Escape from Shanghai: my harrowing flight from the world’s strictest lockdown
Hidden in the back of a car under a pile of boxes, how one man escaped Shanghai’s Covid surveillance system after three weeks of hunger and fear
Shanghai, the most populous city in China, has been under lockdown for the past month. As the rest of the world opens its doors and concedes to living with the virus, China is still relentlessly pursuing its “zero-Covid” strategy for stamping out the disease.
This has meant that 26 million people have been locked indoors under the strictest conditions, not allowed to go out for groceries, fresh air, or work, for weeks on end. Residents have complained of running out of food. Government deliveries are scant, and delivery apps are booked up with millions of people all trying to get groceries brought to them.
Social media apps like WeChat and Weibo have fizzed with dissent, and have been quickly wiped by online censors.
In recent days, workers in hazmat suits swarmed the city erecting green metal barriers outside buildings and across streets, sealing people inside their homes and neighborhoods.
China operates a QR health code system that the government uses to track and contain the spread of the virus. Everywhere citizens go throughout the country, they are required to scan the code, adding an extra layer of tracking and surveillance to their every move. When scanned, the code shows whether the phone user has been in contact with a positive case or tested positive themselves, and they live in fear of a “pop-up” message which informs them they may have had contact with a positive case, or traveled through a risky area. Even buying painkillers or fever medication can mean the app flags an epidemiological risk. A pop-up severely limits movement.
For those who live in Shanghai, the restrictions are crippling. But people from outside the city face extra difficulties — unless they’ve been placed in state-sanctioned quarantine facilities, they have nowhere to go. They face the prospect of sleeping out on the streets, struggling to get even the most basic necessities to stay alive.
Isobel Cockerell spoke to one Beijinger who flew from the U.S. to Shanghai in late March, and was forced to make a dramatic escape. His account has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Shanghai is a city in collapse. These past few weeks have left me with a constant fear that I might lose my freedom. That I might not survive this. I can’t quite believe that a person like me — full of life, full of dignity — was forced to live like someone on the run.
It all started in late March, when I came back to China after visiting my family in the United States. Omicron had been raging through the U.S. and flights back to China were very difficult to book. You had to go through a rigorous testing process with two China-approved PCR tests before the flight, and then arrange for 14 days’ hotel quarantine when you arrive.
I’m from Beijing, but the capital was sealed off from international flights — it was impossible for me to fly directly home. So I had to pick another city to fly to and quarantine in, before traveling on to Beijing.
I was nervous about what the conditions might be like during state-sanctioned hotel quarantine, and I decided that Shanghai, with its cosmopolitan feel and western-style living standards would probably be the best option.
It turned out to be the wrong decision.
I took all the tests I needed to, got the green QR code I needed, booked the hotel, and managed to board my flight out of the U.S.
I was taken straight to the quarantine hotel. They didn’t tell us where we were going, or give us an address. As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I had a bad feeling. The guy at the front desk gave us such a dirty look. His whole demeanor seemed to say “you’ve come here to bring toxins into our city, to poison us with this virus from abroad.”
I felt so uncomfortable. My family in America reassured me, telling me not to worry. I would just be there for a couple of weeks. I would be okay.
I still didn’t know where I was — there wasn’t any notebook or anything like that in the hotel room with the name of the place. I’m not that tech-savvy, and I couldn’t check the location on my phone. When I was on the phone to my family, I looked out the window and told them what I could see. They checked the location on Google maps and tried to pinpoint where I was. They managed to figure it out. But it was still disorienting.
A few days later, towards the very end of March, news began to spread that the government was going to lock down the city. The plan was to do it in phases, with the east side going into lockdown first. Our hotel was on Shanghai’s west side. We thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But when the other side went into lockdown, news trickled out that people weren’t getting any food. We were still getting three meals a day, provided by the hotel.
One morning, my breakfast just didn’t come. There was no knock at the door. Silence in the corridors. I just sat there, waiting to eat. But I wasn’t allowed to leave my room.
I called my family. “You can’t just starve yourself,” they said, telling me to go and ask someone what was happening.
I steeled myself to leave the room — it meant breaking the law. I opened my bedroom door. Nobody was there. I went downstairs, padding through the silent hotel and found a security guard. I asked him where my breakfast was.
The security guard looked at me. “Where have you just come from?” he said.
