“Ever heard of the movie Ground Hog Day? Well, that pretty much sums up how we feel. ”
These are the words of my good friend Jenna, who lives with her husband and two girls, nine and thirteen, in Xi’an, northwest China.
“With closed school until at least On February 18, it starts, breakfast, exercise, play with toys, board games, cook, repeat, ”she says.
Xi’an is located in Shaanxi Province, which has a southern border with Hubei Province and its capital, Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
Currently, over 20,000 people worldwide have developed the virus with over 400 confirmed deaths. While this number is steadily increasing and has now overtaken the death toll from SARS, the mortality rate is still only two percent.
However, the Chinese Communist Party is not taking any chances. At least not at face value.
The outbreak has led to a response that is unparalleled in modern history. The Chinese authorities blocked many cities around Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the virus is believed to come from a market selling wild animals.
That is tens of millions of people who are effectively isolated from the outside world.
Anyone who has ever been to China will tell you that there is rarely a quiet moment in the nation with the largest population in the world. The streets are chaotic at best – they buzz day and night with people, cars, buses, motorcycles, food trucks and street cleaners – and fight for their place in the pandemonium. The noise can be almost deafening.
But not this month.
“It feels very scary, like in a ghost town, everything is closed. The only places that have to stay open are the supermarkets and hospitals. In our complex, a gate is completely sealed, one remains open so that we can get out and go shopping. Nobody is allowed to enter from outside the building. No family, no friends. ”
“The days are quiet and much too quiet for this city with 9 million inhabitants,” says Jenna, who has lived in China for 13 years and has seen everything.
However, their main concern is the millions that sell fruit and vegetables in local wet markets or run local restaurants. “How are you going to get an income?” She wonders. “At least the big companies are looked after by the government.”
An Australian friend, Robyn, who has been in China for nine years and should now return to Australia every day (depending on the flight), feels disappointed that there will be no personal goodbyes, no recent hot pot meals, just a quiet exit , “We are now very isolated in this crowded city,” she says.
She has a friend who lives in southeast Henan, very close to the border with Hubei Province, just three hours’ drive from Wuhan. She tells her that all the streets in my village are barricaded.
“Instead of the normal herds of people returning to celebrate the Spring Festival, my village is very calm. Everyone is bored and strangely no groups of people talk and no children play. ”
Temperature measurement is the new norm in the entire Middle Kingdom. Officials in Hazmat full-body suits measure temperatures randomly and catch people when they go out and return home, and everything is recorded.
Police and security personnel knock on people’s doors to check if someone is uncomfortable with the home, is hosting visitors, or has traveled anywhere in the past week.
And in a nation that survives on Taobao deliveries, where thousands of small tuk tuks weave in and out of alleyways and deliver packages to everyone around the clock, all deliveries stay at the gates, minimizing contact.
We Chat, the equivalent of the What’s app, sends messages informing people that there will be a “central spraying of medicines with airplanes”. Which drugs nobody is really safe.
The common areas in Jenna’s apartment are regularly sprayed with vinegar, while a friend’s complex is doused with bleach.
Public transport is kept to a minimum. I have The Uber equivalent has stopped and there are few taxis. If you manage to get a taxi and stop it, you’ll need to show your passport. All details are recorded, including the location where they picked you up and dropped you off.
In Wuhan, of course, things have reached a different level, almost everything is closed. Bibby, a Chinese local, says people shouldn’t go out unless it’s an absolute emergency. “Supermarkets are open for a limited time from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Meat and vegetables are the most difficult to buy and are always the first thing to go out.”
Face masks, which were usually just an accessory for foreigners who protect themselves from heavy pollution, are now mandatory or are subject to a heavy fine.
The hotel’s general manager, Peter, in Shenzhen, in the far southwest of China, had just passed the Hong Kong border crossing after evacuating his teenage daughter when he sent me a message. “It’s unknown, but almost nobody is on immigration and everyone who goes through has to fill out a health declaration.”
He has 400 hotel employees who are expected to return from various provinces in China after the Chinese New Year and rents rooms to quarantine them.
In the meantime, thousands of medical professionals in Hong Kong have gone on strike and have asked the city government to close all borders with mainland China to prevent the spread of the virus they call WARS.
Many foreigners have decided to leave the city, which has been plagued by protests for democracy for months, not to mention the SARS epidemic of 2003, which continues to weigh heavily on the city. Hong Kong’s Mona said at the time that everyone worked together to fight the disease, but 2020 is very different. “We have asked the government to close the borders as soon as possible, but they are not listening.”
“Since no planning is planned, the supply of masks is extremely scarce and people have to wait four to five hours to buy just a box of masks. Some stores sell them for HKD 900 ($ 115).
Infectious disease experts in Hong Kong are calling on the government to take “draconian” measures. It is estimated that up to 44,000 people could be infected in Wuhan, a number that is well above the official numbers.
Under the uncertainty, it is believed that the epidemic could peak in late April or early May.
This article by Well, women explains why, despite the risk, so many expats still choose to stay in China.
For them, whether or not on the ground pig day, it’s still at home and in many cases probably safer than traveling.
Nicole Webb is a Sydney journalist, writer and speaker who has spent seven years in China. Her debut memoir “China Blonde” will be released in mid-2020.
In Mint Mocha Musings you will find many fascinating, humorous and uplifting stories from your previous life as an expat in Asia.
You can also find them on Twitter: @nicoledwebb, and Instagram at Mint Mocha Musings.
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