The protracted lockdown in Shanghai has led to a redefinition of the term neighborhood.

In big cities, the self-sufficiency and insulation of a modern apartment have reduced the neighborhood to nothing more than physical proximity. The unexpected epic lockdown put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus has caused a paradigm shift.

It all started in our neighborhood when we joined the WeChat group “No. 148,” referring to the building home to 26 households that share the same entrance and elevator.

There is a constant flow of information in the group that only stops during the small hours of the day.

It often starts in the morning with a notice regarding the day’s arrangements for antigen test or nucleic acid testing. (These days, a nucleic acid test is always preceded by an antigen test in strictly locked-down areas.)

Then there is information regarding supplies sent by the neighborhood committee, proper processes for obtaining medication, and various vegetables or products that some neighbors could spare and leave on the elevator for people who need them.

I’m not sure how the neighborhood volunteers were chosen, but they obviously take their responsibilities seriously.

On certain days they’d first notify about the upcoming nucleic acid tests, then caution against arriving too early, because the neighboring No. 147 had reported multiple confirmed cases some time ago.

The volunteers are so efficient at coordinating the test-taking protocols that residents’ exposure to the risk outdoors was reduced to a bare minimum.

Southern gate

They also help carry supplies to residents’ homes. Supplies, whether free or bought, must be transported from the neighborhood committee at the southern gate to residents’ doorsteps.

More goods, of all types, flood in through the west gate to be picked up and carried to their destinations. When you get a call from deliverymen or a tuanzhang (group-buying organizer) about a delivery, it’s a good idea to first inquire in the WeChat group if there’s anyone at the west gate, so that the item can be picked up and deposited at your door by one of your neighbors.

During the lockdown, tuanzhang has gained enormous respect, but it could also be dangerous. One of the group leaders was scammed out of 41,000 yuan (US$6,000) after falling victim to someone who claimed to have connection to a supermarket, but disappeared after receiving the money.

As face-to-face interaction is discouraged to prevent the spread of the virus, I have never been able to identify the kind and hard-working neighbors. Their room number is all they are known by in the WeChat group.

About a week ago, Room 502 informed me that Room 201, my next-door neighbor, had recently returned from hospital and was isolating at home for a week. I was urged to take required precautions, such as having the flights of stairs closest to us disinfected on a regular basis. During this time, I also assisted at the west gate in picking up some goods for this lonely neighbor.

The citywide lockdown means nearly all guys in our compound have been going on without a haircut for nearly two months. Miraculously, one hair salon owner (later joined by another) began to provide haircutting service for residents since early May, and I and my son both benefited from their expert services. They stubbornly refuse to be paid.

Group-buying activities

Under the closed-loop management, it’s often the practice to give a number to an individual, but this in no way prevents people from expressing genuine interest in the lives of their neighbors.

My wife, a doctor, had never shown up in the over 30 nucleic acid tests we had taken in our neighborhood because she had been working away from home since March. However, when she began ordering things through the rapidly expanding group-buying activities, this previously unseen figure was immediately apparent.

We are asked if we need three antigen test kits instead of two. When I explained the scenario to my neighbors, they began to pay tribute to the sacrifice of medical professionals, saying that No. 148 had quite a few medical workers, and that the neighbors would always be willing to assist us if needed.

Volunteers aren’t the only ones who can assist. Last week, I discovered to my dismay that the battery for my kitchen stove had died, and finding a replacement was difficult.

When I mentioned it casually to a colleague, I was advised to contact the neighborhood committee, who then referred me to the property management. I was then given the phone number of a nearby convenience shop owner, who later delivered the battery to the southern gate within 20 minutes.

Another neighbor told me that her son was scratched by a dog and had to be taken to the hospital for a rabies shot. The neighborhood committee had successfully arranged for the transportation after overnight coordination.

In truth, each inhabitant of Shanghai has his or her own story to share about this special period.

According to the Xinmin Evening News, a young woman volunteering in one neighborhood of the city sent an 89-year-old grandmother a painting she had drawn herself.

The granny, who lives alone and has trouble moving around, thanked the volunteer by giving her an English version of Vincent van Gogh’s collection of paintings, along with a heartfelt note expressing her gratitude for everything the volunteers had done for her.

In another community, a young couple’s desire to marry in their hometown of Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, was thwarted by the lockdown, and the two then ended up serving as volunteers.

When community residents and neighbors learned of this, they joined forces to plan a cloud wedding for the couple, which turned out to be a genuinely unforgettable experience for them.

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