I told him I had come from the U.S. The guard jumped out of his skin and yelled at me. “Get away, get far away from me! You guys are the ones bringing the virus here!”
People in Shanghai see you as the cause of the city’s lockdown and all their trouble. They treat you as if you’re an animal bringing the virus. And if you’ve come from the United States, you’re the worst of all.
I went back to my room, and finally got my breakfast. But starting from that moment, the food supplies started to dwindle.
There was a WeChat group for everyone locked in the same hotel as me. Messages began pinging in the group with people complaining, asking where their food was, or lamenting over the pitiful amounts. Finally, a quarantine coordinator admitted they simply didn’t have enough supplies to cook for us. After that day, we got less and less food and the quality got much worse. The number of meals went from three, to two, to one.
We took PCR tests almost every day. During the three and a half weeks I was in Shanghai, I took no fewer than 17 PCRs. They always came back negative.
After 14 days in that first hotel, we were allowed to leave and go back to our homes.
The only exception was if you were from Beijing, like me. Beijing has an additional requirement that you stay another seven days. That meant you had to transfer to a different hotel and do an extra week of quarantine. The government is really trying to protect Beijing, so it has this additional layer of Covid security.
By this time, the whole of Shanghai was in full lockdown. But I managed to find another state-sanctioned quarantine hotel that took me in. The food was not great there either, but I figured I would live. I started not to expect too much, so long as I could survive.
I waited out that last seven days, and bought a high-speed rail ticket to Beijing. By now it was mid-April. I thought the nightmare was nearly over: that I would be able to hop on a train and get home. I had passed all my PCR tests, and my phone had the right Covid pass on it — a green QR code that meant I should be able to board the train easily.
I got to the train station and a group of epidemic prevention staff met me. They scanned my phone. A message popped up that I hadn’t seen before, with a solid block of text. It informed me that “according to Beijing’s epidemic prevention policy and data, you may have had “temporal spatial” relations with epidemic risk areas, risk points, or risk personnel inside and outside Beijing. A risk investigation is required.”
“This pop up window cannot be cleared until the epidemic risks are controlled,” the window said.
I had no idea how I had got this pop up window. But when they told me it meant I couldn’t board the train, my mind went totally blank. I had no idea what I should do. I called my family in the States. “Whatever you do,” they said, “don’t yell at them. Don’t fight. We can’t have you ending up in jail.” Other people were also stopped from boarding. The train station staff told us we couldn’t stay in the station, and that we needed to leave. Everyone was scared. We had no idea what to do or where to go.
That was when the real hell began.
The thing to understand about our situation is this: Shanghai was in total lockdown. Everyone was inside their homes. Nobody was allowed to be out on the streets. For residents of Shanghai that’s one thing — but if, like me, you’re not from Shanghai, and have no home to go to, you’re utterly stranded. The city of Shanghai considered its responsibility to quarantine me for 21 days over, so they said I couldn’t live in their facilities anymore.
On the streets, I saw people in the same situation as me who weren’t allowed to go back home — mostly migrant workers from the countryside. There was nothing for them to do except stay on the side of the road. Some of them even pitched tents. One day, on my way to the hospital to do yet another PCR test, it was pouring rain. I went through an underground tunnel, and saw so many people down there who had no homes to go back to. They were stuck down there, with nothing to eat or drink, and could only sleep on the ground, seeking shelter from the rain in that tunnel. They asked me for water — I only had one bottle of water on me, and I gave it to them.
The city felt like something out of the movie “I Am Legend.” Everything is just desolate, with not a soul in sight.
I called several hotels, but they all rejected me. In desperation, I just walked the deserted streets, knocking on the doors of hotels to see if anyone would take me in. At about the fourth or fifth hotel, someone agreed to let me stay.
It wasn’t a hotel as such, it was more of an internet cafe that had been temporarily repurposed as a motel. But unlike the state-mandated quarantine hotels I had stayed in before, this place had no food.
Every day, I needed to find a way to feed myself. At first, I had almost nothing to eat. There was a selection of drinks in the cafe refrigerator. I drank every single one of them to survive. My boss back in Beijing managed to get a few pieces of fruit, some cookies and some eggs delivered to me. Otherwise, I was on my own. I persuaded a parcel delivery worker to give me a ride to a small roadside convenience store that was open, where I bought four bags of instant noodles and six pieces of cake to ration out for the next few days.
