Courtesy of Getty Images

This is what it’s like to live under a coronavirus lockdown

Heather Mowbray has lived in Beijing since 2006. Writing from inside the lockdown, she describes how COVID-19 has changed the city.

I don’t care if you’re foreign or Chinese. When you’ve finished eating, put your mask back on.” The waiter was agitated. It was 15th February, a few days after the extended Chinese New Year holiday had officially ended and people were testing the waters by meeting in public. The most popular shopping centre in Beijing was just 20 per cent open, and this was the only café with its lights on. The place was packed.

We sat down to wait for our orders of sushi bowls and carrot cake. People were chatting, working on their laptops and browsing their phones. It felt like an age ago that this would have been a normal Saturday. Yet just a few weeks earlier, an epidemic-crazed waiter shouting at people would have been unthinkable. Now everyone put their precious face masks back on. 

Being told to put your mask on happens a lot these days. Demand for them has rocketed, and to get a reasonable price, you need to use an ID. People are limited to three each, that is, if there are any in stock. China is the world’s largest face mask producer, but with masks life-saving in the epidemic zone, it isn’t surprising that supply elsewhere is low. 

The pharmacy on Dongsi Shisantiao had a long queue outside at 9.30am last Thursday. A shopkeeper in the kiosk next door is from Anhui province. From behind his mask, he warns me it only takes 15 seconds to get infected. On his door, he has four different strips of cardboard, some seemingly written by kids, Please wear a mask before stepping inside.” But mostly, you want to keep it on. It wouldn’t be socially acceptable to do anything else right now. 

At the time of writing, COVID-19 has claimed over 3,000 lives and infected nearly 90,000 people. Since the outbreak began in Wuhan, over a thousand kilometres away, Beijing has been on high alert. Daxing International Airport, the world’s largest terminal, only opened in September, just in time for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. On 10th February, as friends flew back from Kuala Lumpur after a longer-than-planned holiday, their flight was the only arrival on the board. Containment efforts have been impressive, but nonetheless, the virus has since snuck its way into 50 other countries, and according to the WHO, will spread further. With a mortality rate of somewhere between 0.5 per cent and 3 per cent, public health organisations worldwide are reaching for their emergency drills.

  • We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”  We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.” 

Day to day I work as a translator and editor, and I often come into contact with journalists. Two months into the outbreak and in Beijing, reporters are bored. They can’t travel to Hubei for fear they’ll never leave, or if they do, they’ll be quarantined again. If fact, leaving Beijing for anywhere and returning means you have to spend the next 14 days quarantined at home. At one of the few bars open on 28th February, three press photographers were talking about work these past weeks. I’ve shot homeschooled kids and queues at supermarkets in which everyone has to keep one metre distance, I’ve done temperature check poses and close-ups of guards in white hazmat suits. What’s left?”. Another complained, I’ve had just four days’ work in a month, but can’t go anywhere more exciting.” 

Others have been threatened. One reporter was accosted by thugs after talking to a mother and her boy studying outside in the old hutong allies of central Beijing with his laptop, We walked out of the hutongs with these three men following us closely the whole way. The men blocked us, grabbed us, yelled at us, wouldn’t allow us into the subway station,” she said. It scared her colleague. Getting vox pops for international news items has been getting more and more difficult ever since Xi Jinping became President in 2012. But in times of crisis, the inclination to keep quiet is much stronger. 

Perhaps it’s understandable that locals don’t want too much press reporting on what’s happening in China. Social media is awash with cartoons swapping out the stars of the Chinese flag with the coronavirus, or showing the revered leader Chairman Mao in a face mask. It’s a little too soon, in the mind of Beijing-based designer H. Yu. I love satirical works, but is it right to make cartoons when one nation (and now the world) is suffering? Yes, making a satire of a virus that’s happening to China might seem like a fun thing to do … but it’ll just cause more prejudice about China and that leads to more and more discrimination against us … We are all human beings and there is no race, culture, national difference when it comes to a disease like this.”

