From Chinese Metropolis to Ghost Town
In Vivi Feng’s third letter, she describes how the coronavirus is shaping daily life in Shanghai
Feb 18, 2020
We were just about to start celebrating the end of the semester and our last exams. Vacation plans were all set. Then the coronavirus epidemic hit. Back at the beginning of January, there were only a few stray reports about a virus that was spreading in the city of Wuhan. None of us thought it was that serious at the time.
In the weeks that followed, we started to hear more and more about it in the news. There were lots of reminders about washing your hands, wearing protective masks, and avoiding large groups of people.
Professors at Fudan University even started to send us links to sites with tips on how to prevent infection. As the number of cases continued to grow and the announcement came that the semester would not start mid-February, as it usually should, but would be postponed indefinitely, I finally realized just how serious the situation is.
Change of travel plans and campus closed
By the end of January, things had gotten really crazy. We were receiving news every day about the virus or about new measures they were taking to try to contain it. Airlines like British Airways and Lufthansa were canceling all flights to and from China, and you could suddenly cancel bookings for domestic flights free of charge. Some fellow students and I did just that, and with heavy hearts abandoned our plans to travel throughout Asia during the break. We canceled our tickets, and some people cut their trips short.
Other classmates and friends decided to return to their home countries for a few weeks, since it was becoming too risky to travel in Asia, and the university had told us not to return to campus before the semester started up again.
I never thought that I would see a big city like Shanghai so empty and deserted. Of course, part of that has to do with the Chinese New Year taking place at the end of January. It is the biggest and most important holiday in China. Traditionally, people spend it with their families, so lots of people who live in Shanghai had gone back home. It’s actually quite normal for most shops to be closed over the holidays.
Daily text messages from Chinese health officials
But because of the virus, the shops and businesses stayed closed after the New Year’s holiday, which meant there was basically nothing to do. The Chinese health department was sending us text messages almost daily. They told us to avoid travel, to not order food or other products through the Internet, and most importantly to not leave the house if at all possible.
By then, I was no longer staying in the student dorms on campus. I had gone to my sister’s place, who has been living and working in Shanghai for a year. But we still went outside once a day to buy groceries or even just to get some fresh air. Of course, we had protective masks on the whole time, even though it might not have been necessary given that the streets were completely empty. If we did happen to see other people on the streets, they were also wearing masks, obviously.
Before being allowed to enter a supermarket or shopping mall, you first had to have your temperature taken with an infrared thermometer. The supermarkets were a bit livelier than the streets, and entire shelves had been bought out in some places.
My decision to return to Germany for a few weeks came after being cooped up at home for days, having to put on a mask every time I wanted to go outside, and not having anything to do in the city even if you do leave the house.
Shut out of the student dorms
It was easy to rebook my return flight, but getting to my stuff in the dorms was not. They wouldn't let me enter because my name was not on a certain list. Apparently, they had decided just that day not to let anyone back into the dorms if they had left for several days within the last few weeks because they would have a higher risk of being infected. Luckily, a friend of mine was still there and was able to use my keycard to get into my room and pack a suitcase for me.
Hopeful of a quick return to China
After an eleven-hour flight, during which all of us passengers wore protective masks, I am finally back home in Germany. China is currently in a complete state of emergency, and it is crazy to experience it all so up close. I have a lot of respect for the doctors who were not able to spend the holidays with their families because they were taking care of patients around the clock.
I hope that the quarantine measures and support from other countries can help keep the coronavirus from spreading and that we can return to China soon to start the semester.