How the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak Has Changed My Daily Life Here in China

As the novel coronavirus epidemic has gripped China, it has led to a cascade of life changes for everyone still here in the country, especially those living in Hubei or the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

I reside in Beijing, which hasn’t been as hard hit as Wuhan or Hubei province or other regions. Nevertheless the ongoing epidemic has still touched my life in a variety of ways, and it has meant adapting to a new, albeit temporary, existence in the name of doing our small part to prevent and control this new virus.

For those of you outside of China wondering what it might be like to be here right now, as an average person, I wanted to share some of my own experiences as someone residing in Beijing.

I’ve been at work during most of the Spring Festival holiday – the news doesn’t take a vacation — which allowed me to see it all unfold.

First things first — why I’m staying put

As many foreigners living in China have engaged in the “do I stay or do I go” debate, I’ve never once entertained the thought. For me, it was never even a question – of course I would stay. My life and work are here, my husband is here, and this country has long been a second home to me. No matter the headwinds, Jun and I will soldier on together in China.

Furthermore, people (such as Michael Wester in a piece for the Beijinger) have noted that travel poses a far greater risk for exposure to the novel coronavirus — on the train, bus or taxi to the airport, in the airport itself and even on the plane. And some asymptomatic cases have emerged, which means someone who appears perfectly healthy could in fact carry and transmit the virus.

It also helps to keep the epidemic in perspective. Consider what the US Center for Disease Control has said about the seasonal flu in the US:

CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

And here’s what the CDC said about the 2018-19 flu season in the US:

CDC estimates that influenza was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths during the 2018–2019 influenza season.

In any event, I am here to stay in Beijing. And remaining here means making a contribution, however insignificant, to support efforts to manage the outbreak, which involves complying with the many changes and measures now in place because of the epidemic.

Avoid going out, crowded places or unnecessary gatherings

News reports and public service announcements constantly remind us to not meet up or go to crowded places, and to generally avoid going out unless you absolutely have to. Because of this advice, I actually canceled a get-together at my apartment that I had planned with an old friend.

Many people in China have had to do the same, and it’s tough at this time of year, because visiting family and friends is a holiday tradition in Chinese culture known as bainian – but TV spots have suggested doing any such meetups online, such as a video chat.

Most cities have made the choice relatively easy – for example, Beijing canceled all of its temple fairs during the holiday, closed up nearly every major tourist attraction, and shuttered theaters to stage performances and screen movies.

Games in China national soccer and basketball leagues have halted.

Even my Catholic diocese here in Beijing has suspended all masses until further notice. Some people in a local faith community chat post the week’s readings for church and other suggestions for worship in lieu of going to church.

At the same time, recently local governments have encouraged people to work from home, and have delayed the start of school until later in February or even until March.

For me, abiding by the recommendation to avoid going out, crowds and gatherings means that I only spend time in the office and at home. Since I live just around the corner from the office, getting to work is still very easy and involves little chance for coming into contact with lots of people. As it is, I generally encounter only a handful of folks on the streets when I make the short walk between my apartment and the office.

I don’t mind having to stay in and avoid going out or meeting up with people. We all must make some small sacrifices to do our part to support the fight against the epidemic. And besides, I’m quite the homebody, loving an excuse to enjoy a movie night at home, read a book, write or cook up something delicious in the kitchen (like vegan carrot cake….mmmm!).

Temperature checks to enter main work building, community

During this outbreak, everyone must have their temperature checked in order to enter the main work building or our community. The checks help to detect one of the major symptoms of the virus – fever. Nobody with a temperature of 37.3 degrees Celsius or higher can come in.

If you register a fever, you would have to visit one of the designated clinics in the city that receives patients with fever and/or other potential symptoms. One of those clinics sits just a 10- to 15-minute walk down the street, so if I ever actually had to go, I could easily make it there on foot.

But of course, nobody really wants to get that kind of “firsthand hospital experience”. I don’t really fear for my life since I’m healthy — but I also don’t relish the idea of ending up isolated in a hospital for any period of time!

That’s why I have stepped up my vigilance to ensure I don’t get sick and end up developing a suspicious fever or other symptoms. Mostly, that means doing things like washing hands as much as possible, not touching my face, and paying more attention to hygiene in general.

I still continue my trusty “walking program” indoors, together with Jun, thanks to an exercise video.

Also, as l still work these days, I try to take it easy as much as possible and rest more in every way possible. (It’s a great excuse for me to indulge in some herbal additional foot baths for relaxation and well-being!)

