The first time I got behind the wheel in Shanghai during the rush hour I was nervous. On Xiangyang Road, the pretty and rapidly gentrifying tree-lined street where I live, there was a seemingly endless stream of bikes and electric scooters weaving in and out of constant traffic, with total disregard for the speed limit.
But since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there is no rush hour on Xiangyang Road. Much of the time, one could fire a gun down its unbent stretch of almost two miles and not hit a soul.
Although Shanghai empties out during Chinese New Year as non-Shanghainese travel to their home towns in part of what is the world’s largest mass migration, the city would normally start to buzz again as it re-absorbs its full complement of around 25 million people. Although the Chinese government extended the Chinese New Year holidays by a week, the city is now officially back to work. Still, numerous businesses remain closed and many people, including my Shanghainese next door neighbour, a woman in her 30s, are afraid to go outside lest they contract the virus. Even tourist sites like The Bund, Shanghai’s historic waterfront, are almost deserted despite the recent good weather.
Apart from this eerie quiet, the most noticeable change is that almost everyone you see outdoors wears a protective mask of some kind. When Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, was abruptly cut off from the outside world, the coronavirus outbreak really hit the public consciousness. Protective masks sold out overnight. I have heard that some shops have them, but they can only be obtained by appointment so as to avoid long queues and panic buying. Some local shops that are open have signs outside asking people not to enter unless they are wearing a mask. Even though it is highly unlikely that I would contract an airborne virus outside unless an infected person coughed in my face, I feel compelled to wear one outside. If I don't, people eye me suspiciously and I feel self-conscious.
Some friends, foreign and Chinese alike, decided to leave to either wait out the crisis or just enjoy an extended holiday. I had planned to do the same, but decided to return to Shanghai when it seemed that I would get quite busy with photography assignments. My social media is filled with posts from people skiing in Switzerland or Japan or lying on beaches in Sri Lanka or Bali.
Late last week, social media feeds on WeChat were dominated by grief and rage over the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old Wuhan ophthalmologist and whistleblower who was silenced by the authorities in the early stages of the outbreak. Posts included: “You’re a man our ugly society doesn’t deserve” and “Elephant in the room: we know they’re lying. They know they’re lying. They know we know they’re lying.” Some people replaced their profile photos with a black square and a single white exclamation mark.
It is highly unusual for mainland Chinese to publicly criticise the Chinese government. There is normally an ambivalence or resignation about politics, although I have noticed a spike in nationalism since the unrest in Hong Kong broke out. After Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, I get the sense that people feel less safe in speaking out. But after Dr Li died a lot of people didn't seem to give a damn about their social credit ranking. They were just angry. They may well be still angry, but the topic has gone quiet on Chinese social media platforms. It is known that Dr Li's death is a risky subject as far as the government is concerned. Posts have been censored and I have heard whispers of outspoken people having their WeChat accounts liquidated: their main mode of communication, main payment system and all their contacts vanished in an instant. WeChat is like Facebook, Instagram and ApplePay rolled into one. Even that description doesn't do it justice though.
Personally, I am not concerned about contracting the coronavirus. The number of infections, although rising at an alarming rate, is now more than 40,000 with a mortality rate of around 2 per cent. This is minuscule within a population of more than 1.4 billion. I would be more concerned if I lived in Wuhan.
It is only when you travel within China that you get a full sense of the lockdown that the government has instigated in an effort to stop the virus from spreading.
A fortnight ago, I was on the southern edge of China, next to Vietnam, for a photography project on the country’s borders. It was impossible to enter many of the border towns. I had my temperature monitored at all train stations, when I checked into hotels and at all toll ways – where my passport was also recorded. A lot of towns had enforced the closure of all restaurants and hotels with police on patrol to make sure that everyone kept in line with the order. Even small villages were stopping all outsiders from entering.
Air travel is even more extreme. I had a stopover on my return to Shanghai a fortnight ago. My temperature was taken with an electronic thermometer upon entering the airport, boarding the plane (twice) and even once on board. It is unnerving to have a masked man or woman point a pistol-shaped electric thermometer at your forehead. And of course, everyone was wearing a mask. This is something that I am not getting used to. Last weekend, when I returned to Shanghai from a photography assignment in Guangdong, I had to register my home address with a new government app on WeChat. When I entered the airport there were a dozen people in full hazmat suits. It sounds like I'm describing a disaster movie, but it's surprising how quickly things just become "normal".
In the meantime I am trying to take all the sensible precautions like wearing a protective mask in public (which is useful as it helps prevent one from touching their face – a main mode of contagion). I'm also washing my hands as much as possible. A lot of people have left Shanghai and since Australia placed a "Do Not Travel" warning on China, I guess I’m uninsured. I have been in Shanghai since 2012 though; this is my home. As alarming as the situation has become, I do see myself sticking around here for the immediate future.
Dave Tacon is a Shanghai-based photographer and writer
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