When will life go back to normal? - the Beijing timeline
If someone had told me two months ago that I would be comforting friends around the world now and that I would feel safer in Beijing than anywhere else, I would never have believed them. China is, by no means, out of the woods yet - but this timeline based on my personal experiences, should give you an idea of how long it takes for everyday life to get back to normal.
Thursday 23 January. Many friends have already left for Chinese New Year's holidays. Those of us from Jing Sing (our a cappella group) still in town have decided to celebrate spring festival together by making dumplings at my house. During the afternoon, a nervousness arises in our WeChat group. "Hey guys - this corona thing is real - school just cancelled the yearly spring festival assembly". "Yeah, there are 10 cases in Beijing". "How did something so nasty get such a funny name"? "Ok guys, I suggest we lay low and postpone".
The same day, the the central government imposes a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province in order to prevent the virus from spreading further - a move the World Health Organization called "unprecedented in public health history".
Saturday 25 January Our family is on a plane to Kuala Lumpur where we will be spending Chinese New Year. The airport is half-empty, everyone wears a mask and this is the first time we are met with temperature checks upon entering a building. They were soon to become part of everyday life.
Sunday 26 January Western Academy of Beijing announces - together with all other schools in China - that campus cannot open and that online learning will begin the following Monday. At this stage, we all think it will last a week or two.
Saturday 1 February Cases in China have now risen to 11.700. The world is worried - and people in Malaysia stare when we say that we live in China. Some institutions put a stop to visits from China. My first imaginary symptoms appear and I spend the night googling "coronavirus - average incubation time". This thing has got us all on edge.
Saturday 8 February Return to Beijing. Our flight is the only one landing at the brand new Daxing airport that morning. All other flights have been cancelled. On the 50 minute drive to our apartment we see almost no cars. It's a very polluted day. Cases have soared to 34,546 and saying that the atmosphere in Beijing is gloomy would be an understatement. The day after, the death toll in China surpassed that of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.
Wednesday 12 February I meet for a coffee with a friend at the usually busy Moka Bros cafè in the heart of Sanlitun. There are only 2-3 people at each table, many are wearing masks inside. As we step outside, I make a short video of the Sanlitun bar street. There is not a car in sight and all the bars are closed. I have never experienced such silence in Beijing before.
In the evening, a rush of emotions comes over me as our virtual a cappella video in support of Wuhan is released. 150 singers across China participated.
Wednesday 19 February - The kids and I have mostly been inside the apartment for 2 weeks now. Only nipping out for a short walk or to get groceries. It's been cold and polluted, the streets are empty. Some shops are open but there are zero costumers inside.
We are constantly kept up to date via the Safe & Sane Beijing WeChat groups - created for the COVID-19 outbreak by Mike Wester, editor of The Beijinger. A valuable and trustworthy source. Today it tells us that China's daily infection figures have dropped below 2,000 for the second straight day. Finally some good news.
Sunday 23 February is a good day! We meet with friends for a run in Chaoyang Park. There are a few people in the park.
Thursday 27 February There is a spike in cases in Italy and we're beginning to realise that this is going to be a global situation. We're especially worried about our family and friends in Italy.
Most of our friends are outside China. They are eager to come back but many airlines have stopped flying.
Sunday 1 March is a sunny day and we go for a walk in Chaoyang Park. For the first time, we get the impression that things are slowly going back to normality. Most shops and restaurants are open.
Tuesday 3 March it is now clear that, while new infections are under control in Beijing, "public enemy number one" are people flying in from abroad. A new rule enters into force, making 14 days quarantine obligatory for returnees from Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan.
Wednesday 11 March From today, ALL incoming passengers from overseas must do a 14 day quarantine. A few lucky ones will be allowed to do the quarantine at home but most will be sent to government designated facilities (hotels) which will cost them an average of 100 USD per night. Quarantine means never leaving your house/room for 14 days. On day 14, the police will issue a piece of paper that says you have respected 14 days of quarantine.
Our friends outside China are now facing a big dilemma. The number of flights is diminishing but coming back means strict quarantine - in some cases in two different facilities when families travel together.
Tuesday 17 March there have been zero local infections in Beijing today but 39 imported ones from people flying in while sick. Chat groups discuss whether flying while having symptoms is in any way excusable. Some people report that a long haul flight gives you time to develop symptoms while others are of the opinion that most passengers know very well before boarding that they are ill.
Incoming passengers are generally understanding about the strict quarantine rules and one foreigner writes that he has been quarantined in a spa hotel of good standard (but that he can obviously never leave the room). Food is being left outside the door 3 times a day.
Thursday 19 March: with imported cases on the rise, the Civil Aviation Administration makes a drastic decision. Most international flights to Beijing will be rerouted to other cities in China. Here all passengers will disembark, be screened/tested and only those who are not at risk will continue to Beijing where they will start their 14-day quarantine.
Friday 20 March news circulate about an Australian-Chinese woman who flew in to Beijing on 14 March and was quarantined for 14 days. On day 2, she broke her quarantine and went for a jog. She immediately got fired from her job with Bayer and has been deported from China.
Today, Thursday 26 March. Two months in (roughly three months since the first cases appeared in Wuhan) the situation in Beijing is as follows:
Most offices, shops and factories have reopened
Schools are still closed - no word on an expected opening date
Most tourist attractions are still closed but one section of the Great Wall (Badaling) is due to open this weekend. Beijing zoo and parks around the city have also reopened.
In the coming days, Hubei province will start opening its borders and thousands of villages across china will allow for people to travel back to the big cities. An estimated 7 million beijingers will be traveling back to the city from all over China - causing a certain kind of nervousness.
Word on the street is that the current quarantine rules will last for months - making it difficult and stressful for people stuck outside China to come back - but offering the rest of use some sense of safety as the spread of the virus seems to be contained.
On a personal note, we have learnt a lot from the situation. It has somehow brought our family closer together - despite the distance to Savannah, Georgia where our oldest son Simon is pretty much stuck now. Knus til dig min skat. Forza amore.