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The red dragon emerges from quarantine

Sowmiya Ashok | Updated on April 03, 2020 Published on April 03, 2020

Better together: Home for the Chinese New Year, many families in Hubei province took the shutdown in their stride. - REUTERS

As India hunkers down to arrest the Covid-19 pandemic, a look at what China — the ground zero for the virus transmission — did right and wrong as it limps back to normalcy

For four hours in Shanghai last week, 40-year-old Leilei and her friend checked into a KTV — karaoke bar — and sang non-stop. Under the circumstances, it seemed like the most natural way to announce that the quarantine that had gripped their lives for months was slowly peeling off. “I sang a Chinese rock song. My friend, who had learnt a lot of new songs from all the TV series and variety programmes she watched while sitting at home, had a very long song list,” she says with a laugh.

Leilei has been out almost every day over the week. “I feel quite guilty about it. Maybe next week I should stay home more?” she wonders out aloud over the Chinese messaging app WeChat. “Maybe it is not 100 per cent safe, but I have a desire to socialise.”

Quarantine requirements in Shanghai were still in place. While out on a walk over the weekend, she noticed that cafes had filled up, pastry shops had long queues outside with no heed for social distancing, and life seemed “so normal.” “There was a hint of excitement in the spring air,” she says.

Could China really be well on its way to recovery from the hold of a deadly virus?

Shanghai is over 800 km from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, which was first identified in December 2019. As of March 31, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, there were 82,545 confirmed cases in China, with 3,314 deaths due to the virus.

Leilei works as a consumer researcher and lives on the 18th floor of a high-rise in the usually busy neighbourhood of Xujiahui in Shanghai. Compared to the ambient noise of pressure cookers and crows in an Indian neighbourhood, Leilei’s quarantine was quieter she once heard her neighbour’s kid jump rope near the elevator area on her floor. What was also missing was the constant soundtrack in China: Construction noise. “I feel like I have been througha few phases under quarantine. I spend three hours cooking daily, an hour doing yoga or pilates, I started learning Japanese online and I have picked up my ukulele after years,” she says. “I guess when you are stuck indoors for a long time, you become more productive.”

In late-January, at the end of their visit to Japan over Chinese New Year, Leilei and her husband came back filled with panic and 300 masks in their luggage. On January 30, the WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. China had 7,736 confirmed cases that day. For a fortnight, Leilei checked an app that would alert her if any passenger on their flight had tested positive for the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). Life since has been an infrared gun pointed at her forehead to check her temperature while out for a grocery run, and refreshing the anti-NCP (novel coronavirus pneumonia) icon on her Weibo page and an epidemic map of her city on her phone.

“I haven’t used many of these apps for a couple of weeks; I guess I am more relaxed now,” she says. “Since people don’t get to meet each other physically, WeChat groups have been really active. Sometimes I feel the whole country is engaged in a National Gourmet Food Competition,” she laughs. “It’s like: ‘Hey, look, it is my turn to show off what I cooked today.’ It is quite cute.”

Purely by coincidence, on March 25, the day India imposed a 21-day lockdown on its more than a billion people, travel restrictions were lifted for tens of millions of Chinese residents from Hubei province. But in Wuhan, the capital, restrictions remain until April 8.

Among those who travelled back to work after weeks of being cooped up at home was Hu Jianlong, 38, an entrepreneur who lives in Beijing. He had travelled on January 17 to his village in Hubei, 250 km from Wuhan, to spend Chinese New Year with his parents. “The lockdown in my village began around January 31 and, at the beginning, it wasn’t that strict; I could still drive to the town,” he says. But within a few days, the restrictions were tightened. Barricades came up and people remained glued to their local government’s WeChat accounts for news on the virus. “It was almost impossible for us to go out during this time,” he says. Multiple entry and exit passes, and strict social control became the norm across the province.

“There was no panic, though,” Hu says. “Since it was a special time in China because of the New Year, people had already procured a lot of food and were well-stocked for the long haul.” It was also winter. The Chinese New Year holiday sees the largest internal migration, which could potentially have been fertile ground for human-to-human transmission of the virus; yet, in some respects, it turned out to be a boon. People were careful to isolate.

