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Monday, May 2, 2022

Covid in Shanghai .. . .. lockdown and life of delivery boys !!

As you travel on a city road, you find so many on two-wheeler hopping hither and thither – the delivery boys of Dunzo, Swiggy, Dehlivery and more ! (not boys and there are women too!) -so many are ordering food, buying vegetables online and more .. .. and advts claim to deliver them in a jiffy ! – wonder what their life is like !!

In 1935, the Protagonist, survives a murder attempt by Lao Che, a crime boss in Shanghai who has hired him to retrieve the remains of Emperor Nurhaci. With his young orphaned Chinese sidekick, Short Round, and the nightclub singer, Willie Scott, in tow, Indy flees Shanghai on a cargo aircraft. … .. that was ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’  action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg released in 1984.  

Shanghai  is one of the four direct-administered municipalities of the People's Republic of China, located on the southern estuary of the Yangtze River, with the Huangpu River flowing through it. With a population of 24.89 million as of 2021, Shanghai is the most populous urban area in China and the most populous city proper in the world.  Shanghai has been one of the world's major centers for finance, business and economics, research, education, science and technology, manufacturing, tourism, culture, dining, art, fashion, sports, and transportation, and the Port of Shanghai is the world's busiest container port. In 2019, the Shanghai Pudong International Airport was one of the world's 10 busiest airports by passenger traffic.

Originally a fishing village and market town, Shanghai grew in importance in the 19th century due to both domestic and foreign trade and its favorable port location. The city was one of five treaty ports forced to open to European trade after the First Opium War. After the war, with the communists takeover of the mainland in 1949, trade was limited to other socialist countries and the city's global influence declined. By the 1990s, economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping a decade earlier resulted in an intense redevelopment of the city, especially the Pudong New Area, aiding the return of finance and foreign investment.  Shanghai has been described as the "showpiece" of the booming economy of China. Featuring several architectural styles such as Art Deco and shikumen, the city is renowned for its Lujiazui skyline, museums and historic buildings. 

Shanghai is in news ! for wrong reasons as some 25 million people in Shanghai have lived under strict lockdown since the beginning of April, amid a surge in Omicron cases.

It's the first time Shanghai has imposed such strict restrictions - until the latest move, it had taken a more relaxed approach than other Chinese cities. People in the city are confined to their homes, and most have to order in food and water and wait for government deliveries of vegetables, meat and eggs. Videos are being  shared on social media show complaints by angry residents about food shortages and inadequate medical supplies. It's Shanghai's first experience of a city-wide lockdown. It previously tackled growing infection rates through smaller localised lockdowns. This typically meant individual residential complexes - each housing several hundred people - were locked down instead of the entire city. And for a while, it looked like this method was working. Even when case numbers rose to nearly 1,800 in March 2021, Shanghai did not impose a full lockdown. By comparison, Xi'an, which is home to nearly 13 million people, sealed the entire city after less than 100 cases in December 2021. But in late March, Shanghai began seeing huge numbers - with more than 2,500 cases recorded on 27 March alone.

The city decided to announce a phased lockdown, firstly in its eastern district, and then its western district days later. But as cases continued growing, Shanghai officials abandoned the idea of keeping half the city open. A city-wide lockdown followed on 3 April. The woes of its residents are manifold.

The main reason  for lockdown news is its importance for the Chinese economy. Shanghai is responsible for more than 3% of China's GDP, and more than 10% of China's total trade since 2018. Airports in Shanghai have also been responsible for bringing in nearly half of the protective equipment and medicine that China needed in the early days of the pandemic, according to local news outlet Caixin.

“Snatch groceries first, then get a covid test” has quickly become an anthem for the lockdown that started suddenly in Shanghai in the early hours of March 28th. Media reports and videos describe scenes of panic buying—qiang cai, or snatching groceries—and the threat of being locked out of one’s home amid a frenzied bid to control an outbreak of covid-19 in China’s main business and finance hub. One lyric hints that residents can grow vegetables in the small patches of land outside their apartments or scavenge for edible plants. The song attracted hundreds of thousands of views online in less than a day, bringing cheer to an otherwise grim situation. China is currently facing its worst outbreak since the pandemic started in the city of Wuhan in 2020. Thousands of new cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant are being discovered each day.