Health reports to work unit

Human resources has asked us to also report our health and situation to them every sday starting late last week. We need to tell who we’re living with, where we are, whether we’ve had any connection to Hubei province (the epicenter of the virus), whether we have a normal temperature, and how we’re feeling. This appears to be common practice at other work units and even schools, based on what other people in chat groups have reported.

As odd as it might feel at times, I understand the measures – it’s a way for an organization to ensure early detection and quarantine, if necessary.

No more delivery guys allowed inside community

Before, delivery guys would bring any packages straight to our apartment door. But in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, anyone in the community receiving a delivery must pick it up at the gate. Again, it’s understandable, even if it creates some inconvenience – and could mean making two trips just to bring your order back.

In some cases, I’ve read that other communities in places in China have required no contact between people for any deliveries (in other words, the delivery guy must leave the goods at the gate and not hand them directly to you — after the person leaves, then you can retrieve your order). And some areas of China with more severe outbreaks have chosen to temporarily suspend deliveries altogether.

We feel very grateful deliveries to still receive deliveries here in our community in Beijing – including groceries and vegetables. We did our most recent produce shopping via delivery and this allowed us to get groceries without having to go to a market, which again helps to reduce person-to-person contact, an important way to prevent the novel coronavirus.

Face masks in short supply, making do with what you have

Once Wuhan and other cities in Hubei went into quarantine, it set off a wave of panic shopping on masks, leaving many – including me – with few to wear.

The official guidance suggests wearing a mask when you go out and many have been recommending disposable masks. But if you don’t have many, you can’t afford to throw them out. And if you have just a few, you don’t want to wear a potentially dirty face mask multiple times. Besides, a recent WHO report said:

Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures to limit spread of certain respiratory diseases, including 2019-nCoV, in affected areas. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted.

I figure, having something to cover my face outside, as a courtesy and to abide by the official guidance, will do for now.

I tie a large winter scarf around my head to cover my nose and mouth area. It works perfectly and, as a bonus, I can regularly wash it for good hygiene.

At the same time, the shortage in China has resulted in a lot of ingenious face mask alternatives emerging, some with hilarious results – masks made from instant noodle containers, plastic water jugs, plastic bags, pomelo/grapefruit rinds, T-shirts and, yes, even a thong.

A very empty office

At the office, we have easily at least 30 or 40 people on our floor, if not more. But these days, I can generally count on one hand everyone I’ve seen here.

Why are most of my colleagues not here? Besides heeding the advice to avoid crowding in offices, the company has, as an extra precaution, also asked everyone who left Beijing during the holiday to quarantine themselves in their homes for 14 days before coming to work. Given that most of my colleagues are either not from Beijing or like to travel during the holidays, that has forced the vast majority of them into this self-quarantine situation.

Still, I see a silver lining — at least I don’t have to queue up at the women’s bathroom in the office right now.

Don’t worry about me and Jun — we are doing fine here in Beijing, as I reported earlier this week, and have adjusted well to the new situation.

In the meantime, until things change, I will continue to work, stay positive and pray for the people on the front line as well as the patients and everyone else directly affected by the virus. Stay strong, Wuhan!

Are you living in China right now and experiencing the epidemic? Or do you know someone who currently is? Share those experiences in the comments.

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19 Replies to “How the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak Has Changed My Daily Life Here in China”

  1. Great to hear that you are keeping a cool head. It is sad that some people at the first sign of danger fly out. There is a risk involved too. Keep safe and do what will help to prevent infection. China will overcome the novel coronavirus monster. It will take some time but if everyone chips in to help stamp the spread of the virus, that will come sooner than later. Keep your spirits up and all the best wishes to China and its people in the fight against the monster.

    1. Thanks Om Ni. Yes, leaving involves risks — when really, staying put is safest, not to mention the fact that my entire life exists right here. Thank you for your kind wishes. We will remain upbeat!

  2. Old reader new commenter here *waves*
    I am glad that both of you are doing fine and adjusting to the current situation!
    Currently I am here in Zimbabwe (until July) and some countries in southern and eastern region of Africa have quarantined several suspected case of corona too. The Chinese embassy here in Zim is also doing great assisting the team especially created to fight the virus.
    All the best for you!

    1. Hey Miya, thank you so much for the comment — nice to “meet” you here! Interesting that you’re in Zimbabwe. Glad to hear the embassy is doing an excellent job there to tackle the virus.

  3. I’ve been outside 3 times in the last two weeks. Now that I’m back to work (from home) it’s a bit better, but the weekend is going to be hard. There’s not really anywhere to go apart from the supermarket, but I think a walk around the neighbourhood wouldn’t be risky… there’s no one outside anyway!

