‘Do you want me to scan your temperature?’ asks the receptionist, brandishing an infrared thermometer. Arriving at my hotel in Shanghai, I have a hacking, chesty cough. I picked the wrong week to contract this year’s bout of normal, perfectly healthy winter flu. In China, there is now only one illness.
Like Christmas in the West, the Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) is always the time when big cities shut down. But thanks to the coronavirus, China has entered a period of quarantine. Early in January, there was still a large crowd of skaters on Houhai Lake in Beijing, revelling in the fun of the frozen landscape. But things have moved very fast. Concert halls, museums and cinemas have shut down. This week when I visited one of Beijing’s larger cinemas, which takes up an entire floor of one of the city’s monolithic shopping malls, the lift doors opened to an eerie darkness and silence. The floor was guarded by a lone steward. He was so confident that no one would be stupid enough to turn up that he had gone to sleep.
I am based in Beijing but this week I travelled to Shanghai. Although seasoned expats warned me against leaving (‘the city will be shut in the next two days, trust me’), I decided against cancelling a pre-booked train, but took a face mask as a precaution. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, wearing one for four-and-a-half hours.
Shanghai, ‘the Paris of the Orient’, is cold, grey and dead. Entire housing blocks remain unlit at night. Stepping into a shopping mall on the glitzy Nanjing Road was a grim experience. There are reminders everywhere that this is meant to be a joyful time. Jolly red-and-gold lanterns and hongbao adorn fences, streetlamps and trees. They seem a world away from the handful of spectral, masked figures wandering the streets.
The number of mouths and noses I’ve seen exposed in public over the past three days can be counted on one hand. Suddenly, leaving home with a naked face is as irresponsible as leaving without your keys. Wearing a mask in public is seen as a sign of good manners and a civic duty. ‘People will get angry with you,’ I am warned when I attempt to go outside without one.
Although there is still outward calm, fear manifests in private and online. At times of disaster, the Chinese put family above all else. Social media is full of stories of aggrieved households in Wuhan. Rumours are rife, answers not easy to find. Will my city be closed? Will there be food shortages? How do we know how many people have died? Many people distrust official statistics, and the uncertainty is making things worse.
Many people have cancelled all their holiday plans and social events. I had been invited to a New Year’s Day meal with a Chinese friend’s family. But they announced they would be celebrating on their own this year, with access forbidden to those outside the core family unit.
Others are turning to traditional medicine. After dinner, the mother of another Chinese friend thrust three bags of powdered herbs into my hands, with strict instructions to breathe into them whenever I got into a taxi.
A friend reports seeing masks being worn on the London Underground. And with reports of governments outbidding each other to see who can airlift their citizens out the quickest, my advice is: don’t panic. At the time of writing, no one I’ve spoken to knows anyone who has been infected with the virus. For now, the coronavirus is a spectre, and information about it is spread via the echo chamber of social media.
The economy will probably be the biggest victim. Old hands say this national shutdown is a far more assertive response than the Sars outbreak of 2003 was met by. The entertainment, hospitality and travel industries will lose billions of yuan. There has been a dramatic drop in the number of passengers travelling between Beijing and Shanghai.
The biggest threat is probably boredom. What do you do when your only avenue of entertainment is other people, but human contact is the whole problem? The answer is to create videos on social media. I’ve seen one of a girl pushing herself across the floor face down, with her head angled to the camera. She is a picture of perfect ennui.
Or there are even simpler options: a picture has gone viral on Weibo of an entirely empty Durex stand in a Beijing supermarket.