There may be no going back

The ‘normalcy’ that China is returning to may provide a snapshot of our post-COVID-19 world

Updated - April 23, 2020 12:26 pm IST

Published - April 23, 2020 12:15 am IST

People wearing face masks walk in a shopping mall in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 18, 2020. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

People wearing face masks walk in a shopping mall in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 18, 2020. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

May 4 is the date marked on many calendars, the day we in India hope some semblance of normalcy may return to our lives. We may well have to wait a lot longer — lockdown or no lockdown — if the “normalcy” that people across the border in China are returning to, after two long months of isolation, is anything to go by. From January 23 , when 50 million people in Hubei Province were kept in one of the biggest quarantines in history, much of China, where the COVID-19 pandemic first began, was placed under some form of restrictions. By one estimate, more than 750 million people were effectively under a strict lockdown. Since late March, as the number of cases outside of the Hubei epicentre in China began to subside, some restrictions were eased. On April 8 , the government said Hubei would finally end its 76 days of isolation.

The new normal

As offices, restaurants and even trains resume service, people in China are, however, finding that the normalcy they were waiting to return to is, in fact, anything but normal. The shadow of COVID-19 is still hanging over every aspect of daily life. In constant fear of the possibility of a second wave of infections, authorities are continuing with a range of physical distancing measures as a precaution.

Also read | U.S. State sues China for COVID-19 pandemic

For the rest of the world too, this may be the new normal that awaits us . An April 14 study by Harvard researchers suggested physical distancing measures may be here to stay, perhaps on an on-and-off basis, until 2022, because one-time lockdowns will not be enough to control the pandemic. Some are suggesting this could continue even longer until the world achieves ‘herd immunity’, which most scientists say can only be achieved through widespread vaccinations, which could take years. The post-COVID-19 world may be here to stay for a while yet.

Conversations I have had in recent days with acquaintances in Beijing and Shanghai have painted a picture of what this world may look like, a world where all those new words and phrases that have now become a part of our vocabulary – nucleic acid testing, social/physical distancing, and temperature screening – are becoming an integral part of day-to-day life. A friend who works in a start-up in Beijing’s Zhongguancun tech district told me offices now have to choose which employees go into work every day. Offices are reorganising their staff so every department is split into several teams, to ensure that one infection won’t paralyse the entire team. In some buildings, offices cannot hold more than a specified number of people on a given day, which may range from five to 10 depending on the size of the office, according to rules imposed by the property management.

Health is no longer a private matter. Your health QR code is now the most important passport to get you anywhere in any Chinese city. An app that every citizen has to download marks you green (safe), while orange or red may mean you can’t enter a shopping mall or restaurant. The colour depends on your travel history and who you have been in contact with, among other things. Then there is temperature screening. Getting half-a-dozen temperature checks a day is now the norm. Building authorities check every employee’s temperature every time they enter or leave the building. So do shopping malls, railway stations and airports. A high temperature means an ambulance may be called and you’ll have to go to hospital, whether you like it or not. If you are running a fever, even if you don’t have COVID-19, you may not be able to board a subway, or catch a train, or enter a shopping mall. Some businesses require every employee to take a nucleic acid test before returning to work. And of course, you cannot leave home without a face mask. Not wearing a face mask in public is now a punishable offence.

Also read | In Wuhan's revised coronavirus tally, death toll increases to 3,869

Social gatherings aren’t what they used to be. Weddings are being put on hold. Restaurants have reduced the number of tables by half, and you can only seat three at a table. In some restaurants, you will be sprayed with disinfectant before entering. Forget about ambience, too — plastic sheets separate every table. In China, the way people eat isn’t what it used to be either. On April 12, the National Health Commission said diners will have to be served meals in separate dishes. So if three diners order a dish, it will be served to each separately to prevent the risk of infection. Shops and restaurants are opening, but many other establishments remain closed. Bars and pubs now firmly limit the number of patrons who can be present at any given time. Some bars in China are openly barring foreigners, because of what the government calls a rise in “imported infections”, which is fanning a new kind of health-triggered xenophobia.

Transformative changes

While some businesses have opened, gyms, swimming pools, cinema halls, and not to mention most schools and colleges, remain shut. Perhaps the most transformative changes are being seen in education and tourism. Some 300 million Chinese students in schools and universities are now taking classes online every day, and all kinds of new e-learning platforms, teaching everything from classical music to Pilates, are now booming. Travel and tourism have been the hardest hit. In Beijing, starting April 12, a nucleic acid test certificate has to be produced when you check into a hotel. If you don’t, you can’t get a room. (If you’re a foreigner, you may not get a room anyway, according to the policies some hotels are following). Inter-city travel is now a costly exercise. Travelling to another city for work may bring you a 14-day mandatory quarantine when you return home. Then there is air travel. Travel for pleasure may become a thing of the past. And forget about travelling in pleasure. In China, most airline passengers are now decked out in not just masks, but full hazmat suits and goggles. Some airlines, such as Emirates, have started testing passengers for COVID-19 before boarding. Results are issued in 10 minutes.

Also read | Coronavirus did not come from us: Wuhan lab

As a result of the continued closures and restrictions, many businesses are floundering. To get consumers to support them, some cities in China are now issuing 30-day spending vouchers to encourage people to support small businesses and retail. They are also making two-and-a-half-day weekends the norm – perhaps one small sliver of a silver lining to hold on to amid all the dark clouds.

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