30 Days in Shanghai During the Covid-19 Outbreak


Since the Coronavirus (Covid-19) broke out in China in January, it has brought unprecedented impact to all aspects of business and daily life. From our Steinbach & Partner Shanghai team, Consultant Amber Jiang and Project Manager Chris Li share their experience with daily life in the city.

Since when has Covid-19 directly impacted your life?

Amber: I first noticed the news about this mysterious illness linked to a seafood market in Wuhan around Christmas, but I didn’t pay much attention as there was only few cases then. Several weeks later I started to worry about how this is developing since the Chinese New Year holiday was around the corner, and the number of cases started to rise, people were talking about it in Shanghai, because Spring Festival travel rush had already started, not helping to contain the virus. On 23rd  Jan, I was going to the train station after work to travel to my hometown (about 160 km from Shanghai), then we heard about the lock-down in Wuhan so I took the advice of my boss, changed the plan at the last minute and got a taxi instead of taking the crowded train.

The next day was the CNY Eve, I actually didn’t want to join the New Year’s Eve dinner which in our case will be more than 30 people eating in one room and sharing endless dishes, it was the most looked forward to event for me when I was young, but now it didn’t sound safe… but my parents didn’t hesitate for a second, because for them it is still THE time for families and friend’s reunion. New Year’s Eve dinner parties or any kind of gatherings were banned in Wuhan. Still the case now I think.

Chris: Originally, I planned for family vacation in Fuzhou (4 hours on fast train from Shanghai) for the Chinese New Year holiday. Five days before my departure, around Jan 20, the virus situation looked serious nation-wide. I hesitated for a day, and then decided to cancel the trip. By then, pharmacies online and offline were all sold out of hand wipes, face masks, and sanitizer.

January 23 was the last usual business day. Since then I’ve spent the last 36 days almost all at home. It is really a large-scale social experiment: how long can people stay at home without going mad?

What was your emotional reaction to the situation? Has it changed over time?

Amber: There are emotional volatilities and mixed feelings. First, I got panic, especially when I can’t find more masks or disinfection products overnight. Yet as time passed, every day more devastating news and heartbreaking stories of those people and families suffering from all kinds of difficulties. I felt tremendous sadness, fortunately we are strong enough facing such catastrophe, more than 30,000 medical staff across China gathered in Hubei and many countries like Japan are also offering help and support.

I’m very grateful that no one I know have the virus so far, but at some point I got frustrated, why and how this could happen again after SARS. I thought we are much more developed now, but obviously many things haven’t changed that much, we might experience the crisis again and again if we don’t fix the loopholes in existing systems or establish new systems.

Chris: it felt very dark for the first 10 days, when all news was bad news. It was addictive to watch. Confirmed and suspected cases grew by thousands every day. Social media had an overwhelmingly sad, angry, and anxious mood.

I also got very restless and irritated. I notice my neighbor plays the same pieces on her piano on repeat for weeks, so it was not easy for everyone.

In the last two weeks, slowly things changed. More patients were cured and released from hospital. A lot of discussion shifted to working and establishing new normalcy, so it was a welcoming change.

How has travel ban and quarantine policies affected you so far?

Amber: I got back to Shanghai on the last day of January, although the government announced extension of the holiday to 2nd February. I didn’t know I would be asked to self-quarantine until the neighborhood committee members knocked on my door to check when and how I arrived in Shanghai. They seemed nice but firm, they told me to stay home for 14 days unless I have to go out to get some necessities.

But I noticed my neighbors who came back from Hunan (not Hubei) province are strictly monitored by the committee, someone would even come to their door to collect the trash bags every day. Basically, they are not allowed to leave their apartment, that makes me a little bit nervous.

Chris: I wasn’t forced into quarantine by neighborhood committee, but I isolated myself to stay out of crowds. There was nowhere to go – all activities closed (gyms, restaurants, parks). Checkpoints were put up at highways. It was unreal seeing the megacity become a ghost town.

I saw cars in the community with Hubei (epicenter province) license plates. The owners all put up large signs under the windshield wiper, clarifying their travel history to their terrified neighbors. There was also mad rush to compete for limited grocery delivery slots on e-commerce, before the capacity slowly resumed.

How do you pass the time at home?

Amber: As you can imagine, there is so much you can do with your phone. I subscribed to many podcasts which I really enjoy listening to, I just finished reading a horrifying and fascinating novel about coping with the fallout of a deadly infection from China, the book “Severance” written by Chinese-American author Ling Ma. And since my trainer is still trapped in his hometown, I changed muscle building workout to a traditional Chinese regimen, eight-section qigong exercises!

Chris: Livestreams and online fitness -- it was great to see gym & dance acquaintances’ alias pop up on screen. I read more, and followed the Australian Open tennis tournament.

Tell us how you have been working in the meantime.

Amber: One of the greatest things about our job is that most of the work can be done remotely. Also, thanks to modern technology, we can share information in real time. For example, we had some video interviews with clients in Germany, candidates in Suzhou and me at home in Shanghai. And our business is all about people, even when you cannot meet in person, checking in and sharing helpful insights with them on WeChat or LinkedIn is also very efficient and appreciated.

Chris: For me, the mindset, mutual trust to be remote-ready is as important as the cloud-based data, laptop, and communications software enabling this. We’re fortunate to have all of this from previous practice. This is also a great conversation starter with anyone.

My mother has never worked remotely in her entire career. This time she’s forced to work from home. Some days we share the kitchen table and power strip, which was unusual but kind of sweet.

What advice do you have for people who may have a similar home-quarantine situation?

Amber: If you also need to stay at home for long period of time, perhaps the first thing is to list what you would need and stock up some food and other supplies. But if you forget something, it’s not the end of the world, just to make sure you have someone who can get what you need, and hope that they don’t get the virus. The other thing is don’t sit or lie down all the time, daily exercise is so important, it’s good for your body and soul to defeat the virus.

Chris: Have a sort of mission and routine, and approach this as an opportunity to try new things. Stay in touch with your own health and people around you, and prepare medication supply for chronic disease. It’s great chance to clean your pantry or sort out your storage area – there’s no better time than this for housekeeping.

What are your learnings from this experience?

Amber: “No Man Is an Island”, as the world is an integral whole with a shared destiny, and the virus doesn’t judge or discriminate, if it can connect us so does compassion and love.

Chris: I felt this is a test for our creative power reserve, more than anything else. We’re forced to think up new ways to work, stay fit, socialize virtually, cook, create makeshift face covers if necessary, and find our own routine within the little physical space. I realized some activities I miss more than the others. You also develop more patience with yourself.

One thing you look forward to, if the clouds were “clear” tomorrow.

Amber: Our family trip, although we probably would not be able to do that any time soon, flights got cancelled and now there are many cases confirmed in Europe. We will wait for that day when we can take off our masks and say hello to the Airbnb host and give each other a hug.

Chris: A proper meal with friends, face to face, and then going to Eason Chan live concert.