Yuki Jiang works as a consultant at a multinational in Shanghai. But during the city’s harsh lockdown, she took on a second, more crucial job: running a chat group to bulk-order frozen dumplings, chicken wings, and fried rice for her neighbors.

Since April 1, when the government locked down the entire city to control a rising Omicron wave, it has struggled to provide essentials to its 26 million confined residents. Supplies have been unevenly distributed, and delivery apps overwhelmed. Desperate calls for food and medicine have filled social media. And where traditional supply lines have failed, a citywide group-buying network of group chats has emerged, dedicated to procuring every commodity from vegetables to cat food.

“There is no one else we can rely on,” a 27-year-old designer in Shanghai, who declined to give her full name, due to security fears, told Rest of World. On Thursday, she initiated a chat, ordering 252 cartons of oat milk for some 30 households. “We could only bet on these groups.” 

The Chinese government has been trying to eliminate Covid-19 infections in the country at all costs. When new clusters emerge, entire districts or cities are put into harsh lockdowns, causing food shortages and patients, including those with illnesses other than Covid-19, to be denied treatment.

Limited numbers of couriers on the streets mean that delivery apps like Meituan and Alibaba are struggling to fulfill orders. Groups on the popular messaging service WeChat are trying to solve the problem by combining individual requests into one giant order to serve a building or even a whole neighborhood. Each group chat focuses either on orders from a particular store or for an individual item: there are groups for everything from eggs, fruit, and milk to pet food, coffee, and Coke, Shanghai residents told Rest of World. Members will also individually trade goods like diapers and soy sauce. Shared spreadsheets have sprung up to collect orders for whole neighborhoods and direct buyers to the correct groups. The guards at the entrances of each neighborhood, there to ensure that nobody enters or exits, sometimes deliver the goods to apartment doors themselves.

The shortages seemingly affect everyone: Kathy Xu, a billionaire venture capitalist who invested in grocery businesses, including Meituan and Dingdong Maicai, was seen asking to join a chat group for bread and milk, according to a viral WeChat screenshot

Jiang had barely interacted with her neighbors before this week, when she created a WeChat group for her Baoshan residential complex, to spread the word that a local store was running frozen food deliveries. Orders flooded in, and, over the past week, she channeled supplies to some 130 households, sorting packages past midnight with her twin sister. 

On Friday, when Huang Jinxing, a 32-year-old delivery worker, happened upon a convenience store well stocked with sliced bread, his entrepreneurial instinct kicked in. He posted videos of the piles of bread in a community chat room and quickly sold more than 50 bags at a premium of $7.90 per delivery. In the group, a buyer volunteered to help coordinate all the orders.

“People are starving,” Huang told Rest of World. As a delivery worker, Huang was allowed to move around the city but banned from entering his own residence. He has been sleeping in underpasses in a sleeping bag. “I’m just making money here.” 

A screenshot from WeChat showing residents in lockdown bartering items

Huang isn’t the only one who spotted that opportunity. Zhang Pengfei, 25, who sold souvenirs from the Beijing Winter Olympics before the lockdown, quickly pivoted: he set up a grocery-buying business with a group of friends this week. One of them hired 20 trucks, while another was an expert in sourcing vegetables. They advertised on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and, over Wednesday and Thursday, sent out some 13,000 packs of groceries, full of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. The minimum number of orders was 30 per neighborhood.

This solution isn’t necessarily a new one. Spontaneous group buying took off in Wuhan, China’s first Covid-19 epicenter, when it locked down in the early months of 2020. The movement prompted China’s big tech companies, like Alibaba, Pinduoduo, and Meituan, to start their own grocery group-buying businesses. Two years later, many players have been squeezed out by a fierce price war and intensifying regulatory scrutiny. 

In Shanghai, however, the lockdown hasn’t tamped down the virus’ spread. On Friday, the city announced a record 21,000 new cases, and authorities, determined to bring the number to zero, have indefinitely extended restrictions. On Friday, e-commerce companies, including Alibaba, Pinduoduo, and JD.com said they would deploy more workers to expand grocery delivery services in Shanghai. 

While group buying is effective for some in the short term, it is far from an ideal way for people to survive the lockdown. Participants also told Rest of World that ordering food from these chaotic groups carries a lot of risk. There have been instances of scams and groups taking time to finalize and put together an order — only for suppliers to turn the order down. And fresh food can spoil along the way if distributors run into a literal roadblock while navigating closed-off neighborhoods to reach their delivery destination.

Navigating the groups also can be a challenge for those not proficient in digital technology, including some older residents and migrant workers. And not everything can be purchased in large quantities. On the microblogging site Weibo, people are posting desperate calls for help, asking where they can get baby formula, cancer drugs, and insulin.

Jiang, the group-buying organizer, said she received duck meat and hand cream from her neighbors as thank-you gifts –– people would exchange goods by leaving bags in the elevator lobby. While she felt supported and loved by her neighbors, Jiang said, group buying had been an exhausting and time-consuming process. “No one has told us when the lockdown will be done, that’s why we are panicking and stocking up,” she said. “It seems there’s no end to this.”