Stuck inside, rationing food: Canadians in Shanghai detail life in COVID-19 lockdown

Racelle Luo and her family are confined to their Shanghai apartment round the clock – except when it comes to essentials like picking up deliveries and dumping trash.

The 35-year-old, who is originally from the Toronto area, her husband and their three children, as well as millions of others in China’s most populous city, are in another lockdown as the government tries to curb the spread of COVID-19 .

“Occasionally, I start to just feel, like a very heavy burden, like I’m about to have a meltdown,” said Luo, among the Canadians interviewed by CBC News as China continues to pursue a COVID-19 zero strategy that’s been in place throughout the pandemic.

Luo said her lockdown began March 10. It was lifted for one day, then they were told to stay home again.

During that time, she’s tried to stay focused on the well-being of her children, who are nine, five and three years old.

The Luo family goes for near-daily testing in Shanghai, the most populous city in China, which has retained a COVID-19 zero strategy throughout the pandemic. (Submitted by Racelle Luo)

“It’s really difficult not being able to let them go outside and run around,” she said.

“You’re worried about your kids’ mental health.”

While some measures are easing in some districts, it’s clear a lockdown of this scale has frayed nerves during the pandemic, which was officially declared by the World Health Organization over two years ago.

“The belief that China can be zero COVID is definitely unachievable,” said Luo. “It’s a pipe dream, and even if they were to get to COVID zero, it will definitely come back.”

Food rations a necessity

Shanghai is China’s global financial hub, with a population of about 26 million. The city has reported a record 3,590 symptomatic COVID cases for April 15, along with 19,923 asymptomatic cases. A health official warned Wednesday that Shanghai did not have the virus under control, despite the easing of some restrictions.

Shanghai residents have been struggling to get food supplies like meat and rice under the anti-coronavirus controls, fueling frustration, especially in light of online grocers’ reports that they’re often sold out.

With the Chinese government handing out food rations to residents, the families CBC News spoke with described the range of the quality of the products they’re getting.

These are some of the food products given to the Luo family, as China has been handing out rations during lockdown. (Contributed / Racelle Luo)

Some of the sparse number of items Luo has received were rotten.

Ruthie Chua, on the other hand, got fresh vegetables and, one time, a whole chicken.

Some of the food rations that Ruthie Chua and her family received. Chua and her husband, Daniel Nickle, who have two teenage sons, are from the Toronto area and moved to Shanghai in 2006. (Submitted by Ruthie Chua)

Chua and her husband, Daniel Nickle, are from the Toronto area and moved to Shanghai in early 2006. The couple and their 17-year-old and 13-year-old sons have been locked down for close to two weeks, and faced a separate lockdown weeks earlier.

It’s very hard to get food.– Ruthie Chua

“It’s very hard to get food,” Chua said.

Chua and her 17-year-old will go on Chinese grocery apps in the morning and try to fill up their online carts with food before stock runs out.

“The first time we did it, we managed [to get] about 20 things in our cart. We ended up with three things: carrots, coriander and a jug of water. And we were thrilled with that, “Chua said.

The family has been taking the situation in stride.

“Life goes on. I guess the big difference is there’s just a lot more time spent thinking and planning for the procurement of food,” Chua said.

Foods become items to barter

Matt Doyon, his wife and their three-year-old daughter have also been in lockdown for weeks.

It has been emotionally draining, even physically draining, just not being able to go outside and walk around.– Matt Doyon

“I can’t deny that it has been emotionally draining, even physically draining, just not being able to go outside and walk around,” said an English teacher who was living in Mississauga, Ont., Before moving to Shanghai.

He said it has been particularly difficult on his young daughter.

Matt Doyon’s three-year-old daughter, shown here, isn’t able to go out to play during the lockdown, which can be frustrating. Doyon moved to Shanghai from Mississauga, Ont. (Submitted by Matt Doyon)

“I’ve had to say, ‘No honey, sorry, we can’t go outside and play.'”

While his family was able to stock up on some items before being stuck in their apartment, Doyon has been making jam and bread, and has resorted to bartering for some items.

Some of the bread that Doyon has been baking during weeks of lockdown. Sometimes, bartering goes on with others when they run short of certain items. “The people are helping themselves as much as possible,” he says. (Submitted by Matt Doyon)

When the family was running low on water, a friend of Doyon’s who had purchased four 20-liter jugs of water was getting short on coffee. A self-described java fiend, Doyon was able to make a trade.

“People are helping themselves as much as possible,” he said.

As for a light at the end of the tunnel, Doyon said that is unclear – he expects to remain inside until at least the start of May.

“I agree [with the COVID-19 zero strategy] personally? No, I think it’s a great reduction in human rights, “he said.

“But do I think it’s safe and that it’s going to work in the end? I have to hope so. My daughter is too young to be vaccinated right now.”

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