‘A whole country locked inside’: China struggles with coronavirus, and a new normal

Slow and unsteady, the woman with the cane steps off the sidewalk onto the six-lane boulevard. It’s a well-travelled road in the middle of Beijing, normally full of dangerous cars and hurtling buses.

On this day, it’s a safe stroll to the other side.

For almost three weeks, Beijing has been a ghost town, eerily empty from Tiananmen Square to its freeway-like ring roads.

People are just starting to trickle back after China’s listless Lunar New Year holidays, extended this year to keep them from spreading the coronavirus further through travel and a return to work.

“I can feel how serious it is,” said Jin Yang, on his first day back as a foreign exchange worker. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Iconic attractions like the Forbidden City are shuttered, subways largely unridden, malls and airports avoided. Schools and universities have been closed indefinitely.

At some of the restaurants and stores that are open, masked shopkeepers hand you your purchase at the door to limit contact.

Indeed, the entire megacity of more than 20 million people echoes with the epidemic.

The virus’s epicentre may be a thousand kilometres south in the province of Hubei, where more than 60 million people are locked down by decree, but the nervousness has spread to the capital and engulfed the whole country.

Inside their apartments

With more than a thousand dead and tens of thousands infected in China, Beijingers are hunkered down in their apartments — partly because of new rules about who can come and go, but mostly because of fear.

Residential compounds have improvised barricades, including traffic barriers, to block access. Signs warn away visitors from Wuhan and security guards patrol. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Residents have built improvised barricades out of bamboo sticks, traffic barriers and even bikes piled high and chained together around their compounds. Signs warn strangers away, especially those from the infected city of Wuhan.

“I’m upset and worried about the virus,” said Liu Likun, reached by video chat inside his apartment.

He and his wife have locked the door, stocked the fridge and sent their three-year-old son to stay with grandparents in a village outside Beijing.

“I miss my son,” said mother Liu Yingjie, appearing on the video screen next to her husband. “We talk to him twice a day, worrying about what he eats and does, but he’s better off in the countryside.”

“Is it safer there? I don’t know,” said Likun. “These days, there is no absolute safety from the virus in China. But it’s the best we can do.”

Indeed, daily life everywhere is improvised or suspended. Most office workers do their jobs online or on the phone from home. Many factories and workshops are idle, despite government attempts to keep the economy from stalling completely.

Zhao Zaixin and his daughter Shuang Shuang enjoy their daily playtime outside their apartment. Zhao insists he won’t be ‘locked inside,’ regardless of the coronavirus threat. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

There’s a lot of spare time. Videos circulating on the internet show families playing catch and ring-toss in cramped living rooms, singing karaoke and building intricate cityscapes out of Lego blocks.

“I’ve been learning how to make dumplings,” said Zhang Xingang, also by video chat from his apartment. He works in construction and all of his company’s projects have been stopped.

Roadblocks and health checks

Those who do venture outside find large red propaganda banners telling them “you are a piece of garbage if you go out with a mask,” not to mention roadblocks and health checks at every turn.

Officials armed with thermometers look for high fever, the tell-tale sign of infection and a sure trigger for testing and quarantine in today’s China, whether or not coronavirus is to blame.

In some areas, police officers in hazmat suits have been going door to door, looking for the infected and the suspected. They act on tips from neighbours and then — as online videos have shown — squads arrive to forcefully remove entire families and send them off to quarantine in police vans.

Is all of this really necessary?

“Probably,” said Ian Lipkin, an American epidemiologist who has been in Beijing to advise the Chinese government on how to handle the coronavirus epidemic.

Mass lockdowns on this scale are unprecedented, he said, and it’s unclear if they will work.

“We don’t have anything else to offer at present,” Lipkin said. “This is really the most transmissible virus that I’ve seen in many, many years.”

With no proven medicine or treatment, and a vaccine at least 18 months away according to the World Health Organization, “isolation” is the only alternative, Lipkin said.

“And unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be voluntary. It’s difficult.”

WATCH | Workers at an industrial complex in Chongqing make their way through disinfecting mist tunnels:

Two tunnels at an industrial complex in China use spray mist to ‘disinfect’ people. 0:26

‘If we are going to get it, we’ll get it’

If the virus spreads more widely around the globe, Lipkin said, countries like Canada and the United States will also have to consider measures such as involuntary quarantine, even if it raises far more complicated questions of personal rights than it does in an authoritarian state like China.

Even here, some don’t accept the need for heavy-handed lockdowns or even quarantines.

Outside an apartment building in Beijing, Zhao Zaixin plays in the snow with his three-year-old daughter. He wears a mask, she doesn’t.

They’re out here every day, he said, because “it’s healthier.”

“This virus can’t be prevented,” Zhao said. “If we are going to get it, we’ll get it. We can’t have a whole country locked inside.”

And yet, even now, as people are supposed to be returning to work, much of it still is. Life in China is on hold.

WATCH | Saša Petricic looks at how the coronavirus has changed some aspects of daily life in China:

CBC’s Sasa Petricic looks at how the coronavirus outbreak has brought an eerie emptiness to the normally jam-packed streets of Beijing and how people are responding. 2:11

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