‘Too smelly to sleep’: Thirteen days in an isolation center in Shanghai.


The fluorescent lights were twinkling, but she tried to rest. She woke up the next morning to find that her hall was suddenly filled with people.

There was no running water tap and no showers, Ms. Cheng said, so every day she and others crowded around several freshwater machines, waiting to fill the pink plastic sinks they had been given. The portable toilet boxes soon filled with so much human waste that Ms. Cheng said she stopped drinking water for several days so she wouldn’t have to use them as often.

Even if someone had figured out how to turn off the floodlights, Ms. Cheng said, it would still be difficult to sleep at night. That was when people shouted out their complaints and let off steam.

“A lot of people were complaining and some people were screaming that it smelled too bad to sleep,” she said.

Concerned about upsetting her mother, Ms. Cheng did not tell her she was in a fangcang. Instead, she said she couldn’t make video calls and gave her mother vague answers about everyday life in quarantine. A woman sleeping in a bed nearby did the same when she spoke to her daughter. The two women shared a smile when they discovered they had the same secret.

Ms. Cheng said she struggled to cope with a quarantine system that reduced her to a number. If she wanted something, she had to find a nurse or doctor assigned to her zone. But the nurses and doctors were so busy it was difficult to get help, she said.

Ms Cheng said she had once admired the government’s goal of keeping the virus out of China. It meant she could live a normal life for more than two years, even though cities and countries around the world had to be locked down.

Now she’s not so sure.

“This time I feel like it’s getting out of hand and it’s not worth checking things out because it’s not that dangerous or deadly,” she said, referring to the highly contagious Omicron variant. “It’s not worth sacrificing so many resources and our freedom.”

Joy Dong and Li You research contributed.

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