In Beijing, Coronavirus 2019-nCoV Has Created a Siege Mentality (2020/02/07)

Heather Mowbray writes from Beijing, where residents are hunkering down while following activities 1200 km away in Wuhan

Well before dusk on Friday 24 January, the lake was empty of ice skaters. Quiet was to be expected. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve, and the most important family dinner of the year was starting early.

Beijing tends to become very local over the holidays as migrants make an annual trip back home. This time, however, the eeriness had more to do with an A4 notice taped to every doorpost. Old Zhang, general manager of the Houhai yacht club, explained, “Skating is over for the season. SARS. They’ve shut the place down.”

With this began a pattern. When visiting anywhere in Beijing, even villages in the hills, I found places shut down and outsiders urged to return home. Across the border in the mountains of Hebei province, I woke on a heated brick kang bed to the sound of loudspeakers screeching orders: “Wash your hands, cover your faces, and keep outsiders away.” Bundled into a van by the village chief, we were sent back into the city.

Back in Beijing, the hutong alleys were plastered with notices: “If you are coming back into the city after New Year, report yourself to the local neighbourhood committee. Keep an eye on your temperature. Avoid public gatherings.” By day 3 of the crisis they included a scannable QR code to upload your recent whereabouts. These instructions were followed up by door-to-door inspection rounds.

Disaster zone

In an emergency, propaganda gets classic—banners, notices, loudspeakers, mass text messages. The older generation have a high level of trust in the government, many having worked for state owned enterprises and expect lifelong support. They do what they’re told, wrote Lavender Au, a health tech watcher at the media outlet TechNode, who was under lockdown in Hubei province (which contains Wuhan) and awaiting evacuation to her parents in London.

As Chinese military medical staff were flown into Wuhan’s quickly built 1000 bed hospitals, the situation in Wuhan was dire, said Au: it seemed like a disaster zone, she told The BMJ. She has read posts about doctors not eating because they’re too scared to take off protective clothing in case they don’t get new supplies, as well as stories of people dying at home because there aren’t enough hospital beds.

Finding doctors prepared to comment is hard, so those willing to do so get a lot of attention, which is sometimes critical. Cai Yi, an infectious disease doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, responds to online criticism on his Sina Weibo blog: “We are not stupid, but patients keep on coming, and we don’t have enough isolation spots for them. We might not be wearing the most standard protective clothing or the very best medical masks. We are simply treating too many patients to avoid risk.”

Author: Heather Mowbray