The protracted lockdown in Shanghai, China's financial hub, is slowing the nation's normally booming meat trade, with stringent Covid-19 measures causing logistics logjams across the food industry in a sign of the broadening disruptions to business. The challenge of moving food in and around Shanghai, whose residents are into a month-long stressful home isolation, highlights similar problems in many other Chinese cities as Beijing persists with its controversial zero-Covid strategy despite growing risks to its economy.

China is the world's biggest buyer of meat, bringing in more than 9 million tonnes last year, worth about $32 billion, and the financial hub with a thriving dining scene accounts for the largest chunk of imports. Traders rely on Shanghai's ideal location for distributing product around the country, but since an outbreak of Covid-19 cases forced a lockdown in the city at the end of March, moving chilled or frozen products has become a costly headache. Frequent Covid tests, lengthy quarantines and long clearance times to enter Shanghai have kept many drivers away, while fewer refrigerated trucks are available because of special licensing requirements.

Other food products, including dairy and edible oils, have also been stuck in the Shanghai port, while beef imports into the city have dropped 23% year-on-year in March.  The Shanghai port congestion has also impacted customers elsewhere in China. For now, the sharply weaker consumption due to Covid restrictions is keeping a lid on prices, though it could become a problem the longer the lockdowns persist… obviously, the logistics issues are adding cost into the supply chain, which ultimately leads to food inflation.   

Weeks into a strict lockdown, most of Shanghai's 25 million population continue to rely on delivery riders to bring them food and supplies. But this largely invisible workforce of 20,000 faces a lack of shelter and safety. Two delivery riders told the BBC their stories. I've been so busy. So many people need supplies. I make deliveries all day long, then when it's approaching midnight, I look for a place to sleep. I left my apartment on 8 April and haven't been back since. The Shanghai government allows delivery riders to leave and enter their residential compounds. But the compounds insist on enforcing their own policies, and most don't allow riders to return to their own homes. There are hotels that are open, but not many are open to us. There was a tent in front of my compound. You know, those blue ones set up for Covid testing. When I left home, the compound managers asked me to help them buy supplies and in exchange they offered me the blue tent to sleep at night. I left all my stuff in there.  But one day the tent was gone. I couldn't find my stuff. The managers said it wasn't their business. Security guards there said they didn't know where my stuff went.

So I had to look for a new place to sleep. Sleeping under a bridge just comes naturally to us delivery riders - it can block out the wind and rain. I usually fall asleep immediately after lying down - I feel so tired by then! One day I forgot to pay attention to the weather forecast. It was raining heavily and all the space under the bridge had been taken. I found an ATM room to sleep. It was quite a good place, no-one else was around. My only hope was that the police wouldn't show up and kick me out.

Another added -  in the beginning I survived on dry instant noodles. Later a group of delivery riders found a restaurant that opened secretly and now we go there to buy takeaways. The police usually just ignore it. We do need a place to eat, right? Some shops also have an outdoor space where there are electrical sockets. We sneak over to charge our phones.  If I get into an accident in a remote area, it would be extremely dangerous. The biggest problem is if your scooter breaks down and there is no place to fix it. You can't work any more.

Many people saw news reports saying delivery riders can earn up to 10,000 yuan per day ($1,500; £1,200). Since then many have asked me how to become one. My advice is usually: "Don't become a rider."  The streets of Shanghai have been mostly empty during the lockdown, apart from delivery riders. People told me Shanghai is a developed city, better than my hometown. Now even my family is asking me to go home. They've all heard about the situation here. It's unimaginable that people can starve in Shanghai nowadays. Orders with small quantities of food won't get delivered now. Fruit shops won't sell individual pieces of fruit any more - you have to buy in bulk now. If someone wants 20 yuan worth of vegetables, I'll end up spending half a day looking for that and get nothing, as only bulk vegetable packages are available and each costs over 100 yuan.

Many Shanghai residents have been doing group purchases of food in bulk, which they then split among themselves Now we have no food and no water, and sleep on the streets. I know at least 40 riders in the same situation as me. There are delivery riders who work for companies which provide hotel rooms for them. But there are those who take online orders from customers, like us, and the local government has done nothing to help us find a place to stay. What's the point of resting at home anyway? The first week of the lockdown, I only got two cabbages. The second week I only received a box of medicine. Who can survive on that? What do I eat? It's better to be outside - at least I can still find some food.

Life in Shanghai is certainly not worthy any longer .. .. and the woes of Chinese though big is generally confined and not publicized in the media.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
2nd May 2022. 

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