H. Yu.

The reporter wouldn’t have even been allowed into the block now. On 16th February, I returned home to find our usual entrance to the block barred. At the new checkpoint, we had to fill out forms to get entry/​exit passes to our own street. Now we have to carry two cards with us to travel the 950 metres from home to office. And we can’t forget our face masks, or we’ll be sent home. On the first night of this tightening up of travel restrictions, I felt like we lived in a ghetto. It was eerily quiet outside. But we soon got used to it. The almost car-free streets are a blessing for our puppy, normally scared of the sound of motors, and as the checkpoints are run by local residents, most people take it in good spirits. There are outliers though. For the first time yesterday, queuing to reenter the block, I saw a guy push off a volunteer who was trying to take his temperature. I’ve already shown you my entry card. What more do you need from me?” I heard him say as he walked off into the hutongs. 

Beijing is a massive city of 25 million. Now the streets are nearly empty. I arrived in China in 2006 as the city prepared to fulfil its promise as a clean, open and developed Olympic city, I’ve witnessed the authorities tightening up on many things – social media, gay rights, migrant residents, foreigners working on the wrong visa. The hutongs used to be messy and chaotic: charming to visit and to settle down in. Since 2016, the street fronts have been renovated and standardised. Hole-in-the-wall shops have been bricked over, and their residents sent back to the countryside. 

At huge expense, all the public toilets have been redeveloped too. Many hutong homes don’t have sewage pipes, so these exist every few hundred metres, and it’s not unusual to see someone squatting while reading the morning paper. Seen as extensions of people’s homes, in the past, the hygiene level in these toilets has been variable to say the least. A sanitised Beijing is now seeing what it means to impose public health restrictions on life here too. 

It’s not all bad. Temperatures are taken at every office building or block, shopping mall and residential compound. Even at the smallest grocery store, someone will be stationed at the door to take your temperature. They are always polite. In fact, where the service sector used to be populated by gruff people, now the eye contact and conversations appear softer. You’re meant to stay at least a metre away from each other, so at the bank, there are queues outside of people waiting to enter. Beijing is a city of small dogs, and their walkers are more social these days. Some have even fashioned face masks for their pets. Since the lockdown, we’ve come to recognise the volunteers at the street blockade on our street, they look out for our deliveries and know where we’re from – chitchat we’d never had before. 

At a local office building, the guards wield the power of entry and detention with their plastic temperature guns. Forehead or forearm?” they ask. Mine always comes back too cold, but then again it is still early March. One vacant office in the building has been turned into the emergency high temperature room. A flowchart describes what would happen if someone came to work with anything above 37.3 degree temperature. The temperature guns are pretty inaccurate, but that doesn’t stop businesses using them as a definitive marker of health. The lower the better. Pizza Saporita’s takeaways came with a makeshift slip taped to the box recording everyone’s temperature – oven guy: 35.8, pizza handler: 34.4, delivery guy: 35.6, oddly intimate details for the normally alienated practice of food delivery.

At first some restaurants stayed open. People were trying to go about business as usual, but now the lockdown is proving extremely debilitating to business. From 300 bars in the Gulou area, only around 20 reopened after Chinese New Year. Andrea has been a Beijing resident for ten years, and opened his wine bar less than a year ago. When Beijing was meant to be returning to work after the New Year, he applied to reopen the bar. We did as we were told, stocking sanitiser and keeping customer flow down,” he explained. Less than a week later, a new order from the community service came out, telling him to close again because his bar was behind a street barrier and in an office compound. As no one could reach the bar anyway, what was the point, they told him.

