Shanghai: Timid signs of recovery and lessons to learn

"Although the city seems to be getting going again, the stress is still omnipresent," writes Harry den Hartog, a Dutch urban designer and critic from Shanghai. While the infection rate has dropped drastically, the city and its citizens are still coping with the aftermath of Covid-19.


When I returned to Shanghai from my hometown Rotterdam on 1st March 2020 after the Chinese New Year holiday, only two people in the Netherlands were infected with Covid-19. My friends and family members were concerned about my return to Shanghai, because in China was the danger at that moment. Nobody expected this drama to extend so quickly all over Europe. But today, only two weeks later, the situation completely reversed and I hear very disturbing reports from the Netherlands and other countries that make me very concerned about the seemingly uncoordinated approach of problems, and worried about my family and friends at home.

Meanwhile, the situation in China seems slowly moving toward a more positive direction. Today was my first day outside, after two weeks of home quarantine. In the past two weeks, I had already caught a glimpse of street life through the community gate, and I also got some info through social media of course. But walking around the city by myself is a completely different experience, especially after two weeks of strict seclusion.


'Walking around the city by myself is a completely different experience, especially after two weeks of strict seclusion'

Outside the gate I immediately notice three things. First of all, there seem to be more cars than usual and I have a feeling that they drive a bit faster. Secondly, there are considerably fewer pedestrians, and thirdly, the behaviour of the pedestrians is slightly different. Pedestrians walk less close to each other and almost everyone wears a mask. Also, hardly anyone looks at shop windows (I live on a busy shopping street) but straight ahead and everyone seem to keep a close eye on others.


Face masks at Starbucks. Photo by author.

Friends in Shanghai told me that in this new situation, many people prefer to travel by private car or taxi and avoid public transport to limit risks. Although the city seems to be getting going again, the stress is still omnipresent: many motorists even wear masks when they are alone in their car.


'Although the city seems to be getting going again, the stress is still omnipresent'

Many people still prefer to stay indoors and work from home as much as possible, and personal meetings are difficult. Even if you manage to make an appointment, you will be asked directly (or indirectly) where you have been in the past two weeks and whether you have not been in contact with others too much.

Irrespective of whether it makes sense to wear face masks in everyday life, it gives an alienating and anonymizing effect. At the same time, it also gives a feeling of solidarity and security, everyone keeps an eye on each other in the fight against the invisible enemy. On the street there is a striking amount of eye contact with sometimes a slight eye twinkle as a sign of hope. In my own neighborhood I see that many elderly people in particular no longer wear masks, either because it is uncomfortable or because they are fed up and think it makes no sense, because the danger seems to have passed. Nevertheless, neighborhood committees constantly point out that a mask is desirable and in many places even mandatory.


Harry's temperature gets measured by a neighborhood committee. Photo by author.


How to go further?

As a faculty at Tongji University I started online teaching since early March. Many projects and meetings have been cancelled or are on hold. I hear from colleagues who have previously served their home quarantine that they still prefer to stay indoors. Meetings are held online and business trips are not convenient as one has to be returned to home quarantine upon return in Shanghai.

While the number of patients here in the city has dropped drastically, foreign countries are now seen as a danger of new contamination. For example, this week there was some unrest in Shanghai's Korea town due to returning travelers.


Smart City and Big Data

This crisis will undoubtedly also be seized to accelerate the introduction of new policies. I suspect that the already not so desirable informal street markets will disappear at an accelerated pace. Related to this, unemployment will increase and the gap between rich and poor will widen further.


Smart City technologies, such as the use of drones and robots, tracing via telephone data, facial recognition, etc., will also find their place in Chinese society at an accelerated pace. As a result of the outbreak, everyone in Shanghai (and many other cities) received a personal QR code. This personal health code is under the Alipay app on your phone with your body temperature data and where you have been in the past two weeks, next to your identity data. This code is requested for example when visiting larger city parks, museums, larger restaurants and other places where normally many people come together. The idea is that if a patient is found somewhere, one can quickly trace all contacts. Complemented by the already many cameras hanging everywhere, absolute control is close by.


A body temperature check at a shopping mall. Photo by author.


This gives (at least to me) a rather oppressive feeling, although it might have advantages in the current situation. Walking in the streets of Shanghai sometimes make me feel about the film set of Ridley Scott’s movie ‘Blade Runner’, there’s an invisible enemy and many people are frightened. At the same time I also feel an increased solidarity. Many people started to contact others, partly because of loneliness, partly because they are bored. The pause of the society makes many people rethink about values and relationships, which is very beautiful.


'Walking in the streets of Shanghai sometimes make me feel about the film set of ‘Blade Runner’, there’s an invisible enemy and many people are frightened'

Moment of Reflection Hopefully, the forced stay at home of many people will give us individually a moment of reflection, but also for the society as a whole. We need to rethink the direction and design of our society. I hope this moment won’t last long but long enough to give us all new inspiration and enlightenment. I hope new priorities will be given for the future development of our cities and countries, where economical concerns cannot be leading, although they are important of course. It’s very moving to realise that the almost worldwide solidarity and care for elderly now has been given such an importance.


'I hope this moment won’t last long but long enough to give us all new inspiration and enlightenment'

This drama that started in Wuhan is a hard learning moment for everyone, and an unavoidable call for more international cooperation and open flow of information. The latter applies not only to China, but to all countries.


The fast effective approach in China seems to work for the time being, despite collateral damage and remaining uncertainty about possible new outbreaks. Hopefully, this crisis will help countries and people to unite and quickly reach a consensus on a responsible effective approach to this drama and to be better prepared for possible future dramas, such as climate change, food safety, energy supply, etcetera.

This starts also in the communities where we live in and the responsibilities we take. How we relate to our surrounding society and environment is crucial to overcome this crisis and how we can prepare ourselves for possible other crisis in the future.

This story was shared by Harry den Hartog, an urban designer and critic, and faculty member at Tongji University in Shanghai. This piece is a shortened and adjusted version of a series of four blogs that originally appeared on Dutch website 'De Architect'.

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