off-centre Society

Beijing in the time of Corona

A walker on a deserted business street in Beijing, its red New Year lanterns looking forlorn. Photo: AFP

A walker on a deserted business street in Beijing, its red New Year lanterns looking forlorn. Photo: AFP  

As the Year of the Rat dawns, empty streets, shuttered shops and masked residents mark the once bustling metropolis

Winter in Beijing is often marked by a kaleidoscope of stark colours: a monotonous grey that swaddles bare trees dotted by fragile bird nests; a shroud of white that covers the city on the rare days of snow; the deep olive-green winter uniform of guards who stand motionless outside government buildings; and the indelible red of the flag that flutters atop buildings.

This winter, yet another colour has enveloped the normally bustling capital of the middle kingdom — the pallor of emptiness.

As cases of the Wuhan novel coronavirus rise by the day, Beijing has fallen silent. And empty. Its 23 million people have either left the city or are in a self-imposed quarantine in their homes.

I live in Beijing, in a stereotypical expat bubble — a sterile cocoon of tennis courts, dog parks, Pilates afternoons and coffee mornings. Ever since news of the virus broke, the complex has been emptying out rapidly. Some residents have escaped to their home countries; yet others, already out for the spring festival holiday (known as Chinese New Year to the outside world) that coincided with the start of the epidemic, have decided not to return for the foreseeable future. A government order closing all schools has made the exodus easier. Some embassies and companies have even ordered their citizens and employees out.

The decision to flee Beijing seems to be led more by a palpable sense of paranoia than plain common sense. There is a relentless, often unforgiving frenzy of social media posts that is spreading faster than the virus itself. For those of us who have chosen to stay, there is intense pressure from loved ones back home to leave at the earliest opportunity. But we are here. This is now our home.

Eye witness

Eager to bear witness to these extraordinary times facing the city, I decided to break my self-imposed house arrest and take a walk along the city centre. It was a cold Saturday afternoon, with clear skies, a perfect day for being outdoors. Yet, alley after alley looked deserted; swathes of concrete stretched endlessly on empty main streets with only a trickle of traffic, as I struggled to make peace with my new accessory, the ubiquitous surgical mask, a requirement for all outdoor travel in the city and the most visible symbol of the epidemic in China.

The late afternoon sun cast long eerie shadows of me and a few masked passers-by, all of us trying to make sense of this new normal in our lives, hopefully a temporary one. We were the veritable extras, walking our measured walk, on the sets of a sci-fi thriller, a cross between the Hollywood hits Contagion and The Quiet Place.

Not far away lay the expansive Tiananmen Square, exaggerated by its emptiness. Chairman Mao’s unsmiling portrait loomed large; his was the only unmasked face in the entire square. A few tourists walked about, eager to tick Tiananmen Square off their travel itinerary, hurriedly posing for masked selfies as bemused guards looked on.

Everyone’s gone

At the far corner, Qianmen Street, usually a delightful pedestrian stretch, looked almost abandoned, with empty stalls and shuttered shops plastered with government notices about the temporary closure of public places. Red lanterns — decorations from the abruptly cancelled spring festival celebrations in the city — swayed listlessly from lampposts. The Year of the Rat seemed all but forgotten in the wake of the epidemic.

I sipped my watery but much welcome coffee at an empty McDonald’s café, one of the few still open in the area, absorbing the starkness around me. A young couple sat at the other end, unmasked and abashed in their togetherness, almost thankful for the space this populous city had suddenly given them.

A few public buses drove past, carrying only a smattering of passengers who looked out vacantly from behind their masks. Public transport is active, but the passengers have stayed away. On my way back home, I passed by one of the largest general hospitals in the city. A fleet of ambulances was parked outside, on red alert, ready to attend to any call for medical help. A few nurses hung around by the sidewalk, sharing a light moment, eager to escape the cacophony of their work and soak in the silence on the streets.

Around the city, bright red banners previously carrying nationalistic messages were now replaced by exhortations to people to maintain personal hygiene. “Wash your hands frequently,” reminded one, “Always wear a mask,” admonished another. A lone kuaidi (Chinese for express delivery) van stood parked outside my compound, its driver standing alongside, as if on a never-ending smoke break. China’s kuaidi population, the backbone of its vibrant e-commerce industry, suddenly finds itself left with very little work.

Yet, in the midst of all the hysteria — the daily updates on fatalities and recoveries, the unabated series of cancelled flights and closing of borders — there is a strange sense of connectedness in the city, something I have never felt before.

The masked grocer down the road smiles from her eyes as she deftly bags the things I have bought; the security guard at the gate is happy to greet me, one of the few still left in the ghost compound he protects. Even strangers I meet on the street hold their gaze just a bit longer. It is as if our eyes are searching for some form of slight camaraderie even though our brains warn us to steer clear of human contact.

The Beijing-based writer is a cultural commentator.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 11:09:03 AM |

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