“Luckily, in my village, my mother grows her own vegetables. And many of my friends who work in Guangdong and Chengdu had returned to the village for the holidays before the outbreak and the lockdown,” says Hu. “This was a good thing in hindsight. Unlike in India, where I saw on the news that migrants were walking back to their villages, in China most people had already returned home and there was no worry about food.”

While the outside world grew hostile towards China, with the disease spreading to other countries, and Chinese folks abroad became targets of racist slurs, within the country, people from Hubei were stigmatised. “This created a lot of pressure for migrant workers in Hubei,” Hu says.

As early as January 23, Wuhan opened two 24-hour helplines for those undergoing psychological stress during the lockdown. Chinese state media reported that nearly 100 phone calls were received each day on an average. A week later, similar helplines were launched in other parts of the country for patients, medical workers and people under medical observation. Shanghai was among the first cities to assign psychiatrists to isolation wards.

At your doorstep: Delivery services thrived in epidemic-hit China as people remained shut in. - REUTERS

Across the border, as Indians continue to debate the need for a harsh countrywide lockdown to contain the virus, in China the quarantine took many forms. At times it wasn’t uniform even within a city. In places such as Shanghai, the subways were operational; in Chengdu and elsewhere, it was a shutdown. In Beijing, people were given entry/exit passes — slips of paper — for access to neighbourhoods. These passes served as proof from the local committee that a resident was Covid-19 free. Some came with slogans on them: “Wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, ventilate well, meet with others less.”

People built apps to be useful in a crisis, millions of kids logged online for their classes as schools closed, and there were reports of Alibaba’s cashless supermarket chain Hema hiring the employees of restaurants that were shut down because of the outbreak. What thrived during the lockdown was the delivery services. “The whole city, the whole country relied on them,” says Leilei. “Didi (the Chinese Uber equivalent) drivers and gym trainers temporarily worked as delivery guys during this time to make some money.”

Shanghai resident Dev Lewis, a Yenching scholar and the author of the China India Networked newsletter, reflects on the lockdown. “Every country is trying to look at China and think what the parallels are. There is a large population, urban-rural migration and a high threat of community spread. The impression is that the whole of China went into lockdown, but that didn’t really happen,” he says. While Hubei and a few clusters outside the province were under lockdown, the rest of the country was only quarantined, he points out. “It was still organised in a way that basic needs were met.”

He also flags the huge role played by public messaging in China. “Once you understand the threat of the virus, it is your self-interest and your family’s interest that really changes things,” he says. He stresses the importance of ‘contact tracing’ — namely, identifying all the people an infected person has come in contact with — in preventing community transmission in a country like India. “Everywhere you went here in China, you were monitored and asked for your personal details. I know it is alarming from a personal liberties point of view, but this, at the moment, is the only way to efficiently and swiftly contact trace.”

During the quarantine period, Lewis translated parts of what he read on Chinese internet for his newsletter. One of the entries was of an employee in an internet company: “Although we are working from home our office hours remain the same: 9am to 8pm. Management publishes the work plan for the next few days and asks everyone to register thrice in a day: morning, noon, and night. We also have to send our location and take a selfie along with our computer as evidence, and to top it up a work report at the end of the day.” The employee then says: “Our boss insists on video for all calls to ensure we’re all listening but this only makes it worse and awkward and I really don’t like it... our face looks blown up, and there is no beauty filter on the video chat.”

For Lewis, conversations in masks and scanning a QR code to retrieve your health code — namely, details of health and travel history — is the ‘new normal.’ Apart from the copious amounts of disinfectant used wherever he goes: Out of the gate, to the gym, to the Apple store. “In a month from now, the health code (Jiankang Ma) will be a part of our daily lives, we won’t even notice it.” But, he adds, the social norms of meeting people have changed. “We don’t really meet people unless it is essential... you almost feel it is socially irresponsible to text people to meet up.”

For Leilei, weeks after seeing the virus circulate within her country, she is watching it create havoc elsewhere in the world. “I am now more connected to friends I haven’t spoken to for years. Certainly more so my foreign friends. They were worried about us when the outbreak happened in China, now we are worried about them.”

Sowmiya Ashok, an independent journalist based in Chennai, was the China correspondent for The Indian Express in 2019

Published on April 03, 2020

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