“It’s weird,” said Li, 42, a teacher from Beijing who has remained in the city since the outbreak of the coronavirus. “This isn’t Beijing. Beijing always has a lot of people. Right now the roads, restaurants and malls are all empty.” She spends her days at home cooking and eating, occasionally going to the shop for supplies.
Authorities are implementing “grid-style management” – total coverage – to uncover infections in communities. Over the past week, neighbourhood committees have knocked on doors, asking residents whether anyone in their household has recently visited Wuhan, the provincial capital where the virus is believed to have originated, or surrounding areas in Hubei province. Police have called to check on those in Beijing with Wuhan hukou, or household registrations.
In a city that attracts millions of workers from across the vast country, paranoia about outsiders has increased. Districts outside Beijing have set up checkpoints, and some villages have created their own de facto quarantines, ordering residents not to leave and barring anyone from coming in. Before the end of the national holiday on Sunday, officials have tried to persuade local residents not to treat those returning for work or school with hostility.
“As long as they have not been confirmed with the virus and there are no obvious signs of fever or cough, returnees should be allowed to freely enter and leave the community,” Zhao Jigui, deputy director of the Beijing municipal civil affairs bureau, said last Friday, referring to the districts or neighbourhoods where residents live. “Each district is a family and we must support each other,” Zhao added.
Across China, cities have turned into ghost towns as residents cloister themselves at home to avoid the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 200 people and infected almost 10,000 as it has reached every province, territory and municipality in China, as well as 19 other countries.
As the crisis, now declared a global health emergency, widens and more countries issue travel warnings for China, or cut off transport links, frustration and anxiety, as well as boredom, have grown.
“I haven’t been outside in a week,” said Yang, 39, an entrepreneur based in Shanghai who lives with his wife and newborn child. “I’m on self-imposed house arrest. I just don’t want to bring it back to the house.”
In Hubei province, the heart of the outbreak, where most of the deaths have occurred, residents live an even more isolated life. In a county near Huanggang, the worst-hit city after Wuhan, Li, 31, who works at a bank, has been at home with her parents for a week. The roads are shut.
Every day she hears a loudspeaker twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon advising residents not to go out. The neighbourhood committee visits residents every day to check on them. Two families in her neighbourhood – a couple who recently visited Wuhan and another who’ve been to Huanggang, a city a few kilometres east – have signs on their doors advising other residents not to visit.
Whenever a family member takes the rubbish out, one of the few times they leave, they are disinfected as soon as they return. Li is most anxious about the risks health workers are taking and the lack of supplies at hospitals. “I dare not look at the news. Every day people are dying,” she said.
In the face of public anger over what many see as the government’s slow and ham-fisted response to an outbreak first detected on 8 December, Chinese authorities have tried to appear decisive and transparent.
After widespread traffic restrictions that put about 50 million people in Hubei province under lockdown, Chinese leader Xi Jinping described the coronavirus epidemic as a demon. “We cannot let this demon hide,” he said on Tuesday, promising the “timely release of information” domestically and internationally. Following a directive vowing to hold local officials accountable, a health official in Huanggang was fired.
But criticism and mistrust have grown. Chinese internet users say officials are “tossing the pot”, or passing the buck, by blaming other departments or other officials for the crisis. Reports of desperate conditions in Hubei, where many residents have told of not being able to get help or reach hospitals where staff are overworked and undersupplied, have only increased public anger.
China’s Red Cross, in charge of all donations, has come under fire for distributing only an eighth of funds it has received, even as a doctor in Wuhan said that his hospital had run out of protective medical equipment. Photos posted online showed staff making protective gear out of garbage bags and bedsheets. A 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy reportedly died from hunger in Huanggang last week after his father and brother were quarantined.
A study published on Wednesday compounded the frustrations. The study in The New England Journal of Medicine used data from the first 425 cases in Wuhan and found evidence of human-to-human transmission in mid-December. Until 20 January, Chinese officials had insisted that there was no evidence the disease was transmissible by humans and that the virus was still manageable.
“What is the cost of being lied to? It’s not that we will mistake lies for truth. The real danger is that if we listen to too many lies, we can no longer recognise facts,” read one of the most popular comments in response to the study. “We don’t care who the heroes are. All we want to know is whose fault this is.”
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang