South African in Shanghai: From Cape Town’s Water Crisis to China’s Coronavirus

By Anique Kruger

Cape Town Water Crisis déjà vu floods over me as I step into Shanghai’s Pingwu Road and see the long line of people outside the pharmacy. We’re eight days into our self-imposed Coronavirus quarantine and my husband and I have finally decided to leave the apartment… writes Anique Kruger who has been living and teaching in China for one year.

south africans shanghai china on the coronavirus
This is a hand gesture typically used by young Chinese people. The thumb and forefinger are arranged to look like a heart. South African expat Anique Kruger and husband Bryce have been living in Shanghai for one year. They’re now making the most of a self-imposed Coronavirus quarantine. Photos supplied.

Our concerned Chinese teacher has tipped us off about this pharmacy receiving a delivery of medical masks at 4pm. Our mission: get in on some of that action. But as we scope the length of the line, the irony of standing in a queue to buy medical masks without the protection of a medical mask is not lost on either of us. We turn around and walk straight home.

I think about the way that Capetonians panicked when Day Zero first started looking like it might actually happen. The throngs of people mobbing the delivery vans outside Pick n Pay at 6am to get their hands on some 5 litre bottles. The sudden rush on JoJo tanks and the conspicuous absence of wet wipes on the shelves.

But after that initial panic, we all adjusted to the “new normal”. I remember arriving at my cousin’s place for drinks to be greeted at the door by a strange smell and her breezy announcement that, “We’re letting it mellow…”

In the same way, expats in Shanghai are recalibrating their social interactions. People are still trying to figure out the polite way to find out if their friends are at all keen to meet for coffee. How do you save face and say “no” without looking like some kind of deranged survivalist holed up in his bunker with a shotgun and a year’s supply of canned peaches? At least, this is what I ask myself every time I suggest that a virtual coffee date via WeChat (China’s primary social media and messaging app) might be a healthy alternative to a rendezvous at Starbucks or Wagas.

Hubby and I are teachers, which means we have the luxury of being able to stay-in and work from home. This is probably what would have happened during the Water Crisis if the taps had really run dry. (Except for the fact that you can’t count on South African kids having a stable enough internet connection to support online learning). But, for the monied International School Kids in China, e-learning is already in full swing (since 3 February).

It’s actually been pretty cushy so far. We get to sleep a little later and don’t have to cycle to and from school when it’s 4 degrees outside. Plus, as an ultra-modern megacity, Shanghai is held up on the backbone of an army of delivery guys on electric bikes who will bring your groceries to your door. I don’t want to make light of a serious situation, but even in China privilege is protection. We literally never have to leave the apartment. Since our failed mask-acquisition adventure, I haven’t. That’s 17 days and counting.

I’ve been reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year / Written by a Citizen Who Continued All the While in London (published in 1722), and I’m finding it simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Every time I say something like, “Well, at least they’re not locking infected families in their apartments to die”, or “At least they’re not posting guards outside to limit our movements”, I’ll check the news only to find out that scarily similar things are happening in the more hard-hit cities.

south africans shanghai china on the coronavirus
Anique and Bryce wishing the family Happy New Year. Year of the Rat.

Every day the restrictions do get tighter. The delivery guys aren’t allowed to take the elevator to our door anymore, but have to leave the groceries at the guard house. Yesterday the census guys knocked on our door to ask if we’d been to Wuhan, and this morning when Hubby went down to collect the groceries, he had to have his temperature checked with one of those forehead censor thingies that you see in all the news reports. Plus, shops have started to limit the number of frozen dumplings you’re allowed to order in one go!

Maybe I should start getting as worried as my mom back in Cape Town is…

A week ago my best friend and I were talking about how we’re going to stick it out and stay in Shanghai for the sake of our jobs. This morning she released her pet turtle in the park and caught a plane back to the UK.

It’s ok, I tell myself. We’re South Africans. We’re resilient. We’ve weathered the storm before. And I think of the cheerful camaraderie of the lines at Newlands where we used to wait to fill our 25 litre bottles with spring water – South Africans from all walks of life, brought together in a time of trial.

At least we weren’t afraid of each other.

武汉加油, 中国加油! Stay strong, Wuhan! Stay strong, China!

By Anique Kruger

Anique Kruger and her husband Bryce have been living in Shanghai, China, for one year. It’s about 800km from Wuhan, the centre of the new Coronavirus outbreak, roughly the distance from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. The Chinese government has recommended that everyone go into a 14-day self-monitored quarantine from 3 February to 17 February (this included taking your own temperature twice a day). The focus is however in keeping the city itself quarantined – so no one coming in from Wuhan or going out. People in Shanghai are not being forced to stay in their apartments, but “I guess we just feel safer staying in”.

Anique and Bryce still have no medical mask. “There are NO masks. None! Nada! I did try to order, but even the non-medical ones are sold out everywhere. People say that the government is distributing them fairly. I might have better luck if I could read and speak Chinese.” According to this morning’s stats, Shanghai has less than 400 cases of the new Coronavirus, and at least a quarter have recovered.

south africans shanghai china on the coronavirus
Anique: “Finally, we were able to find some masques… unfortunately not the medical kind. Madness takes its toll.”

Right now Anique’s staying put: “My husband and I haven’t really talked seriously about going home. Our jobs are here, and it feels more dangerous going to the airport and then spending 24 hours on a plane, than staying in our nice safe apartment.”

During her quarantine she is keeping fit by doing Popsugar online workouts each morning, and “staring out the window more than I normally would”.

Anique is also having her fun with her video lessons, which all end with a bit of advice from her mascot Confucius on how to survive the virus… here’s one (“The kids are between 14-18, so irony is the only option!”)

WATCH One Saffa’s Attempt to Survive the Coronavirus in China