Life in Beijing During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic: Return Part 1

109 Days and Counting

Finally Getting Back to Work

In recent weeks there has been a gradual effort to get society back to being functional. It isn’t exactly accurate to label it as a return to normalcy, since the tried and true procedures largely remain strongly practiced. While there have been some changes, most of the NPI/PPE efforts outlined in prior posts remain relatively the same. The difference is that since about early April the slow return continued to gain momentum. Now shops, restaurants, malls, transit, and so on are nearing original levels of activity. It was in this setting a few weeks ago that the schools in Beijing were given the green light to begin preparing for their return.

Announcement to get Ready

Upon this news, school management took stock of who was in Beijing and who wasn’t. About half of our foreign teacher staff had ended up stuck outside the country because of China locking down to prevent outside spread entering its borders. That included any foreigner, but also seems there were/are varying levels of restrictions against even Chinese nationals from returning. There were at least many hoops to get through. Also, many were in other parts of the country. For the Chinese staff I’m unsure of how many are still unable to return, but most were still in the country at least.

Those elsewhere in China were asked to return and complete their two-week quarantine to be ready for a return to campus at the new start date. This meant staying in an approved hotel or apartment at their own expense during this span. I heard varying figures of what those stays cost for people. Seems that 500-600 rmb ($70-85) per day was a common figure. Quite a disincentive to stay put and not return to Beijing unless having legit reason to do so, especially for most Chinese salaries. For a time people were allowed to quarantine in their own homes, but there was a trend of returnees flouting their responsibility and some communities unwilling or unable to enforce the requirement. As a result, the restrictions were tightened and monitored more thoroughly. About the time May Day holiday came, the quarantining requirement and others were lifted in Beijing, going from a ‘tier 1’ to ‘tier 2’ response level.

A new feature added recently was the ‘big data’ tracking app for the city. The Health Kit app is now used by Beijing residents both as a check on themselves and to query others. A green “No abnormal conditions” appears to show that you have been in Beijing for the required quarantine time with no problematic travel. A yellow middle warning appears if it detects that you may have come in close contact with somebody who tested positive for the virus. I don’t know precisely what that would entail, but likely you’d have to end up getting a test done on yourself or isolate. A red warning means you tested positive and if you’re out and about that’d be a big no-no. We had to register for this using identification phone scans as part of my apartment community’s efforts to ensure no infections threaten residents. I’ve also had taxi drivers ask to see the health card to confirm the green status. With work returning, it was a requirement for everybody coming back to campus.

Domestic travel had mostly been opened up, with some exceptions it seems, by the time the May Day holiday period arrived. It was opening gradually for a while, but it seems at the start of May it really opened more in earnest. Hiccups and bureaucratic meddling may have been an issue though, maybe in effort to limit spread through contact tracing. Natalie decided with the lowered response level to visit her family who were meeting in Xian. She had been away from them for about a year and a half and was unable to visit for Spring Festival. Many other Chinese had been in a similar scenario as hers. Once there, found she was unable to purchase a return ticket to Beijing. After contacting railway station customer service and perhaps some agencies she was able to make the purchase. For a bit though we worried she’d be stuck outside. Her theory was that since her ID noted her as a Hubei person, the system was bias against her since that was the epicenter. After making some noise though it must have been easily apparent that she had always been in Beijing through all of this.

I stayed put because I didn’t want to risk anything with work returning. We were informed that there’d be a gradual return. Only the year 12 and year 9 students would be back on May 10 and May 11 respectively. Those are the two graduating classes from high school and middle school (they do 3 years for high school here). These students need to complete important standardized testing and other preparation. Public schools especially had to prep for the notorious Gaokao tests which are critically important for college placement. The amount of effort and rigor put into conducting those are stunning. As a private school placing students at university’s abroad, the gaokao isn’t done here. Nevertheless, different preparations and testing must be done for them. My students are all year 10 and year 11, so for them my online teaching would continue. I was asked to return anyway and I accepted in order to help cover class periods for the year 12 students. There’s no word for if or when they’ll have the other students return.

Nucleic Acid Testing Requirement

A notice went out to go to a public site for testing to be done for all our work returnees. It was held at a nearby school and was close enough for me to drive there with my electric motorcycle. Our school had a special preregistration setup to skip the public line once arrived and it was completely free.

The public line, was moving quite quickly anyhow.

As always, everybody out in public had the usual 100% facemask usage going strong, even 95ish days after the start of responses. Workers at the testing site wore the full-body PPE. It’s less a sign of any especially high likelihood of danger present on an individual level, and more of a sign of extra caution for the volume of people passing through.

Before entering the testing queue everybody had to show their Health Kit app to indicate the green status. Then while in line workers walked up and down reminding people to keep about a meter’s distance.

The testing itself was done in a gymnasium with open windows/doors so there was plenty of airflow.

Upon entering we checked in at a registration table with your ID and picked up a small glass canister to store your sample

The one of the three test personnel called the next in line after they sprayed the seat and air around it with disinfectant. Then sit down, open up, and say ‘ahhh’ as they stuck a long cotton swab down your throat until gagging. They put the sample in your little jar and that’s all!

I recently asked another teacher if anybody heard about the results and she just said if you or anybody hasn’t heard back then just assume it was negative and there was no problem. Next I hope someday there’s an opportunity for anti-body testing because I have some slight suspicions about a bad sickness I had in late December. Unlikely it was covid though.


That was the setting for making the return to work at school. Between my prior post and now Natalie and I have been getting out more due to the confidence that the threat has most likely been snuffed. I’ve enjoyed slightly more delivery meals than before and we made some visits to friends in our area for the first time since mid January. Regardless of the unknowns, I’ve maintained that reading the actions of the officials and those around us are the best indications. I could outline all the reasons and puzzle pieces I have to be confident to make the return to work. However, the purpose here is to only focus on my firsthand observations instead of delving into larger speculation and analysis.

As a followup to earlier posts, along the way our community has let up only a bit. Currently we are able to have delivery people to enter the community to deliver packages, so we don’t have to go to the gate to pick them up across the fence. That was enabled by the Health Kit app to check those people coming in and out. Also, we have a new card registered to us with a picture. That required a visit to the community offices and some process of confirming residency with your rental contract. Apart from that, I can’t think of much else that has changed apart from progressively more people out and about. The resilience to keep up these NPI/PPE efforts in my surroundings is something really to be proud of as a community and I feel little anxiety about the risk of going back.

In part 2 about the return I will continue with a detailed look at what is going on now that we’re back at school with a portion of our students.

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