Outside the airport stretched a vacant city. Where had its 22 million gone? Notices asking people to wear masks and wash hands were plastered all over as China prepared for what felt like a long winter of lockdown
Like most expats living in China, we were away for Lunar year holiday this January when the news of the Covid-19 outbreak broke. Reports of the severity of the epidemic were just about developing. Unlike most other expats, we ignored popular advice from friends and well-wishers asking us to stay away from China and decided to return to our home in Beijing.
We had faith in the ability of the city to rally behind its residents and keep us safe. Besides, since Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, was more than 1,000km away from the capital, it didn't make sense to flee the city. Unbeknownst to us then, we were soon to witness an extraordinary time for a country usually buzzing with the energy of its people, of new technologies, and of a frenetic pace of development, now stunned into silence and emptiness as each passing day brought news of an unstoppable outbreak and, with it, a growing sense of foreboding among its people.
Week 1 began on 29 January. Where, we wondered, had the people gone? We left the revelry of the Australian Open grounds where we had spent a better part of our holiday, and landed in the uneasy calm of chilly Beijing as our plane taxied past rows of grounded aircraft.
The hysteria of cancelled flights and closed borders was only just beginning to unfold. Beijing Capital International Airport, said to be the second busiest in the world, was now starkly empty. Outside the airport stretched a vacant city. Its 22 million people seemed to have vanished overnight behind closed doors and cordoned-off compounds.
Government notices asking people to wear masks and wash their hands were plastered all over, as the country prepared for what felt like a long winter of lockdown.
Week 2 was about online learning and working from home. The holidays had ended, but the frenzy of dealing with the crisis had only just begun, as the infection count spiralled out of control. Schools across the country moved to online learning. Confused students vacillated between the joys of waking up late and showing up for "class" in pyjamas, and the loneliness of learning in isolation.
Most offices had begun working from home, but for a large part of the population—migrant workers and small business owners—work had come to a standstill, as shops, restaurants and cafes stayed shut. There were small upsides, too. Beijing's infamous pollution had cleared up in the wake of skeletal traffic and closed factories. Driving to the centre of the city from my home was no long a chore.
Meanwhile, I continued to live in my "Groundhog Day" reality, waking up each day to new updates on my phone with epidemic terminology that was changing every other day—confirmed, critical, recovering, fatal—as I obsessively analysed the numbers and decoded graphs, often losing sight of the actual lives lurking beneath these cold statistics.
Overcome with a strange sense of loyalty to this country, of which I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, I doggedly debunked stories forwarded to me on social media. These were full of outlandish conspiracy theories, and bizarre stories of on-ground "realities" in China.
Week 3, beginning on Valentine's Day, brought virtual bouquets and QR codes. Chinese social media was rife with endearing messages of love and support for residents of Wuhan, with funny virtual bouquets of roses, masks and hand sanitizers. It had been barely a week since the passing of the whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang. Tributes kept flowing in.
A fortnight into lockdown, most of us were losing sense of time as the days blurred into each other, our sartorial taste now limited to changing masks while stepping out to nearby stores. The week also brought new restrictions, as big cities across the country set up multiple check points to monitor temperatures and track the whereabouts of the returning workforce.
Digital technology empowered residents and employees to track their health and report it to the relevant authorities. QR codes began to control access to office buildings: A green one for entry, a red one for reporting to the nearest hospital. A large part of China's workforce, from security guards and cleaners to sales-people and healthcare workers, had been working relentlessly for more than a month, often stepping beyond the call of duty, their once-smiling faces now looking fatigued.
Week 4 offered a point of inflexion and a sliver of hope. A slight sense of optimism filled Beijing's grey outdoors as the country's daily number of cases finally began to decline. China slowly moved out of international news headlines as other virus-hit countries took centre-stage. The streets were now getting busier, and more stores were staying open every day—albeit cautiously. Our neighbourhood hairdresser was finally open for business, and got busy almost immediately on a line of masked customers desperate for a much-needed new look.
Huge challenges remain—for migrant workers to return to work, the economy to be recharged, and for children to finally go back to school, for their sanity and that of their parents'. But for now, the lockdown is slowly coming undone, one day at a time.
Shruti Bajpai is a Beijing-based cultural commentator