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Beijing in the time of coronavirus

Residents walk through a quiet retail district in Beijing. Picture: Ng Han Guan/AP

Residents walk through a quiet retail district in Beijing. Picture: Ng Han Guan/AP

Published Mar 24, 2020

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Recently everyone in South Africa has been gripped by the news and development of Covid-19 - with more than 190000 confirmed cases reported outside China as of Friday.

I was in Beijing from January 24 to February 15 when the virus was spread from a few cases to the peak period. I arrived on the first day of the Chinese lunar new year. It is winter at this time of year.

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The Chinese New Year is the most important festival for Chinese people, with people all over the country travelling to be united with their families. But this holiday, because of Covid-19, was destined to be different, “bitter” for all Chinese people and will be remembered in history.

The day before I arrived in Beijing, Wuhan, the capital city of the central province of Hubei, was in lock down, with 495 Covid-19 cases confirmed. At the time, Beijing had only 23 cases.

On the flight to Beijing, I was planning what I would do during the three-week holiday back home, such as visiting parents in Harbin, seeing my aunt and uncle in Beijing, hanging out with friends, taking my son to the hospital for an eye check-up, going to karaoke, cleaning the house and going to restaurants. I noticed a few people wearing masks on the flight from Dubai to Beijing. I also had a mask on during the flight.

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I checked on my smartphone for updates on the disease while waiting for my luggage. So terrible! After only 20 hours, the spread of infection had soared. I was a little worried.

My husband and I called our parents and decided to cancel the trip to Harbin. As time went on, with the spread of the virus, we had to cancel all our plans. The number of confirmed cases and deaths climbed very quickly.

January 23, Beijing: 10 cases confirmed; Hubei: 422 confirmed, 30 deaths. January 31, Beijing: 121 confirmed, one death; Hubei: 7153 confirmed, 249 deaths. February 7, Beijing: 297 confirmed, one death; Hubei: 22112 confirmed, 618 deaths. February 15, Beijing 372 confirmed, three deaths; Hubei: 48175 confirmed, 1457 deaths.

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People were in anxiety and panic, since the virus transmitted so quickly and the incubation period could be up to 14 days. There was no effective medication to cure this disease (and still none). No hand sanitisers or masks were available from January until late last month.

We knew that Covid-19 mainly transmitted through droplets and close contacts. To mitigate the spread, the best way was to isolate people, lessen the movements of people and their contacts with each other. People knew the importance and obligation to isolate, to sterilise, keeping hands clean and social distancing. There was a slogan: “Homebody is contributing to the country.”

In Beijing, from February 6, any form of meal gatherings were forbidden.

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There was no lockdown in Beijing. We grounded ourselves. I went to the supermarket twice a week wearing a mask and protective eyewear. When we went out and came back, the residential community security guard took our temperature every time. The buttons of the lift were covered with plastic wrapping. It was believed the virus could stay on the metal as long as two to three days; the smell of disinfectants lingered in the air. We didn’t take public transport.

I reported each day the body temperature of my son for his school and mine to the personnel department.

My husband received a phone call via the internet from his company, checking whether he had a fever, whether he left Beijing or not, whether he had contact with the confirmed or suspected people who had the virus.

My family went outside to enjoy the sunshine once every two or three days. We wore masks and tried to keep at least a two metres away from other people. Now we know the mask is needed only when entering a crowded or confined place.

I was so emotional, with tears easily forming in my eyes, when I read the news that medical staff from across the country were designated to Hubei and working day and night to cure the patients, with some of them getting infected. The Emirates aircraft back to South Africa was full of people wearing face masks, I even had my protective eye-wear. I sat by a window, the guy sitting besides me was wearing a mask which didn’t look like a medical/surgical mask or the N95. The passenger sitting behind me began to cough as I took my seat.

I was in a panic and asked him: “Are you feeling okay?” “I am totally fine, I have pharyngitis,” he said. The guy next to me fell asleep and leant on me. I tried to keep my distance and turned my head to face the window in desperation.

I quarantined myself for two weeks before returning to work. I felt a little shortness of breath and took the swab and blood test at uMhlanga hospital on March 13. I got the test result two days later, and it was negative. What a relief!

Beijing is approaching summer now. On Thursday and Friday there were no local cases, only imported ones in China. Stringent measures were taken as overseas cases have outstripped domestic cases in respect of new cases there.

The virus has invaded the world. We are all at risk; we are all potential threats. Countries need to build a strong community of epidemic control, and all of us should support each other in this fight.

We have to sacrifice our own personal interests for the public good. Only by doing this, can we “smother” the virus and return to normal life.

* Ding is Deputy Chinese Consul-General in Durban but writes in her personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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