COVID 19: Beijing struggles to return to normalcy

COVID 19: Beijing struggles to return to normalcy
COVID 19: Beijing struggles to return to normalcy

The outbreak of COVID-19 is rapidly slowing in China but, at least in the capital of Beijing, any kind of normalcy will take time to return. Even though some of the city’s 20-plus million residents are beginning to venture out, the streets are far less busy than they once were.

For the first time in the five weeks that we have been under virtual lockdown in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, we decided to step out of our comfort zone to see how life has changed in Beijing.

My partner and I hopped on a taxi for a short 20-minute drive to the Summer Palace, a popular local hangout spot where the emperors of old used to spend their summer holidays. We decided to risk the outing after learning that it is one of the few of the city’s many attractions that is now open. Other spots such as the Forbidden City, the National Art Museum and the few sections of the Great Wall nearby have been closed since late January.

Across China, in particular outside of Hubei Province, the spread of the coronavirus has slowed down drastically. There have been several days with no new cases outside of Hubei. On March 9, just 19 new cases were reported across the country and the number of “active cases” (meaning not discharged) is down to less than 18,000 from a peak of more than 58,000. 

Still, it is impossible to ignore the nervousness that remains. Taxis now have a plastic partition between the front and the back seats. Taxi drivers, once famously chatty, drive in silence and relatively smoothly. The usual traffic jams were nowhere to be found. Our driver on the way there had put up a sign on the partition that said ‘the coronavirus cannot transmit through this piece of plastic, but love can’.

We joked that this time we could have the whole Summer Palace to ourselves, expecting Beijingers would continue to heed calls by the authorities to stay home as much as possible. To our surprise, there were hundreds of visitors at the Palace taking in the barren trees against the rare blue sky. It seems a lot of people wanted a breath of fresh air, even if through their masks, and a bit of outdoor fun after the long, dark days of winter spent mostly indoors.

The scene at the Summer Palace was bizarre. Everyone wore a mask even in the spacious garden and were highly cautious of close contact with anyone. Boats no longer sailed on the lake, a stark contrast to the bustle we saw last May, when thousands of visitors swamped the royal garden for a walk or a boat ride. Loudspeakers were set up to remind visitors to wear their masks and avoid gathering in groups.

Still, the garden remained a surprisingly lively pace despite the quarantine, perhaps because it one of the few options available to the public. Even though the number of visitors was small compared to just a few months earlier, there were still unusual traffic jams around the Palace. Many visitors preferred driving to taking public transport and risk too close contact with other people. 

Assuming that with the slowdown in the outbreak, restaurants downtown would have reopened for business, we headed for the popular South Gong and Drum Lane, or Nanluoguxiang as the locals call it, for a late lunch after the Summer Palace. But the hutong, or alleyway, where the restaurant is located is no longer open to anyone except residents. Security guards stand behind barriers at the entrance of every hutong and only let through residents with a temporary paper pass. Our favourite Japanese izakaya next to a subway station remains shut. 

As spring approaches, there are signs of life. Trees have started to slowly bloom, but much of the capital city remains idle, as it has been since the Spring Festival holiday at the end of January. Most shops and restaurants remain closed, despite notices saying “reopening on February 2” in many windows. Small eateries are open only for delivery. 

It may still take several weeks for Beijing to regain its usual hustle and bustle. 

In the end, we gave up our plans to eat out that Saturday evening and celebrate the return of a normal life. After all, normal life has not yet resumed.