Hui works at Lava Beijing, a graphic design company, and took the last bus from his hometown before it was locked down on 9th February. He flew from Guangzhou to Beijing so he could start work the next day. I remember SARS as a school kid. Our kitchen smelled strongly of vinegar – a homemade disinfectant. During SARS, getting to my hometown was not that convenient – it was quite small so no one really came. This time we’ve had 19 cases of coronavirus.” He’s happy to get stuck into his work. Now I’m in Beijing it feels less serious than in Guangdong. When I was back at my parents’ I didn’t leave the house for weeks except to get some fresh air on the roof. I was terrified. In Beijing I’m meeting people and feel a bit more calm. And we know more about the disease.” This helps. He uses an app called Dingxiang Doctor to stay informed, as Weibo (a kind of Facebook) is full of rumours, Hui had to quit reading it to stay sane.

Beijing-based designer H. Yu is trapped in the trading city of Wenzhou. He’s been spending time with his mum, which he hasn’t been able to do for the six years he studied in the Netherlands. He’s also been on his phone a lot. The first thing I do when I wake up is check the latest infected cases number. My family watches China Central TV and when I check my social media, I see all kinds of news on it. I am pretty involved with this virus. It’s made me think about death a lot more.” But his energy level is on a low ebb. Lazy is a big word, but I get inspiration when I am able to see, observe and explore. Staying at home doesn’t help.”

Back in 2003 when SARS broke out, it kickstarted Chinese e‑commerce. Alibaba, the world’s biggest trading platform, went into quarantine after one member of staff got sick at the Canton Trade Fair. The company used this period to launch Taobao, the massively popular eBay of China. On its first day, Taobao’s homepage was emblazoned with the tagline, to those who start ventures in tough times”. The company commemorates its rocky and lucky beginnings every year. Unlike SARS, this epidemic has not been good for demand, online or otherwise. There aren’t enough delivery scooters on the streets as drivers have found it hard to return to work, and besides, no one is interested in having contact with strangers, so aren’t ordering much any more.

  • Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”  Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.” 

At one of the street checkpoints, now with a disaster relief tent set up for night shifts, Ilya from a Chinese language school called Culture Yard walks by in mask and glasses. How are you, I ask? A bit fed up of trying a new business model every week,” he says. Some businesses have been trying to go on as usual under the lockdown – switching their offerings from IRL to online – but most of these innovations don’t bring in any money. 

Our pilates instructor, under quarantine after a trip to Indonesia, has offered his first online class on Zoom, attended by five of his regular students, but so far classes are in pilot mode. 

Marco, a drama teacher in Beijing, now meets his students online from wherever they went for Chinese New Year. Most of them are in lockdown across China. They don’t seem to ever leave the house, he told me. I use a platform called BUKA, which allows me to have one on one sessions.” 

Despite the difficulties that online-only lessons have thrown up, Marco is impressed with how the Chinese people around him are handling everything. As he explains, I have to say that my impression in general is that everyone here has been very resilient. If there is an emergency, no one complains as a group; they just get on with it to keep safe.” He contrasts Beijingers to those back in his hometown in northern Italy where people are always ready to point the finger. There is lots of news of attacks on the Chinese community.” This is despite the fact that the virus was not spread by anyone Chinese, but probably by a businessman in contact with someone coming back from China. Marco wrote on his WeChat moments, It’s sad to see how the entire world is reacting to the first international health problem of the global social era. To me it looks more like an emotional sneeze, something almost like an uncontrollable reaction. Empathy doesn’t seem to be a key element of being social anymore.”

This virus outbreak has given Beijingers reason to change gear from the fast pace of development of the last few decades, and reflect on where we’ve landed. Those working from home are happy to have time to cook and spend (excessive) quality time with their kids and partners, discover new ways to connect over board games or chat with security guards and checkpoint volunteers. 

Being under lockdown in Beijing feels like prepping for war, something my generation of Europeans has fortunately never had to do for real. And this coronavirus, hitting Wuhan far from here the hardest, feels like preparing for an epidemic of much more drastic dimensions. Limiting physical interactions has shown just how important community is, and almost across the board, Beijing has shown its best side. Now I’m just looking forward to all my stranded friends returning, so we can all have a huge street party once this is over.


Loading...
00:00 / 00:00