    Yesterday an ex colleague asked me if we were leaving or staying. I told him we are staying. My husband wouldn’t want to go and I don’t want to be separated for who knows how long. Besides, as you said, I also think being on a plane for several hours is more dangerous and I would need to quarantine myself and my son when I arrived, but that would be hard considering we would stay at my parents’ home. It’s easier and safer to stay (well, unless you’re in Wuhan, in which case I would also try to leave). Here in Suzhou I personally think my chances of catching the virus are pretty low (current numbers are 13 cases per million inhabitants or so). The worst part is not knowing when this will end. I want to bring my son to run outside, meet other children, see my friends, eat in a restaurant. And I’ve been wanting to go to Ikea to buy things for months, I wanted to go during the holidays and now I’m not sure the store will open even this month hahaha. But, as we say in Spanish, “Al mal tiempo, buena cara” 😉

    1. That’s good you can get out sometimes, Marta! And your decision to stay was much like mine. I agree, the uncertainty makes it very difficult, and the inability to enjoy those things you used to in the outside world.

      I like that saying!

  4. Thank you for your detailed and balanced article. You sound very sensible. I’m guessing that you and Jun will be just fine. It’s lucky that you live so close to your office. (I guess you planned it that way.) I laughed when I read about continuing your walking regimen. The cold winter weather has been bothering me lately, so on cold days, sometimes I set the timer on my phone and walk round and round the house. Then I do aerobic exercises to music. Best wishes.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Nicki, nice to see you here! Yes, we do feel fortunate in many ways. Ha ha, that’s great you have a kind of “walking program” of your own when the weather gets too cold. Best wishes to you too!

  5. My husband and I have lived in China for over 10 years, and several viruses have come and gone. The big difference between the SARS outbreak which was much more deadly and this new Coronavirus seems to be that with SARS you were not infectious until you were displaying symptoms (coughing, sneezing, fever etc) whereas with CV you could be infectious for up to 14 days prior to showing any symptoms – this makes it very difficult for the authorities to know who has the disease and who doesn’t.
    Over Xmas and January we were on an extended trip to the UK to visit my elderly (95yr old) mum and for my husband to attend meetings in London, and were on the point of return when the whole hooha began, and so we are still out of China.
    The British media have hyped up the situation to the extent that the population have no real idea about whether or not it will affect the UK in the way it has hit Hubei Province. Pharmacies in tiny country villages have notices in the window saying they are sold out of face masks. Face masks are not needed here – at least not yet.
    It has been an eyeopener to me as to how xenophobic the British are about the Chinese – downright racist, in a way that would never be tolerated if it were about black people or Jews. There have been some very nasty-Chinese rhetoric in the newspapers, on-line and on TV is incredibly depressing, and totally unjustified.
    My friends in China with whom I WeChat daily (both Chinese and ex-pat) are like you, very pragmatic and stoical. Being in ‘self-regulated’ quarantine is probably boring and inconvenient, but it will not last for ever. Kids may actually look forward to going back to school!!
    More worrying is the effect this shut-down is having on various small businesses, the loss of income over this period is hitting some very hard and they may fold.
    Anyway, I wish you and your husband well, stay safe and make the most of enforced idleness.
    Zaijian 再见 Jo

    1. Jo, thank you for the comment! Being stuck in the UK must have challenges of its own, with the uncertainty it creates. I have heard about the racism and xenophobia, and it’s just appalling what has emerged. Yes, the situation down on the ground here is generally more a matter of inconvenience, and possibly just a bit of anxiety generated by being monitored (e.g., daily temperature checks). And it is really tough for businesses at the moment. I feel fortunate to work for a news organization, which means my position isn’t impacted by the economy. Wishing you well also in the UK!

  6. As I said before, it is the fear of the unknown and that is why people are scared. They just don’t know if it could mutate into another Spanish flu. Yes, seasonal flu kills lots of people, but at least we know what it is and kind of accept it that it will always be around us. USA CDC reported that an estimated 80000 Americans, including 186 children, died during the 2017-2018 flu season. I am glad that you have given us a balanced report on this virus. There are so many faked news out there and sometimes it is hard to know who is telling the truth. The sad thing is those anti-ccp Chinese, when I read what they said about this virus. It is as if some of them thought this is a godsend to punish the ccp and had no sympathy for those who died !!! don’t they know that ccp does not equate to Chinese people ??? I hope Karma would catch up with those anti-ccp/Chinese people !!! Finally, you and your family take care !!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nelson. The unknowns do make this harder for sure. And yes, many have seized upon this outbreak to unleash their anti-Chinese sentiment — some really ugly stuff out there. We will take care and hope you do the same.

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