is over, Shen asks the students to record voice messages of themselves reciting the poems they’ve just learned and send them to her via voice messages.
“I corrected their mispronunciations and incorrect pauses or emphasis,” says Shen. “For primary school students, we require them to be able to recite poems fluently and understand their basic meaning.”
According to Shen, the students are mostly participating actively in the online classes, which take place using a special video and messaging app called Xiaoheiban. But four of her 31 students didn’t attend the class. “Later, I learned from their parents that these students had had their cell phones confiscated and couldn’t use the app,” says Shen.
Shanghai primary school teacher Shen Dongmei communicates with her students on messaging app Xiaoheiban, in Shanghai, March 16, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Shen Dongmei
Shanghai’s education authorities have forbidden teachers from forcing students to submit their homework online every day, to avoid overstressing the children during the pandemic. Shen, however, says she feels obligated to check up on absentees.
“In my class, the kids come from very different family backgrounds — some parents are divorced, and others are simply too occupied with their businesses,” says Shen. “If their parents don’t care much about their (the students’) studies, I could be the only one who can push them forward.”
When the students begin the day’s second video lesson at 10 a.m., Shen hops on a conference call with the other grade four Chinese teachers to discuss the day’s homework. These meetings can be time-consuming, but are unavoidable during the pandemic.
“Students in Shanghai have been given textbooks, but there are no answers provided,” says Shen. “We haven’t been given the answers, either. That’s why we need to discuss them every day.”
10:10 a.m.: The Daughter
Across town, Bao has arrived back at her residential compound in eastern Pudong New Area. She heads straight to the office of her local neighborhood committee, and asks the committee members to provide her with some kind of certificate to help her mother get treatment.
The workers, however, are unmoved by Bao’s entreaties. “They asked me, ‘How can we tell your mom didn’t leave Shanghai during the past 14 days?’” says Bao.
Bao tries a different approach. She texts her mother’s mobile carrier, China Mobile, which sends back a message confirming the cell phone’s owner has been in Shanghai for the past two weeks.
A mother calls beside a road in Shanghai, Feb. 27, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Armed with the SMS, Bao returns to the office and tries again to convince the committee to give her a certificate. Eventually, the workers give her a stamped letter stating that Bao’s mother is a resident in their compound, where no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed to date.
It’s not exactly what she needed, but Bao hopes it’ll be enough. At 11 a.m., she finally returns to her apartment, opens her laptop, and starts work.
11:30 a.m.: The Father
Nearby in Pudong New Area, another parent arrives at the gates of the local education bureau. The man, surnamed Li, has come to petition the bureau to allow his daughter to enroll in a local primary school.
Competition for places at Shanghai’s top schools is fierce, and families often invest huge sums to secure a property located in a good school district. In 2018, Li — a marketing executive at a multinational firm — did just that, purchasing a 4 million yuan (then $620,000) apartment to give his daughter the chance to attend a nearby primary school.
Construction on the new building was due to be completed in February, just in time for Li’s daughter to enroll in April. But COVID-19 has thrown the plan into chaos.
“Because of the pandemic, all construction sites in the city were shut down, including the one where my new home will be,” says Li, who declined to reveal his full name due to the sensitivity of the matter.
In mid-February, Li and the other property owners received a letter from the developer, confirming the project would not be completed on time. The news puts Li’s daughter’s spot in the school at risk, as well as those of 30 other kids whose families invested in the new complex for the same reason.
Several of the affected parents have agreed to meet at the education bureau. The plan is to lobby officials to make an exception to the normal enrollment procedures if the project is delayed beyond April.
“We understand the severity of the pandemic and why the government has introduced control measures,” says Li. “But it shouldn’t be us — families with school-age children — who pay the price.”
Li, however, got stuck on a long conference call at work, and the other parents have already left. He tries to get a meeting with the officials, but no one from the bureau is willing to see him, citing the pandemic. A security guard at the gate says the other parents submitted a petition letter for the authorities’ consideration.
12 p.m.: The Working Mom
Shen has finished her morning lessons and is now busy preparing lunch. As she cooks, she teaches her daughter some new Chinese characters and reads her a few stories.
“I feel like I’m a superwoman, making full use of every minute,” says Shen.
The mother is relieved when 1 p.m. arrives and she can tuck her daughter in for a nap. While her child sleeps, she writes up a report for the school on the day’s lessons. Teaching online is proving to be much more time-consuming than classroom-based lessons, she says.
“I have to repeat the same answer to different students as they message me questions individually,” says Shen. “Before, we would solve the problems together as a class.”
