COVID-19 appears to have passed its peak in China, more than two months after it took over global headlines. But life remains far from normal in the Chinese capital Beijing.
Also published in the Bangkok Post:
15 Feb 2020: Surreal Stillness
It is one day after the Chinese government imposed a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all returnees to Beijing. Flying into Beijing Capital International Airport, I was struck by the stillness of the scene.
From the aerial view, it felt as if the plug had been pulled on the metropolis of nearly 20 million. Roads, usually teeming with cars, were next to empty. On streets similarly bereft of traffic, neon facades glow rhythmically. At the airport, planes that were lined up neatly in rows, with nowhere to go, resembled miniature toys. It was surreal.
My plane taxis to a stop and passengers, universally masked, prepare to disembark. Many put on gloves. A few have self-fashioned protective wear involving sun hats and clip-on plastic sheets. Everyone seems pretty used to the drill; people put on their garb clinically and efficiently.
The plane doors open and we step off the plane. For the first time ever, there are no queues in the immigration hall. I cruise through the behemoth that is Terminal 3 and get to the luggage belts in minutes. By the time I get there, the bags are already spinning around the baggage carousel. This is nothing like the China I know.
I had read the official announcement that all returnees were required to report ahead to their community committees, but was unsure of what to expect. Arriving at my apartment block, a community committee staffer was at the gate, monitoring residents’ entry and exit. Since Beijing implemented “closed community management” two weeks ago, only residents with a pass were allowed in or out of residential compounds. I registered myself with apartment security and was directed to scan a QR code to fill in a health and travel history declaration. Everything done in two minutes, and off you go. Not bad at all.
16 Feb: Staying Sane and Safe
Indeed, the situation is grim. But there is no atmosphere of fear or mayhem gripping the population. At least, not in Beijing.
For observers from the outside world, the scripted and officious announcements from the Chinese government do little for the impression that information is found wanting in the country. But characteristic of a society that thrives on guanxi (personal connections), the real information sharing takes place among strictly closed communities of both friends and acquaintances through informal channels, in this case, WeChat (China’s go-to messaging app) and social media.
In the outbreak’s early days, when information was sparse and halting, the expat community in Beijing was fast to rally through WeChat, building a group to share verified news around the outbreak (amid the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation) and anecdotal advice — from where to buy masks and alcohol sanitisers, to whether parks and restaurants are open — for navigating the Covid-19 outbreak in everyday life. This support network, numbering over 3,000 at the time of writing, has been crucial for keeping foreigners, many with limited command of Chinese, sane and safe in Beijing.
I was lucky in the sense that my residential compound did not forbid me from leaving my house during my self-quarantine days. I could still collect deliveries from the gate and get fresh air, as long as I did not leave the compound grounds.
17 Feb: Time to Cook!
I have started to stockpile groceries and cook all my meals. It is just too much of a chore to trek down to the
compound gate to collect every single thing you order. Every trip outside also triggers this disinfection ceremony of washing hands and wiping down the doorknob, mobile phone and any other surfaces I might have touched. I suddenly realise how spoilt we have all become in China, with the almighty waimai (takeout delivery) and kuaidi (courier).
21 Feb: No Schools
International schools, which were originally set to open on Feb 3, are now in their third week of online learning. Some schools have stepped up with live online lessons, or scheduled check-ins on students. Others are uploading learning resources, leaving parents to facilitate learning on their own. There is no indication of when schools could restart.
23 Feb: Positive News
For the first time since daily reporting began on Jan 21, Beijing reported no new infections over a 24-hour period. The number of discharged patients also outpaced the newly admitted for the tenth consecutive day. This is positive news for everybody.
These days, the number of people buying groceries and walking their dogs outside has visibly increased. I actually run into humans in the lift, on my daily grocery run downstairs. But we stand as far apart as possible from one another. I see from pictures shared in the group that some apartments have grids marked out in the lifts like human tic-tac-toe, to ensure some distance among lift passengers. People press lift buttons with gloves or use makeshift instruments like keys or ballpoint pens.
There are signs of the city coming back to life, albeit slowly. Restaurants are gradually reopening, though restrictions remain on the number of diners allowed at one time.
24 Feb: The Heat’s Off China
Covid-19 infections have spiked in South Korea, Italy and Japan. Infection numbers there are higher than 13 provinces in China. For the first time since the outbreak, the heat is off China, maybe just a little bit.
28 Feb: Eating Out, Soon?
While in self-quarantine, I have become very skilled at cooking one-pot meals and permutating rice bowl combinations. There has been some good to come out of this.
Through WeChat, parents are sharing ideas for keeping children entertained at home.
The past few days had seen new infections in Beijing, but that has not killed the lightly optimistic mood. So many businesses are just raring to go; small and medium enterprises cannot afford to stay idle for much longer. And might as well; after 14 days indoors, we are looking forward to a meal outside as well.
29 Feb: End of Self-Quarantine
I visit the community committee office to get a certificate of proof that I have completed the self-quarantine. They verify the online health declaration that I filled out on their records. Everything is in place. Next, I walk to the estate management office of my home compound to show them the certificate, get my entry-exit pass. The whole process takes 10 minutes. The first activity we engaged in when we were finally out of quarantine was extremely mundane — we walked to the park square one block away and flew a kite. Spring is always the most pleasant time of the year in Beijing, and it is too much of a waste not to enjoy the blue skies while they last. Many people shared the same thoughts, as we see from the many families, skateboarders and rollerbladers at the square. It was almost like any other day, but the masks everyone kept on are reminders of the reality still around us. There is cautious optimism in the air, but a return to normalcy may be days away yet.
*Beijing-based Shin Lin is seven parts coffee entrepreneur and three parts writer-designer.