Broader Setting and Surroundings
The reaction to COVID-19’s rapid outbreak was felt all over the city. The ingrained fear over a repeat of the SARs crisis was fresh in the mind’s of the Beijing community. Despite cases never exploding here like in Wuhan, the level of caution was as if they had. That fear was legitimate considering of the volume of domestic and international travel through the capital. Multiply this by the annual frenzy of the Spring Holiday travel season. Anticipation of the worst and commitment to a robust social armor against the predator was likely the factor that stemmed the exponential spread from engulfing the city. This holds true for most other Chinese metropolises.
Part 3 of my account in Beijing during the COVID-19 threat expands my scope slightly. Part 1 traces back to the origin of my story waking up in my little apartment and immediate reactions. Part 2 details all the measures exercised by my specific apartment community block (view this for maps of my area). Here, my personal on-the-ground observations can only stretch as far as the 2-3 block radius surrounding the ChangXinYuan (畅心园）complex. Following the wise protocol of social isolation as much as possible, there was never need to venture further. Additionally, it is necessary to lay a groundwork. First, I will give a detailed understanding of the scenario facing China at large when news broke about the virus by explaining the Spring Festival Holiday.
In all likelihood, this will call to mind the realities of the current US response. Although I can only visualize what is going on back home through my resources here and personal accounts from back home, I hope these observations enable further reflection about whatever is the reality in your own community.
Worst Timing Possible
To understand our surroundings in Beijing early in the outbreak, be mindful of the enormous impact in China from a Spring Festival holiday during normal times.
Every year, unless you are at a hometown gathering of an extended family, you find yourself in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world. This was true for me while I lived in Puyang in Henan province and in a suburb of Shanghai.
Let’s call it a post-apocalyptic shutdown mental grooming.
For the most part, the streets of the cities all grind to a halt, most stores and restaurants are emptied, and dark windows are ubiquitous upon the otherwise speckled high-rises. Larger places with a more varied population, like Beijing or Shanghai, aren’t quite as extreme. Many foreigners here, so it’s not so lonely. As the lone outsider in little Puyang, I felt like a ghost walking around in a wasteland of an abandoned civilization some days. Other lonely ghosts I’d encounter likely were missing their little rural hometown gatherings for some reason or were one of the few natives of the city itself.
Contrast this with the warmth and bustle of a Chinese Spring Festival celebration. Last year I observed it firsthand as a guest at Natalie’s hometown gatherings in the Hubei countryside, the same region that is still under lock-down as of this posting. As it follows their lunar calendar, in 2020 the dates were from the New Years Eve on January 24 through February 2. Many still continue to visit, depending on work arrangements, until the Lantern Festival on February 8 or after.
As a teacher, my breaks have always been between about a month or nearly a two months span around this period. That’s unusual for most professions. Looking back, the dead-zone during those long breaks were a primer for this current necessity of isolation. Even after spending a while traveling around during a break, I would find myself with weeks of time to blow with not much else to do other than binge watch TV shows and whatever hobbies I could do. It built character all things considered, from a certain point of view.
During Spring Festival Holiday, a typical Chinese family meets in one of the multitude of rural villages in the countryside. Because of various factors, over the years the population transitioned from living in these rural areas in favor of the tightly packed urban centers. The reasons span from political to economical to environmental. Unfortunately, that same density only heightens outbreak risks. Each year the migration back home is the biggest mass movement of people on Earth. We’re talking about an estimated 2.9 billion individual trips in total. You can see the sobering risk of viral spread because of this shuffling of the deck.
With risk apparent, the normalcy plug pulled last minute. Had they not, a Wuhan-like situation would have gashed dozens of other urban areas. Even so, large numbers made it through before, or despite, the travel controls.
While meeting in these rural areas, an extended family is in especially close proximity with one another. I’ll generalize based on what I know from descriptions throughout the years and my personal experience with Natalie’s family last year.
