As the news of Wuhan’s lockdown came on January 23rd earlier this year, it is probably no exaggeration to say that few predicted COVID-19 would become a global pandemic. The then epicenter of the outbreak allowed its 11.08 million residents to leave home only to buy necessary supplies and do any other tasks deemed “essential.”
Given the interconnectedness of Chinese cities, it was inevitable that the virus would eventually spread to Beijing, my current city of residence. This is the story of my life in Beijing during COVID-19 and a few tips on how to cope if you still find yourself in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown.
Chinese Lunar New Year 2020
With many Chinese people travelling to their hometowns for new year celebrations, there was perhaps no worse time for the virus to strike.
Cities across mainland China, as well as Hong Kong and Macao, cancelled most new year events to avoid the virus spreading in large gatherings. In Beijing, the iconic new year temple fairs with performances, traditional snacks, artwork and more, were called off. Tourist sites like the Forbidden City, National Museum, Great Wall etc. were also closed.
It should be pointed out that “lockdown” in Beijing was never as strict as in Wuhan. We could leave our homes whenever we wanted. Some restaurants, bars, cafes and shops closed, whilst others stayed open. This was perhaps proportionate given that confirmed cases in Beijing never went above 587 according to official figures, a fraction of those in Wuhan. Nonetheless, the streets and shopping centers of one of the world’s biggest metropolises became eerily quiet as people became wary of catching the virus. As I had some time off over Chinese New Year, I got away from China and headed to South Korea for a few days where the virus, as of yet, had not had any significant impact.
A New Reality
After returning from my trip, I felt I had stepped into something of a different world. Beijing city authorities began to impose tighter measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
My residential community had blocked off all but two main entrances where volunteers from the Communist Party of China would take turns to monitor people entering and leaving. I was required to register for an exit-entry card. Every time I entered the community I had my temperature taken. And any visitors were required to register their information. One positive to come from it all is that I got to know my local party officials a little better. One of them was a young girl who had studied a master’s degree in the United Kingdom. She told me she had not spoken English for a long time and now felt embarrassed every time she spoke.
Similarly in restaurants, bars, cafes and shops, I was required to write my name and phone number each time I entered. Many places, including on public transport, required all customers to wear a face mask.
As an English editor for a local Beijing magazine, I was fortunate to be able to do all my work at home. Colleagues would simply send me articles via WeChat, and I would edit them and send them back. This helped us avoid gathering in the office.
I felt especially sorry for those who were not so fortunate. An employee in my local barbers told me she had gone without any pay for over two months (cutting hair is not exactly work that can be done remotely). For many expats working as English teachers, school was simply cancelled with little or no pay in return. Some had their lessons moved online.
As the virus worsened in China, I was facing repeated calls to go back home. The British foreign office encouraged all British citizens within mainland China to leave ASAP. My family were encouraging me to do the same. Leaving home still seemed like an over-reaction. Supermarkets will still fully stocked. And I could still go out to eat, shop and do other things with certain restrictions of course. If I was an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, I would only risk travelling home and spreading it to my own family who would then spread it further. I decided to stay put.
COVID-19 spreads Overseas
In hindsight, the decision to stay in China was well-made. Back in the United Kingdom, as in many other western countries, the virus started spreading amongst people who had not even travelled abroad. A pandemic was eventually declared.
The way the British government dealt with such a situation was noticeably different to that of the Chinese. China wasted no time in implementing top-down measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. British prime minister Boris Johnson initially issued advice that people should only leave their homes if absolutely necessary e.g. to shop for essentials etc. wary that the government did not want to impede personal liberties. The following weekend, the British press featured pictures of crowded scenic spots where holidaymakers were blatantly ignoring government advice (accessed on 2020/05/06). A lockdown was then imposed. What had happened in far-away China, was now happening in my own country.
As the virus spread overseas, Beijing was beginning to return to normal life, albeit slowly. Eventually, the city government introduced a rule that anyone returning from overseas would have to undergo 14-days compulsory quarantine. Almost all foreigners were later barred from entering mainland China altogether. Fears about expats returning to China and bringing the virus back from overseas fueled a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment. Videos circulated on the internet, some of which were difficult to verify, supposedly showing karaoke bars, restaurants, supermarkets and elsewhere refusing entry to expats.
