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  • Writer's pictureShanghai Expat Association

Inside the hazmat suit: “I am invisible but exposed.“

by Julia Henningsen

Many of Shanghai’s 26 million people are still in lockdown. Starting April 1st, for weeks, the only contact to the outside world were encounters with medical workers in hazmat suits. They are joined by numerous volunteers that help with the massive rounds of nucleic acid testing as part of "grid screening" across the city.

Theresa Fei, an SEA Board Member has been volunteering as a dabai 大白 (meaning 'big white'), a nickname for medical staff, community workers, and volunteers in white protective suits who work on the frontline.

Theresa Fei volunteering as 'dabai' during Shanghai’s lockdown in her neighborhood in Hongqiao area. Photo courtesy of Theresa Fei.

1. Were you approached to volunteer or where did you hear about the opportunity?

The meaning of volunteer to Chinese is very different from what we understand. Normally, most of the core volunteers were requested. They feel proud to be called. Another layer of volunteers are the board members in the homeowners association. Most of the residents would think, that’s their job. The next layer of volunteers were residents in the compound who stepped up because they saw the posters in each community bulletin board. I manage the compound where I live, so I volunteered myself.

2. Tell us a bit more about the volunteer work of the dabai.

I have been volunteering since March 18 and I am still going. Typical tasks include delivering goods, explaining how to conduct the self-tests, carrying out Covid-19 tests for residents and setting up checkpoints around residential compounds.

I am the only volunteer in the compound to do face to face service, liaison between residents and the handyman, staff and security to deliver food and kuaidi (non-food deliveries). A lot of times, I need to be at the gate to help find items when the workers could not find what the residents ordered. What we learned: the best way to identify [packages] is by the price of the order. But once it starts raining and the packages and receipts are soaked, it becomes a real challenge.

Now, the main job involves group purchase, application of exit permits and arranging transportation, and getting PCR tests done with prompt reports. Tasks are different.

Theresa and a fellow 'dabai' dressed in white personal protective equipment (PPE) distributing antigen test kits in the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Theresa Fei.

3. Many of us know the tense feeling when opening the door and seeing hazmat suits in front of us. Tell us how it feels to be on the other side of the door; how does it feel to put on the hazmat suit?

It took me less than a minute to put it on, which surprised the trainer. You also have to put on a face shield, a face mask and gloves which are separate. But you need to realize you cannot see or hear very clear. Also, it gets very hot inside, I respect those people who have to wear the gear all day long. Because you are fully covered up, you feel invisible as a person, isolated and exposed at the same time. Emotionally, I do not worry as our compound has had no positive cases. But for the workers that expose themselves to positive cases the hazmat suit is the only thing protecting them and their close contacts.

When people see hazmat suits it usually means bad news: there is an emergency or an outbreak, so initial reaction is tense. When we came knocking at doors, I sensed faces and body language soon changed to relief. So instead of condemning hazmat suits, [remember] after all, they protect volunteers.

4. We all know the perspective of taking a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test – what are the things that happen “on the other side of the table“ that keep you busy?

Volunteers need to have the same flexibility that has been asked from anybody else: most of the decisions are made at midnight, therefore, volunteers get notice around 4 or 5 AM in the morning. Because of that, I was not able to sleep well the days I was volunteering.

We know residents complain and are tired when we call them for PCR tests at 7:00 AM. Many of the medical staff meet at gathering spots even earlier, sometimes at 1:30 AM and are on their feet for many hours or did not sleep at all. Also keep in mind the volunteers cannot drink, eat, or use the toilet while wearing the suit.

Volunteers in their hazmat suits get tested before their workday in Shanghai Hongqiao area. Photo courtesy of Theresa Fei.

5. What will always stick with you remembering this episode?

Rather than a sentence like the ones we call the residents out with or explain the tests, I would offer a delicious dish:

蛤蜊炖蛋 (gé lí dùn dàn) which describes ‘steamed egg with clams‘ and also translates as 隔离等待 (gé lí děng dai) translating into 'await in home quarantine status' in Shanghainese (literally 蛤 gé 蜊lí = clam 炖dùn = stew 蛋dàn = egg) and 隔gé离lí =keep apart, separate 等děng待dai =wait for).

6. What was the most intense, most funny, or most remarkable thing that happened during the volunteering?

The day I was distributing the antigen test kits to the residents, my husband heard me explaining how to use the test kits and thought ,“This dabai can speak English. Why would they need to recruit bilingual volunteers?“

The same day, when I knocked on my own door, my mother-in-law told me “My son and his wife both went out to work, please come back later.“ We were all so amused.

During the volunteer work, I witness so much witty humor and compassionate generosity and new resourceful connections. People in our compound donate food to strangers – and as they do not want to boast about it, they do it anonymously, such a remarkable gesture. I also observed a volunteer cheering others up after a shift that completely exhausted all his mental and emotional resources, I think we all mobilized this kind of strength we did not even know we had in us.

Group of volunteers after they conducted a PCR-test in their Shanghai neighborhood as part of the city-wide screening. Photo courtesy of Theresa Fei.

About the author:

Julia Henningsen has lived in Shanghai with her husband and two daughters since 2020. She is a member of the German Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of Communication at SEA. She co-authored the calendar "The Famous Die Young". She wrote "China's high-tech victory over Covid-19: opportunities for a new normal" in the second edition of the book "China in the spotlight of the 21st century." by Tobias Loitsch. Her current publication “Sleepless in Shanghai. 48 hours with no limits“ was published in the German magazine “China im Blickpunkt“. She reports on her life in Shanghai on Instagram as juliantoni.

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