New Years Eve is most important for getting back to your hometown to be there with your immediate family. Natalie frets over making it back in time or else it’d displease her mother. After this, each day has a scheduled visit, or two, among each different family member’s home. These homes usually occupy roughly the same area. So, imagine a Thanksgiving/Christmas. Instead of all the family gathering at one place on one day, there are several days with all of the family visiting each individual family’s home one after the other. This is often done in a ‘ hierarchical’ order, with the oldest family members hosting first. On your turn to host all the families you visited, or will visit, swamp your home. Consider what a viral outbreak would mean in combination with this process.
The format of Chinese meals lends to the concern. Each of these gatherings feature a plentiful afternoon or evening meal. Eating until stuffed is not recommended because many more will follow. ‘Red Packet’ money gifts are exchanged and the meal begins soon after as the socializing builds momentum. Meals feature dozens of dishes spread on the table, along with individual bowls of rice. It varies by region, with some having a larger emphasis on noodles and dumplings. It is a communal routine sharing meals in China during normal times, but especially so during these family gatherings. Chopsticks are used to pick at the many plates. As a gesture of warmth, people around the table will use their own chopsticks to drop the choicest pieces from the dishes into their neighbor’s rice bowl. Again, consider viral risk. Germ-a-phobes need not apply even in normal times.
Consider the sacrifice it took as a country to drop the pretenses of normalcy and engage with the viral enemy after about a month of foot-dragging. In the US, people could barely stand to give up the comparatively petty and inconsequential St. Paddy’s Day holiday festivities. Tourist dollar-driven festivities in Spain were likely a hotbed for viral spread and experienced their own cover-up before finally shutting down. The Chinese were forced to essentially give up their Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years Eve all in one. Many here, including my fiance, don’t see any of their family members throughout the entire year as they work in the cities. Now this won’t be possible for an entire year longer.
It illustrates not only what the nation was facing the first few weeks of the crisis’s breakout, but also to provide a backdrop for the experience on the streets of Beijing. My guess is that in the initial first two or three weeks Beijing was actually not all that different in some aspects than prior holiday periods. Many people had gone home, some had stayed. Those who stayed were being cautious and limited in their outings. So, all in all it evened out by outward appearances. Beyond that, there were clearly observable changes to the routine in our local neighborhood.
Isolated Holiday Back in Beijing
Although Natalie and I limited our outings as much as we could throughout these past weeks, there was some need to get out of our little box. The first obvious need was our food situation. Our initial stock lasted us, but we topped up at various times as we gauged our needs and assessed our risks. We held off on using the non-perishables in case conditions changed rapidly for the worse and kept up a measured resupply of high volume items. We never had a problem with obtaining whatever we needed at any stage of the response.
Initially, we allowed 2-3 trips to the main supermarket, Bravo, located in the basement levels of an enormous shopping mall called Paradise Walk. Frankly, if we were to be exposed to the viral spread it was here. We could have managed without those trips using our apps, in hindsight. We decided against going here once a case in our little neighborhood radius had appeared.
Entering this shopping mall, temperature checks became required right at the start of the outbreak. In the beginning, the entire mall complex was empty and dark except for the supermarket and a tiny number of shops. It was unsettling to see at first because in China the malls are packed in a way that is reminiscent of the 1980s or 90s in the US when those were the ‘place to be’. Because of the virus, now it seemed like those walk-through videos of dead shopping centers that shut down because of the changing economy.
Another temperature check welcomed you at the Bravo supermarket entrance. Just like outside, 100% of the people were wear masks. On a normal day, the crowds are overwhelming and suffocating. The fruit and veggies section is a unique kind of mayhem. As I can never adjust to that, I let Natalie go off to gather stuff in the crowded aisles while I watch the cart on the side. During our trips early in the outbreak, the crowds were still worrying but not as large as normal times. There were never any panics or empty shelves here, thankfully.
This mall also has a couple Starbucks I would use to stock up on beans, as well as a print shop. One reason Natalie and I had to go out was for various scanning/printing processes to get her fiance visa application completed and submitted. How all of that will go in these coming months is anyone’s guess.
