Beijing (Forbes) - On Jan. 23, we were preparing for the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday – when businesses across China shut down and everyone travels to be with their families. News about a mysterious form of pneumonia that had originated in the central industrial hub of Wuhan and spread across China was incessant in the days leading up to the holiday. However, the expectation was that the central government would take minimal measures in order to not disrupt holiday-related plans.
Then, all of a sudden, authorities announced they were putting Wuhan under lockdown. Airports were closing, and public transportation in the city was going to be suspended. At that point, authorities had reported 571 coronavirus cases across the country, including 17 deaths.
Since then, at least 760 million people across China have been living under some form of quarantine. The virus has infected more than 81,000 people in the country and killed at least 3,292, according to official data. The global pandemic has claimed 23,000 lives to date, with more than 500,000 confirmed infections. Over the past few weeks, the epicenter of the outbreak has moved from Wuhan to Europe and then on to the U.S., where cases have skyrocketed in the past few days.
Meanwhile, China on Tuesday lifted travel restrictions in Hubei province, home to Wuhan, after almost exactly two months of lockdown. Authorities reported only one new locally transmitted infection over the past week. And in another sign that Beijing is claiming victory over the virus, a northern province started reopening schools this week.
Over the past two months, I witnessed the country moving from uncertainty to anger to resilience and hope, in a motion of emotions that seems to define the times we live in.
The first few weeks after the lockdown started in Wuhan, Beijing was gripped by uncertainty. Stores were closing for the Lunar New Year, as usual, but we didn’t know if they would reopen after the holiday ended. The number of new infections and casualties the government was reporting was rising every day. Entire cities were being put under lockdown even outside of Hubei province, in places such as Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangsu.
Meanwhile, Beijing was becoming a ghost town. Its broad boulevards emptied out, and its subway cars, usually packed during rush hour, had only a few commuters strewn around, wearing face masks. Security guards and volunteers equipped with infrared thermometers started checking people’s temperatures at the entrance to subway stations and supermarkets. But while streets emptied, the app-based service economy that makes life in Beijing so convenient remained resilient. The car-hailing service Didi and food-delivery apps Meituan and Ele.me worked as before, with drivers and deliverymen receiving premiums for operating during this period.
New information was emerging almost daily about the virus, and it soon became apparent that the Chinese government’s reports were not transparent. Hubei authorities reported almost 15,000 new coronavirus cases on Feb. 13 – an almost tenfold increase over the previous day – after they said they changed diagnostic criteria to allow for the clinical diagnosis of new cases as opposed to diagnoses based exclusively on nucleic acid tests (They later reversed that decision). China later created an uproar for not including asymptomatic cases in its daily coronavirus tallies.
This was also the period when it felt like the rest of the world was having a collective meltdown over China’s outbreak. Conspiracy theories abounded, and family and friends from outside of China started showering me with questions and messages of concern.
Chinese people’s anger over the outbreak became obvious on Feb. 7, when Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist from Wuhan who had been chastised by authorities for sounding an early alarm over the virus, was declared dead after battling Covid-19. Li became a symbol of people’s attempt to find answers about authorities’ initial reactions to the coronavirus outbreak. In a country where dissent is often stifled as soon as it emerges, people felt comfortable posting on social media messages praising Li and even sharing the admonishment letter handed to him by local police after he spoke out about the coronavirus.
In response to mounting criticism, Beijing ousted top officials who were blamed for mishandling the outbreak. On Feb. 13, Jiang Chaoliang, the party chief of Hubei province, and Ma Guoqiang, the party secretary of Wuhan, lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, other countries started imposing travel bans against China, as the virus spread at first to neighboring countries and then farther and farther away. At this point, I was cancelling all my travel plans for the first part of the year, including long-awaited trips such as taking my mom to Thailand and seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan.
By mid-February, most residential communities in Beijing were sealed off. My home, nestled in one of the traditional alleyways in central Beijing – the hutongs – was also subject to restrictions. Our neighborhood committee, the most local level of the Communist Party, gave my partner and me small blue resident cards, which we were instructed to carry with us at all times. All entrances to the hutongs from the main streets were cordoned off, and volunteers donning red armbands checked passers-by’s temperatures and resident cards. Around 10:30 every night, the gate to the courtyard we share with a handful of other families was shut.
By this point, I felt my daily work covering the coronavirus was taking a toll on me. I started finding it hard to read the news, just as I continued to write it.
By late February to early March, many Chinese people were settling into the new reality. They found solace amidst quarantine through social media. On the recipe-sharing platform Xiachufang, users started sharing recipes that required simple ingredients, which one might store at home. One friend told me she and her friends were exercising together daily through video chats on WeChat.
Meanwhile, the daily numbers of new coronavirus infections in China were declining steadily, just as they were soaring across Europe and the U.S. On Mar. 12, China’s National Health Commission said the peak of the coronavirus outbreak had passed, as it reported the lowest number of new infections in seven weeks.
China’s efforts turned toward containing new infections coming from abroad. Starting on Mar. 16, Beijing imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals. A few days later, all inbound international flights to the capital were redirected to other cities, where travelers were to be tested and quarantined.
People started gradually returning to work, but the city didn’t snap back to life. Most restaurants stayed closed. The ones that were open checked patrons’ temperatures at the entrance and collected their names, passport numbers and phone numbers. We had to scan QR codes so that our telecom provider could confirm that we hadn’t left Beijing for the past 14 days. Some restaurants only allowed groups of three or fewer people at each table.
On Western social media, this was the period when coronavirus memes were at their peak. Being in China, it was strange to experience feeling left out of the outpouring of care and compassion that was being directed at places like Italy. No major landmarks in Western countries were lit up in China’s flag colors, and every time I saw artwork that was a composite of several countries’ flags I searched for China’s flag but couldn’t find it.
The mood in Beijing seemed to turn last week, after China reported several consecutive days with no new locally transmitted infections. In the hutongs, people were dusting off their tuk tuks and washing their BMWs. Beijing boulevards saw their first traffic jams in weeks. Children could be seen playing in the streets in groups. Most residential communities upheld their restrictions, but parks reopened.
On Monday, my partner and I visited Beihai Park, an imperial garden next to the Forbidden City with a lake surrounding an island with a large white pagoda. While we were walking around the island, I removed my facemask. I was struck by the smell of the water, the greenery and the cherry blossoms. I realized I had spent the last two months breathing into a mask whenever I was outside, which was seldom.
Worries remain, and we regularly receive disquieting news from here and from abroad. On Thursday, for example, China announced it was banning most foreigners from entering the country. But while the rest of the world is bracing for disaster, there’s a sense that China has already defeated the virus. Coming out of two months of quarantine, I think people here don’t necessarily think the crisis has made them stronger or wiser than before. We have been collectively traumatized. What would make one feel OK coming out of quarantine is knowing that they and their community have done what was considered to be the right thing throughout most of the process. But even that seems like a tall order.