How COVID-19 Changed Our Lives: a Report From Beijing

On January 18, after attending a meeting in Hangzhou, I planned to return to my home in Beijing. At that time, the Spring Festival in China was approaching. Although I had started buying tickets one week in advance, I still did not get a high-speed train ticket from Hangzhou to Beijing so I had to go from Hangzhou to Shanghai and wait for several hours before changing to a later train to return to Beijing.

There are high-speed trains between Beijing and Hangzhou and Shanghai every five to ten minutes. Even so, it can’t meet people’s travel needs during the Spring Festival. High-speed railway stations and airports in all major cities were overcrowded and at security checkpoints, people lined up in long queues.

China’s transportation sector is doing its best to ensure the world’s largest population’s mobility and transport needs. Everyone was looking forward to the long holiday in the New Year and the reunion with their families.

There and then, nobody knew that after four days all this would change completely. Like no one expected that the whole world would change fundamentally in a couple of months.

The whole country was beaming with joy and peace.

The TV news stations were constantly showing people’s happy programs in preparation for the New Year holiday. A flash of news that reported a few cases of new pneumonia in Wuhan wouldn’t have attracted much attention.

So, people continue their preparations for the New Year.

Suddenly, however, a group of experts who have visited Wuhan appears on the TV program my family and I usually see and they suggest that people should not go to Wuhan if they could avoid it and that people in Wuhan should not go out at all.

Things are now getting quite serious and reports follow with rapidly increasing numbers of patients.

On January 23, the government suddenly announced the closure of Wuhan, a megacity with a population of 11 million. The next day, it was announced that all public transportation in the city would be stopped, private cars would be banned, and everyone would stay at home.

On January 24, on Chinese New Year’s Eve, medical staff in some provinces outside Hubei were suddenly notified that they must stop their routine work, pack their luggage within an hour and assemble for their travel to Wuhan. It’s now a huge medical rescue operation.

At this point, everyone is shrouded in anxiety.

At 8 pm, the most important TV program of the year, the New Year’s Gala, is performed as usual and broadcast live across the country. My family still sit around the TV and watch the New Year performances and celebrations. But we feel increasingly uneasy.

We keep updating news apps on our mobile phones to understand better the situation. A few hours later, the first medical teams from other provinces arrive in Wuhan.

Next, we learn that other parts of the country are also beginning to experience new cases of the virus; restrictions on travel are getting stricter.

My family originally planned to go to Hunan province which is 1300 kilometres away from Beijing to visit my parents during the new year.

But we finally recognise that the situation is such that we must cancel that trip. The next thing that happens is that the government calls on all the country’s citizens to live in isolation for two weeks. And if and when they have to go out to buy daily necessities, they must wear masks.

Over the next few days, the reports tell of ever-increasing numbers of new cases. The death rate was also soaring. The feeling of fear and anxiety is now manifest, going up and down with the reports we hear and see.

It all goes very fast…

At the same time, the country is moving quickly. One medical team after the other gathers in Wuhan from all over the country. Within ten days, two hospitals have sprung up and dozens of temporary hospitals are being built.

Seeing all this, our anxiety begins to ease and our confidence increases. I pull out a book on ancient Chinese philosophy from the shelf, intending to force myself to calm down, read it and turn my thoughts on something else but this catastrophe. I had tried to get into this book several times before but every time I had given up because it was too difficult for me. Was this the right good opportunity?

The week-long New Year holiday passed quickly, and the government decided to extend the holiday nationwide and postpone the opening date of all the schools.

My children cheered when they heard the news, but I had to think about how to deal with this unexpected situation.

Everyone is now looking for creative new solutions. How do you operate when you and your family is suddenly isolated physically in your home without any prior planning?

The demand for online office work and online education suddenly explodes and – predictably – some websites as well as many companies collapse.

The situation gradually improves after a week or two. We are learning to live with this as the new normal. My elder daughter faces her college entrance examination in her final year of high school. Her school had quickly begun to organize online teaching. Teachers and children tried their best to adapt to the new way of teaching and learning.

On social media, the learning of new skills has become popular, and people’s ability to adapt to new situations is beyond imagination – so impressive.

Eventually, the good news was that there were fewer and fewer new cases in Wuhan; more and more people were cured and discharged from hospitals. Temporary hospitals were gradually emptied and closed one by one.

Epidemic prevention and control measures are still being strictly implemented, masks are worn in public places, and special personnel deployed at all open buildings are equipped to check the body temperature of people entering.

It is predicted and expected that this will be our new ‘normal’ life for quite some time to come.

The epidemic situation in China is now basically over but – sadly, indeed – the virus has begun to spread to many other parts of the world. The number of infected and diseased are growing.

A heavy haze is now covering our global village. I believe it is just the beginning of a great change, and no one knows exactly what the world will look like during and after COVID-19.

The word “crisis” in Chinese includes the words “crisis” and “opportunity”, which means that out of a crisis new opportunities can also emerge.

We must hope that we shall all learn something constructive from the Corona pandemic and that a new and better world will emerge after it.

Liu Jian is Co-Founder and Board Member of Ichi Foundation. She lives in Beijing.

This article first appeared on TFF.