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A tour of the silent megacity

The shock of venturing out in Shanghai while almost everyone else remains at home.

Shanghai, China, on April 25.THE NEW YORK TIMES/NYT

The last time I knew such quiet, I was standing in the Gobi Desert. The silence there was so absolute I could hear the sigh of wind and the skittering of sand across the dunes long before it reached me. I could hear every press of a foot into the sand, and the sand would preserve the imprint long after my travel companion and I left.

I never imagined I would experience this level of quiet standing in an intersection in Shanghai, a metropolis of 25 million.

Now, over a month into what was supposed to be a four-day COVID-19 lockdown, Shanghai is still struggling to get back on its feet while most of its residents remain trapped indoors. Since April 11, residential compounds have been grouped into three categories: “locked down,” “controlled,” and “precautionary,” to delineate how long residents must remain in their apartments. Logistics have gone into free fall, resulting in food shortages. Images of nightmarish quarantine centers have emerged. In my own small world, I have become 29-103, my building and apartment number, and have grown accustomed to conversations with friends beginning with assessments of supply levels and how many days we can survive off them.

It’s shocking that it’s come to this, not least because of how well Shanghai’s aggressive contact-tracing efforts worked in the previous two years of the pandemic and how comparatively little they disrupted everyday life.


And yet as April came to a close, I was among the lucky ones. After 22 days of effectively being confined to my apartment, I learned that my compound had maintained a 14-day streak of no positive cases. That meant we were at last officially downgraded to precautionary and we were allowed to step outside. I rushed to don a face mask and grabbed hand sanitizer, my phone, and my keys, filled with hope and excitement. The volunteer manning the gate crinkled his eyes in a smile, and just like that, I left.


I was stopped in my tracks by what I encountered.

Birdsong echoed across barren streets. The only traffic was delivery drivers, police, and supply trucks rolling past to deliver essentials. It was so quiet I could hear the twigs and dead leaves crackling under my feet as I turned to look at what would ordinarily be a congested street. Weeds had overtaken manicured lawns in front of darkened boutique restaurants. Wind whooshed audibly along the street as I walked along leafy Yuyuan Road past barricaded alleyways, huddles of people in hazmat suits, and a few delivery drivers passing food parcels through gaps in compound gates like prison bars.

I walked and didn’t stop until my feet were blistered. I shuddered as I felt the weight of so many eyes from within the compounds watching me as I passed. I couldn’t understand why so few people were out on the streets. Just weeks ago, several areas in nearby districts also had been deemed precautionary. Yet nothing was open, and I was nearly the only person out there.

Why is this happening when more than 15 million people are now deemed to be in precautionary areas like mine? My neighborhood committee has informed us that despite our precautionary status, we need to act as though we are still in lockdown and avoid trips outside. The lock on my compound’s gate sums up the attitude: It is often merely perched there, unlocked, but it is there all the same. If I must leave, I need only ask. However, the lock discourages the asking, and most of my neighbors would rather err on the safe side by staying put, lest they catch the virus while out and set off a new series of quarantine measures. Given the peer pressure to share a negative test result in group chats every day, I certainly can’t blame them.


Regardless, I took the next day off from work, feeling a rush of urgency. The city’s regulations required that as soon as there was a positive case in a compound, another 14-day lockdown would begin. Indeed, many of my friends had watched their 14-day clock start again, day after day, as cases rose with no end in sight. This could be a rare window before I was ordered to go back inside.

The view of a street through the fence of a compound in lockdown in Shanghai on May 1.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

I ventured out farther, eager to see if anything was open. I brought out my bicycle and packed snacks, water, a roll of disinfectant wipes, my phone, keys, hand sanitizer, and some extra masks. Then I pedaled out onto the streets. Colleagues in other Chinese cities, unaware of how shuttered Shanghai had become, told me I ought to find something nice to eat. But no matter where I pedaled, everything was closed. Police tape blocked off parks, sidewalks, and store entrances. Eventually I saw metal crowd-control gates hemming in the sidewalks. The barricades all seemed to convey the same message: “Don’t you dare,” as if we were about to commit a crime. I passed several delivery drivers sleeping in thin tents under a bridge, having been barred from returning to their apartment complexes. I passed by an apartment building with several residents leaning out their windows and arguing with the delivery drivers in PPE below them, seemingly because a female resident needed help. “You good-for-nothing!” one resident yelled down at a driver in exasperation. “What are you arguing with her for?”


I was stopped at a couple of police barricades and asked to show my proof of negative nucleic acid tests to proceed. I pedaled faster until I was rocketing along the empty streets. My city had become unrecognizable. It’s usually so loud, with car horns, conversations, footsteps, shop doors opening and closing, woks sizzling, and the bustle of millions making their ways through life. Take it all away and the city is as quiet as the shifting desert sands.

And just as each sound is amplified in the silence of the desert, so is each outcry in a locked-down city. A widely shared video called “Voices of April” is filled with stern government messages, chilling sound bites from those sent to centralized quarantine, and the voices of locked-down people chanting for supplies and banging pots and pans as they faced starvation in one of the richest cities in the world. It appeared in a couple of iterations until government censors made it disappear. A friend of mine reposted it on six different channels in a single day on the ubiquitous social media platform WeChat. The anger in each repost, in the sheer volume of shares, is deafening.


Residential units in Shanghai on April 29.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

As May began, a trickle of people began venturing outside. But I am overcome by how much is still shuttered. Walking alongside plastic bags floating like tumbleweeds, I realize that most residential compounds I pass are still filled with people unsure of when they can leave. Some with young children. Some with elderly residents in need of medical care. Some with expats or those from other provinces who may now always think of Shanghai as the locked-down city.

Shanghai has already begun redefining what “zero COVID” ought to mean for the megacity. It’s now aiming for what it calls “societal zero COVID.” One announcement mentioned “basically zero COVID.” But whatever version of “zero” officials settle on, the current lockdown may not be the last.

The view from the streets is clear. It’s going to take more than the lockdowns ending for this city to heal.

For now, all I can hope is that this silence does not endure much longer.

Hannah Lund is a writer and translator based in Shanghai.