As food shortages hit locked-down Shanghai, the gift of two carrots and a potato was pure luxury | Jennifer Pak

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On day 32 of Shanghai’s lockdown this year, I somehow managed to buy fruit in bulk. I shared some grapes and kiwis with a friend. She insisted I take something in exchange from her dwindling food stash. So I grabbed a potato that had sprouted and two slightly wrinkled carrots. What a relief.

Shanghai’s government effectively shut the city’s borders during the lockdown in April and May. Getting basic items was difficult. Shops were closed. Delivery drivers were in short supply. Suddenly, 25 million of us had to rely on a mixture of grocery apps, government handouts, bulk-buying groups and underground channels to get fed.

Grocery apps are usually useful, but because of the high demand during lockdown my boyfriend and I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to load our virtual carts with food and wait until the grocery app started taking orders. Some apps started at 6am and we would furiously click the checkout button. But we rarely had any luck, with most delivery spots taken by 6.01am. We gave up on them after the first week.

District governments also handed out supplies. My area was ranked among the best in terms of handouts. One time we got a box full of fresh and cured meats and vegetables. Another time we got a single precooked sausage. Only two handouts we had included potatoes and carrots.

Most of us in Shanghai leaned on our neighbours to organise bulk-buying. Each compound would select a team leader who would find suppliers. Then they would have to rally enough people to meet a minimum order level to get the products delivered.

Delivery drivers sort food at a supermarket in Shanghai, 25 April 2022.
‘Because of the high demand for delivery apps, I had to wake up at the crack of dawn … but most slots were taken by 6.01am.’ A supermarket in Shanghai, April 2022. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA

Since my compound was small and most residents were elderly, our bulk buy offers were basic. We had milk and steamed pork buns, and once I had to buy 60 eggs in one go. Without much fridge space, some of those eggs were pickled.

Friends living in bigger compounds with thousands of residents could buy basque burnt cheesecakes, wagyu beef and KFC. I also did a little bartering on the side. A neighbour ran out of cooking oil to make mayonnaise. I traded her some in return for a much-needed latte.

Meal decisions were generally dictated by what would go bad next. But planning a dish took patience. When a friend said that a butcher near her had reopened, I bought a small portion of beef shank and beef brisket. I didn’t know when I’d next see meat so I made it into a stew. I put the meat in the freezer until I could source spices and stock cubes, which took another two weeks.

Vegetables had become a luxury. There was even a meme circulating among my WeChat groups showing carrots and courgettes wrapped in a silk ribbon marked Chanel. My friends, who used to post photos from Michelin-starred restaurants, were forwarding articles on whether sprouted potatoes were safe to eat.

The tactics employed during Shanghai’s 61-plus days of lockdown, including cutting off food supplies and blocking building doors, have since been replicated across China. In Urumqi, Xinjiang, which had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, a deadly apartment fire broke out on 24 November. Locals blamed the tragedy on Covid restrictions preventing victims from fleeing, which Urumqi officials deny.

Chinese people went on to the streets initially to hold vigils for the fire victims, but this soon morphed into anger against the Chinese government and its zero-Covid approach. Protests broke out across the country, with many affected cities responding by easing some restrictions. Still, this does not address the government’s enormous control over the most basic decisions in daily life in the name of Covid prevention, including when and if people could fill their bellies.

  • Jennifer Pak is the China correspondent for Marketplace, a radio programme broadcast by American Public Media

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