The main stores we frequent are street-side rows of small shops that border the large apartment communities. The design of these little stretches of modest shops hearkens back to the days of small businesses along the local main street. Everything is there that you could need, dotted along a pleasant pedestrian corridor. Each major apartment block community has some variety of this somewhere nearby.
For most of the initial outbreak, these areas were just about dead. All of the restaurants were closed and even now with the city possibly returning to normalcy, they are few and far between. We especially long for the days when we could hit up the vibrant little shaokao (barbacue) joint around the corner, boasting the perfect assortment of dishes we both crave and an especially that succulent vat of quality draft beer. From the look of it now, restaurants that have started to do business must do temperature checks and comply with strict health regulations if functioning. The non-essential shops like hair-stylists, real estate offices, and the foot-massage place (don’t ask) were shut down and only now have just restarted.
The local pharmacy on our street was quite a popular place initially, as is to be expected. We went there for some disinfectant supplies and other items early on. Natalie wasn’t liking the price rises (see footnote 1).
We didn’t buy some alcohol disinfectant when we should have because of those prices, returning later it was gone. We found another method online to buy it, but the stock seemed to replenish with no trouble. The pharmacy took precautions early by setting up a desk to block the entrance so they could take requests from customers without them entering.
The other type of stores that were a reliable source were the various small general stores scattered around. They were often my go-to source for jugs of water. One store in particular, primarily a cigarette store, set up a table in the entrance like the pharmacy. At least one or two small produce stores remained opened intermittently; we tended to choose items with peel-able skins or used in cooking as a precaution.
I noticed following the Spring Festival break that an 8pm curfew seemed to have been established for all the shops in my area. Going out after then is mostly pointless. The exception is a 24 hour convenience store with one lone employee and self-scan registers. Even he is compliant with whatever regulations and does a temp check upon entering.
Incrementally, the surrounding streets have come back to life. That’s true for the foot and vehicle traffic. The precautions, however, are all going strong and I don’t see any indication yet that those will be relaxed. As China appears to be nearing the light at the end of the tunnel, my hope is the guard isn’t let down only to spark another exponential spread. Even if there is, despite the economic sacrifices, I am comfortable to wager that they’ll act again without much hesitation and do what is needed as a society given the commitment they’ve already shown.
Patience and endurance are paramount after all of this, despite all the unknowns and doubt. Even if the punches thrown against the virus are imperfect and far from optimal, each new day can bring increased hope and a steady reassurance that eventually an end will appear in sight. The circumstances I laid out here are just one piece of the puzzle towards that. Whether it works is ultimately to be seen.
March 21, 2020
In the meantime, I have ideas for further posts on here. This is including, but not limited to:
- The continued stories of Natalie and I adapting to what is now approaching 60 days of isolating and all the lessons I can pass on to you all.
- A compilation of short accounts from other ex-pats here and how they’ve handled this situation.
- Idioms and sayings I’ve found myself reverting to for explaining different complex ideas relating to this pandemic. (First time to try a click-bait “You’ll never believe these Top # ….” type post)
- Might not be possible, but I’m considering asking permission from my department and school to let some of my high school students send their own personal messages to you all. I envision a way they could both practice their English while connecting with people in the US, the place where they hope to eventually study.
Footnote 1: Everything was seeing a price rise, because apparently even here in ‘Commie’ China the price seems to fluctuate away from normalcy. The ‘official’ policy tries to prevent price gouging, but this ‘informal’ reality is everywhere. It’s one aspect that American’s don’t quite get about China. I can think of numerous examples of the ‘informal’ reality on the ground having a degree of ‘bend’ no matter the seemingly strict and heavy-handed official policies. Of course certain aspects see heavy handed active enforcement here. Whereas in the US if there’s a policy it is often enforced to the letter. The official policy is likely less intrusive to the letter, but perhaps more intrusive in its enforcement. Hence empty shelves at supermarkets in the US since price isn’t reflecting demand. I’ll likely write a future article about this concept and my observations of ‘informal’ reality here. Just remember that while China has thousands of years of powerful central state bureaucracies, they’ve also had thousands of years of practice getting around that same top-down control in the informal reality.)