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2022-01-20 12:42:02

Two years into a global pandemic, hundreds of millions of office workers around the world have adjusted to working from home. In China, some are having to try living at the office instead.

Ma Mei and many of her colleagues spent last weekend quarantined in their office in Shanghai’s downtown Jing’an District after a member of staff was identified as a close contact of a person diagnosed with COVID-19.

As the country fights to sustain its COVID-zero policy in the face of the Omicron variant, an increasing number of people are being summoned for office sleepovers and testing.

“If a company is rich enough, I would say it isn’t that bad,” Ma told Sixth Tone.

After new COVID-19 cases in Shanghai were found last Thursday, Shanghai authorities traced one of the 37-year-old office worker’s colleagues as a close contact. That person was taken to a quarantine center.

Then, at midnight on Friday, Ma received a phone call ordering her to report to the office, and to avoid public transportation. Her husband gave her a ride by car. In all, more than 200 people were called back to the office to start a 48-hour period of isolation. “I had only visited the office for a few hours, but anyone who had been there in the week prior was required to come back for quarantine,” Ma said.

The company prepared supplies for them: drinks, food, even video games and mahjong sets. She and her colleagues said they’d gained weight after the first day of quarantine. But Ma said it was extremely inconvenient to share just eight toilet spaces with 200-plus coworkers.

“At night, every inch of the floor space was utilized for people to sleep. You literally couldn’t move a bit during sleep,” she said. “And it’s horrible not being able to take a shower two days in a row.”

Other Shanghai workers have described similar experiences online.

According to China’s latest national guidelines on COVID-19 control, authorities are supposed to isolate both close contacts of patients and close contacts of those close contacts. If the first degree tests negative twice, their contacts can end observation after one week.

The national document doesn’t specify the locations for seven-day observation, which are left to local governments to decide.

Shanghai calls its approach “2+12”: two days of “closed-loop” management, followed by 12-days of home-based health management, during which people are encouraged to stay home but not required to do so. Four nucleic tests are required throughout the process, on the first, second, seventh, and 14th days.

Ma’s company-based quarantine took place during the weekend, so the time was mainly spent having fun — watching films or playing video games, mahjong, or board games. “But everyone was anxiously waiting to return home. When we learned the local authority might not be able to arrange us nucleic tests on Sunday because so many people were lining up for the tests, many of us felt devastated,” said Ma. Ma was finally tested at 3 a.m. on Monday morning, and was able to go home the same day. She’s now working from home while under home-based monitoring.

Zhang Yaling, a consultant at a Shanghai company, found herself living at work during the week. “I didn’t have much sleep on the first night of the lockdown as we slept next to each other on the floor. I could hear the sounds of people snoring, walking in the corridors, and flushing the toilets,” Zhang recalled, adding, “I felt so sleepy at work the next day.”

The woman and her colleagues were quarantined in November after COVID-19 cases were confirmed in their office building.

She said her company brought in bedding, snacks, and nutritional supplements, in an attempt to make its trapped employees more comfortable. The employees were able to order food deliveries and shop online while being stuck in the building.

Employees were still required to work in the daytime. “The collective lockdown at the office might also spawn some fun and strengthen bonds among the employees,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “We had a good natter with other colleagues over drinks in the office, and some started playing card games like the Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow.”

The practice of company-based quarantine is not unique to Shanghai, and the length of office lockdowns varies depending on local COVID-19 protocols.

In the neighboring city of Hangzhou, local media reported that 14 employees of a company underwent an office lockdown in December.

Wang, one of the company’s employees, filmed a few health workers bringing in bedding and toiletries to the office. He told local media that their office lockdown was extended after an initial two days. The report did not say how long the lockdown was extended.

Although they played poker and table tennis, and it felt like a team-building exercise at the beginning, Wang said in the video report that “we had been in the office for days, and every morning we wake up to work. We need some time outside this space.”

Editor: David Cohen.

(Header image: People under quarantine at an office in Shanghai, Jan. 20, 2022. Courtesy of an interviewee)