Hunger is not a Game

It’s also something that I didn’t expect to see in China, least of all in Shanghai.

Today is day seven of a four-day lockdown, and no end is in sight.

I wasn’t surprised that the lockdown didn’t end on schedule. No one I know was surprised. This is Omicron, and we saw what it did to the rest of the world. We knew it would come to China, and we knew that it would be this hard to control. The number of new infections is still rising, and the official narrative is still couching the situation as a “war.” And wars must be won. They can’t be lost. For Shanghai, that means continued lockdown, continued testing (we have tested four times already), and waiting for the numbers to go down.

When you can’t go outside your apartment, you can’t buy groceries. We are fine, we have plenty of food. We were advised to store enough food to last up to two weeks. We are two adults with no dietary restrictions and with relatively easygoing palettes. For us, the only challenge is finding storage space in a very small apartment with a very, very small refrigerator.

And it’s a good thing that we stored up food, because buying food has now become a problem.

China’s food-delivery system is world-class. I’ve never experienced a better delivery system than in China. We usually buy produce and meat online, using a grocery delivery service. In normal times, you see delivery guys (it’s usually males) everywhere, scooting around on their little electric motorcycles, delivering packages, meals, and food. Ordering groceries online is actually more efficient than going to the store ourselves; we could place an order on our cellphone app, and the stuff could be delivered in 15-20 minutes.

But when you lock down the city, and don’t let anyone out of their house, then stores can’t open, and delivery guys can’t make deliveries. The city government issued special passes to delivery guys. But most of the delivery guys can’t work because if they’re locked down for other reasons. The efficient system of food-on-demand is broken. The food supply, usually ample and varied, contracted.

We’re fine, we aren’t starving. We have plenty of food. But not everyone is as lucky as we are. Some people are struggling to get enough food.

The online ordering apps are still working, but the inventory is updated in real time. When things are sold out, they online store shows that the item is no longer available. The stores “open” online at a fixed time, and there is a small window of time when you can place orders before everything is gone. The stores start taking online orders at 6:00 AM. The other day we woke up at 5:45 AM to fill our carts. I was using the app for one store, my wife was using the app for another store. We figured if both of us try at the same time, maybe one of us will be able to get something.

We kept getting the “busy” notification on the apps when we were trying to add items, and when we tried to place the order. There are at least 24 million people in Shanghai, and they are all in the same situation as us. I don’t know if all 24 million were on the same app as I was, but it felt like it. The app didn’t crash (not too often, anyway), but it displayed a “busy” notification as other people who were faster than I was grabbed the food. As I refreshed the app, the inventory was updated. I kept getting notified that this or that product was sold out.

Eventually, the app told me that their delivery schedule was filled. I would get no food deliveries that day. The window would open up at 6:00 tomorrow; I’d have to try again then.

“The delivery schedule for today is completely booked. Please try again tomorrow starting at 6:00 AM”

Socialism came to the rescue. The city government started distributing food packages to residents. There were reports of quality issues with some of the food, but overall it’s been a big help. We refused the first round of food, because we felt we had enough. Yesterday we accepted a package, though. Our apartment building also organized a group buy of meat and fruit.

“Care package” from the apartment building.

It seems to be working, but people are getting worried. There are many different opinions about the government’s decisions, many of which are critical. The government is working hard to maintain their iron-fisted pandemic control protocol, and also to keep people fed. I’m hearing a lot of doubts expressed about the government’s ability to do those things. I am glad this is not my problem to fix. I don’t know that I agree with the direction that the government has decided to take, but I do know that if I were suddenly placed in charge, I would have no idea what to do.

Tensions are high among the local people. The original plan was to end this lockdown after eight days. We could plan for that, and count down the days to the end. Facing an indefinite lockdown with no idea when it will end takes away people’s hope. Now the city is back to where it was two years ago, when this drama started.

In the State Department’s counter-threat training, I learned that when people are afraid, their IQ drops ten points. I believe that. I’ve seen people make bad decisions and do stupid things when they are afraid. And people here in Shanghai are afraid now. Yesterday I saw a statistic that one-third of Shanghai residents live paycheck-to-paycheck. When people can’t go to work, they have no money. People are afraid of losing their livelihoods. Not being able to get fresh food is adding to the stress.

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