When I wasn’t scrounging for food, I was desperately figuring out how on earth I could get out of Shanghai. It was clear I couldn’t go to Beijing – the pop-up message on my phone made sure of that. I was told there was no way for me to appeal it, short of getting a permit directly from the mayor of Beijing. I’m not that special.
So I just started looking for tickets to go anywhere in China, just to get out of the Shanghai area. But every airplane ticket I tried to book was then canceled. Canceled. Canceled. No city wanted to take people from Shanghai.
I spoke to a friend on the phone, who said, “nothing is more important than getting out of Shanghai right now. Nothing is more important than your own health. You need to find a way to escape.”
My boss, who has connections with the local government in Beijing, gave me a tip. Somehow, they knew that a particular flight — to a city in the south — would not be canceled. “Book that flight,” she told me.
I managed to buy the ticket, which was a step in the right direction. But I still had no idea whether I would be able to get out.
The next hurdle was getting to the airport. Because of the quarantine rules, people aren’t allowed to move around freely. Districts are divided by iron gates, and you need a Covid travel permit to cross from one district to another. Vehicles can only have one person in them, and they need special permission to drive, and must be able to prove they were working in a pandemic-fighting capacity.
Other people got to the airport by shuttle bus from their official quarantine hotels, or just rode shared city bikes, leaving all their luggage, and cycling to the airport the night before.
My boss managed to arrange for someone to drive me, secretly. He was a professional delivery driver, who had clearance to deliver “materials related to fighting the pandemic.” He messaged me on WeChat and told me that he would take me to the airport, but I would need to hide on the back seat, beneath a pile of cardboard boxes. I had to leave my two suitcases behind, packing just the essentials into a backpack.
On the day of my flight, he picked me up before dawn. I lay down on the back seat, and he covered me with empty cardboard boxes, which made it look like we were delivering pandemic-fighting materials. I couldn’t see anything, and just lay in the dark as we drove through the empty city.
It was dead silent as we drove along. My driver was very nervous — he didn’t utter a single word. The car stopped several times, passing through multiple Covid checkpoints. The guards spoke to the driver, and shined a flashlight into the car. I was terrified of being discovered.
The journey from the cafe to the airport was only around three miles, but it felt much farther. I started to become afraid I would miss the fight.
When we got to the airport, the parking lot was sealed off. We drove up to the road for international departures — but that ramp was sealed too. We could not figure out how to actually get inside.
After driving in circles for a bit, I just got out of the car. I scrambled over a fence and made my way into the airport.
I felt like a fugitive. Like I was making a dangerous escape, committing a crime.
But at last, I was getting out of Shanghai.
I managed to check in, and passed through the security at the airport, waiting to board my plane. I was so exhausted, I just sat on the dirty floor and waited. Meanwhile, my family in America were just anxiously waiting to see if I could get out, watching on the flight tracking apps, waiting for news.
I had another reason to be nervous: my latest PCR result hadn’t shown up on my phone yet. They test you in batches of 20, and I was paranoid the delay in getting my result meant someone in my batch was positive. If that happened, another dreaded pop-up could appear at any time, which would mean I’d get hunted down and made to do an individual test.
I told my family not to message me until I had arrived. I was afraid that any activity on my phone might give the border guards a reason to stop me flying. I wanted to remain as unnoticeable as possible.
I waited, and waited, and waited, until they let us board the plane. I was terrified the plane would just never take off. The minutes ticked by — it was four minutes past the take-off time, then five, then six. It was interminable.
At last, ever so slowly, the plane began to move. When we took off, it was as if a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was free.
I’m now in a city in the south, where I’m having to do another 14-day quarantine. When I’m done with this final stretch, I’ll have been indoors, in isolation, for five weeks.
During this time I’ve been thinking about my childhood during the Cultural Revolution. We lived deep in the mountains, and as the Revolution swept through the country, a local disease affecting the heart also rampaged through our villages. People were going hungry. We were very little at the time, and my mom wanted us children to get out of the village, so she persuaded a local truck driver to smuggle us out of the region, so we could go stay with my aunt. One of my earliest memories is hiding in the back of that truck, lying down, as we bumped along going past checkpoint after checkpoint.
That happened more than half a century ago. Our country, our people, is in a continuing state of disaster, from beginning to end. I feel that China’s Covid control efforts are completely ignoring scientists. They’re self-defeating. People aren’t treated like humans. And it feels like we’re going right back where we were fifty years ago.
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