1:30 p.m.: The Daughter
While the teacher composes her report, Bao waits anxiously outside the doctor’s office at the Shanghai Cancer Center’s Pudong site. She arrived half an hour before he was due to start receiving patients, but there are still 12 people ahead of her in line.
At 3 p.m., it’s finally Bao’s turn. To her relief, the doctor tells her he’s already talked to the hospital about her mother’s urgent need for surgery.
Before the hospital accepts her into the inpatient department, however, Bao has to sign a form stating that she and her mother do not have any COVID-19 symptoms and haven’t left Shanghai or had contact with anyone infected with the virus in recent weeks.
Bao Wei’s mother, after undergoing surgery Thursday, has started walking along the hospital’s corridor for exercise, in Shanghai, March 2020. Courtesy of Bao Wei
“The doctor stressed that anyone making a false statement would bear legal consequences — not just to me, but to other patients as well,” says Bao. “I completely understand the difficulties from the hospital’s side … Honestly, I’m deeply concerned about possible cross-infections inside the hospital as well.”
By 3:20 p.m., Bao has managed to secure her mother an operation in two weeks’ time. Despite the difficulties she’s endured, she wonders whether the pandemic has actually made it easier for her mother to get treatment quickly.
“Most patients who don’t need live-saving surgery have chosen to postpone their operations,” says Bao. “But for cancer patients whose conditions are quickly deteriorating, COVID-19 isn’t nearly as horrible as cancer. And hospitals are prioritizing treatment for them.”
4 p.m.: The Father
Li returned to the office after his failed visit to the education bureau, but in the afternoon he decides to visit the construction site.
He’s in a chat group with around 400 of the other property owners through messaging app WeChat, and many of them have been very active in petitioning their cases, calling government hotlines and emailing local authorities to complain. Their persistence has inspired Li to make further efforts.
To his disappointment, however, the complex looks exactly as it did in mid-January. “The construction waste is still laying there. No workers can be seen. No staff with the property developer can be reached, even though they have an office there,” says Li.
4:30 p.m.: The Working Mom
Afternoon lessons are finally over in Shanghai. The final class of the day was ethics, asking students to share their thoughts about “learning to show respect.” “I asked them to combine the topic with the ongoing pandemic,” says Shen.
Normally, Shen would leave the office shortly after classes finished at 4 p.m. Today, however, it feels like she’s about to start another shift. She prepares some snacks for her daughter, turns the storytelling app back on, and tells her not to interrupt her mother for a few hours.
“I gave her some peas — she’ll often stay quiet peeling peas for as long as an hour,” Shen laughs.
By 4:30 p.m., Shen has collected all the day’s homework from the other subject teachers, combined them into one document, and sent it to her class via Xiaoheiban.
The students are supposed to complete the homework before 6 p.m., when the teachers will announce the correct answers. Then, the children should correct any errors before sending back photos of the completed assignments on Xiaoheiban. In reality, though, the teacher spends most of the 90 minutes replying to questions from her students.
“Whenever your Xiaoheiban app rings, you have to check the incoming message,” says Shen. “If the students have made a mistake, you have to message them to explain what’s wrong and why.”
Shen is relieved when her husband arrives home from work at 6 p.m. and can take over child care and cooking duties. “I’m busiest between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., when most of the homework comes in,” says Shen. “But the latest assignment arrived at 9:30 p.m.”
10:30 p.m.: The Father and The Daughter
Li doesn’t finish replying to work-related emails until well after 10 p.m., as he was out of the office so long during the day. He tells Sixth Tone he’ll probably need to take some time off work to continue petitioning the education bureau over the following days.
“Families in Shanghai are investing all they have to get their children into a desirable school — mine is no exception,” says Li. “I have only one child. We’ll make all efforts possible to get her enrolled.”
A family rides a scooter in Shanghai, Feb. 12, 2020. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
Bao also stays awake late into the night. Her working hours are flexible, and so her job isn’t a source of stress, she says. But she’s deeply worried about her mother’s health. In recent days, the retiree has been running a low fever.
“Some cancer patients have this issue,” says Bao. “But what if she runs a fever on the day we receive the hospital admission notice? That could be problematic.”
Over the following days, Sixth Tone reached out again to the three interviewees for an update on their situations.
Li says the property developer had promised to complete the new homes by late April, which might make it possible to enroll Li’s daughter on time.
Teacher Shen is still working from home. She has sent her daughter to live with her grandparents in suburban Shanghai for the time being, to make it easier for Shen to cope with her increased work pressure.
Bao’s mother finally had an operation at Shanghai Cancer Center on March 12. The procedure was successful, and she is recovering well.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Night and day views of commuters on roads in Shanghai, February 2020. Wu Huiyuan and Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)