I experienced two cases of low-level discrimination while in Beijing. A waitress on the front desk of a Korean barbeque restaurant told me simply that “foreigners are not allowed in.” This, she said, was what her boss had instructed her to do. I explained that I had not left Beijing in more than two months. I asked if she would also refuse entry to Chinese students who had just returned from overseas. She simply shrugged her shoulders in a way that said “I’m just following orders.” It turned out in the end that this was a misunderstanding and that by scanning a QR code, I would be granted entry. I told them I did not want to waste any more time arguing and left.
On another occasion, I went to a music studio for a band session with some other expat friends. Despite presenting our “green code” which proved we had not left Beijing, the owner told us we could not enter. He was apologetic and explained that he wanted to let us in but risked a fine from local police.
Overall, such discrimination has been rare in my experience. Many places within Beijing now have QR codes which users can scan and present a message stating whether said user has been in Beijing within the past 14-30 days. In addition, the “health kit” app shows the so-called “green code” and displays a message reading “no abnormal conditions.”
Life in Beijing is slowly getting back to normal but with anti-epidemic measures still in place. On April 28th, I took a walk around Beijing to take pictures for this article. Security at Tian’anmen Square is always tight, with foreign visitors required to present their passport, and everyone required to go through a security check. But on that day I endured some additional questioning: “Please show us the exit-entry permit from your residential community”; “Have you returned to Beijing recently?”; “You’re here to take photos? Are these photos for yourself or for your work?” Across Tian’anmen Square and in front of the (then closed) Forbidden City, a small scattering of tourists posed for photos in front of the infamous portrait of Chairman Mao. A security guard told me that even for a Tuesday afternoon, numbers in the square were low, unsurprising given that foreign tourists are unable to enter mainland China at the time of writing.
I made my way to Olympic park, a popular green spot in the north of the city. The pleasant weather had attracted a fair number of visitors. Runners pounded around the designated track, whilst couples and families frolicked by the riverside and picnicked on the grass. It felt almost like a return to normal life… almost.
Tips for getting through a Lockdown
The very word itself “lockdown” conjures up images of misery. Most readers probably do not need reminding of its negative effects upon mental health. Nonetheless, I developed a few coping mechanisms.
The first involved keeping up to date with COVID-19-related news. And more to the point, getting news from reliable sources. The following site from “Worldometers” has been particularly useful for keeping up to date with official figures regarding infections and deaths (accessed on 2020/05/06). Reading fake news about the virus can at best give false hope, and at worst cause you to panic and potentially spread fake news to your friends and family. The effects of fake news about COVID-19 are all too evident. Check out reports that “5G causes coronavirus” and subsequent attacks upon 5G masts (accessed on 2020/05/06).
The second involved getting out and exercising. Or if the lockdown measures in your area do not permit you to leave your home for this reason, exercise at home. Set yourself a target: “Today I will run 2 km” or “Today I will do 30 sit-ups.” Exercise can be good for the mind as well as the body.
The third involved keeping in touch with family. For me this was not so much a problem given that my family back in the UK are also under lockdown and therefore have time at home to chat via video. We even started a weekly quiz in which each family member is responsible for writing a round of ten questions.
Whatever your circumstances, be sure to put your time to good use. If you are home most of the time, maintaining structure in your daily life can be difficult.
End in Sight?
Let’s be honest, normal life as we know it is a long way away in most places around the world right now. In Beijing, life is slowly getting back to normal. If you were hoping to come here to work as an English teacher or in any other job, that unfortunately won’t be happening anytime soon given the ban on foreign nationals entering mainland China. No one really knows for sure when this will be lifted (in the meantime you may want to consider teaching online).
I write this article in a week when we have returned to the office having worked from home for about the past three months. At my desk I was greeted by hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes and facemasks. This is the new COVID-19 reality in Beijing. A reality that will likely continue for some time to come.