Stuck inside, rationing food: Canadians in Shanghai detail life in COVID-19 lockdown

Members of the Luo family are among the millions of residents in Shanghai who continue to live in lockdown, though some measures are easing, as the Chinese government tries to stop the spread of COVID-19.

'I start to just feel … like I’m about to have a meltdown,' says Racelle Luo, originally from Toronto

Racelle Luo and her family are confined to their apartment in Shanghai round the clock — except when it comes to essentials like picking up deliveries and dumping trash.

The 35-year-old, who is originally from the Toronto area, her husband and their three children, as well as millions of others in China's most populous city, are in another lockdown as the government tries to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"Occasionally, I start to just feel, like a very heavy burden, like I'm about to have a meltdown," said Luo, among the Canadians interviewed by CBC News as China continues to pursue a COVID-19 zero strategy that's been in place throughout the pandemic.

Luo said her lockdown began March 10. It was lifted for one day, then they were told to stay home again.

During that time, she's tried to stay focused on the well-being of her children, who are nine, five and three years old.

"It's really difficult not being able to let them go outside and run around," she said.

"You're worried about your kids' mental health."

While some measures are easing in some districts, it's clear a lockdown of this scale has frayed nerves during the pandemic, which was officially declared by the World Health Organization over two years ago.

"The belief that China can be COVID zero is definitely unachievable," said Luo. "It's a pipe dream, and even if they were to get to COVID zero, it will definitely come back."

Food rations a necessity

Shanghai is China's global financial hub, with a population of about 26 million. The city has reported a record 3,590 symptomatic COVID cases for April 15, along with 19,923 asymptomatic cases. A health official warned Wednesday that Shanghai didn't have the virus under control, despite the easing of some restrictions.

Shanghai residents have been struggling to get food supplies like meat and rice under the anti-coronavirus controls, fuelling frustration, especially in light of online grocers' reports that they're often sold out.

With the Chinese government handing out food rations to residents, the families CBC News spoke with described the range of the quality of the products they're getting.

Some of the sparse number of items Luo has received were rotten.

Ruthie Chua, on the other hand, got fresh vegetables and, one time, a whole chicken.

Chua and her husband, Daniel Nickle, are from the Toronto area and moved to Shanghai in early 2006. The couple and their 17-year-old and 13-year-old sons have been locked down for close to two weeks, and faced a separate lockdown weeks earlier.

It's very hard to get food.

– Ruthie Chua

"It's very hard to get food," Chua said.

Chua and her 17-year-old will go on Chinese grocery apps in the morning and try to fill up their online carts with food before stock runs out.

"The first time we did it, we managed [to get] about 20 things in our cart. We ended up with three things: carrots, coriander and a jug of water. And we were thrilled with that," Chua said.

The family has been taking the situation in stride.

"Life goes on. I guess the big difference is there's just a lot more time spent thinking and planning for the procurement of food," Chua said.

Foods become items to barter

Matt Doyon, his wife and their three-year-old daughter have also been in lockdown for weeks.

It has been emotionally draining, even physically draining, just not being able to go outside and walk around.

– Matt Doyon

"I can't deny that it has been emotionally draining, even physically draining, just not being able to go outside and walk around," said, an English teacher who was living in Mississauga, Ont., before moving to Shanghai.

He said it has been particularly difficult on his young daughter.

"I've had to say, 'No honey, sorry, we can't go outside and play.'"

While his family was able to stock up on some items before being stuck in their apartment, Doyon has been making jam and bread, and has resorted to bartering for some items.

When the family was running low on water, a friend of Doyon's who had purchased four 20-litre jugs of water was getting short on coffee. A self-described java fiend, Doyon was able to make a trade.

"The people are helping themselves as much as possible," he said.

As for a light at the end of the tunnel, Doyon said that is unclear — he expects to remain inside until at least the start of May.

"Do I agree [with the COVID-19 zero strategy] personally? No, I think that it's a great reduction in human rights," he said.

"But do I think that it's safe and that it's going to work in the end? I have to hope so. My daughter is too young to be vaccinated right now."

With files from Reuters

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