‘It all feels a little off’: Caution as post-virus China reopens

Millie Yang had been self-quarantining at home in Beijing with her 11-year-old son for several weeks when the youngster begged to be taken to hospital. “I’ve got the virus,” he said through tears. “I can’t breathe.”

His fear of COVID-19 had been mounting in recent days and Yang suspected he was having a panic attack.
Eventually, her son calmed down – he did not have the virus. But almost three months after the outbreak first escalated in China, he has yet to play outdoors in the courtyard of their apartment compound. He attends classes via online video chat. It has been tough for the whole family and they are hopeful that schools will reopen soon, Yang said.

Yang is one of many parents still working remotely, who together care for as many as one million primary- and middle school-aged children who remain at home in Beijing. She ventures out only for groceries. As a caretaker, she is excused from in-office attendance requirements, which Chinese-owned companies began enforcing in early March in an effort to kick the economy back into gear.

Officially, government data shows attendance levels for the capital’s large-scale enterprises have returned to 99.9 percent and traffic jams have returned to the ring roads.

However, social media anecdotes abound of people lying on attendance forms, or in some cases even keeping devices running at empty desks, to prevent bosses from discovering that some offices are not operating to the level before the outbreak.

But even as people return to work it is not easy for them to resume their former routines.

“Friends have described being in Beijing right now as feeling like the night before a storm is going to hit,” said Krish Raghav, who works for a local brewery. “Everything’s open, but it all feels a little off.”
Ruth Jiao, who works in marketing for an international tech company, has begun socialising again, but not in the same way as she did before.

“I wouldn’t meet friends I haven’t seen in a long time, because I don’t know who they’ve seen,” she said. “And I don’t want to put people in a weird position of having to reject my invitation if they don’t feel comfortable.”
Beijing a priority

Even as new cases have plummeted, fears of a second wave of infections have prompted the imposition of restrictions that are even more strict than before including mandatory quarantines.

President Xi Jinping has identified the city as a top priority in virus prevention efforts.

“The security and stability of the capital city is directly related to the overall work of the party and country,” he said in a recent speech.

Daily life is now accompanied by new restrictions and small inconveniences, most of which have been welcomed as an indication that the crisis is being properly managed.

Masks are mandatory – those who attempt to leave their homes without one can expect to be reminded not only by local security guards, but by other residents.

A citywide system of communal surveillance and tracking is conducted by the lowest level of government: neighbourhood committees. Members now guard the entrances of apartment complexes and in some cases entire streets, taking temperatures via hand-held machines.

Many venues also require visitors to log identification details. In the case of a new infection, these logs will be used to track everyone who might have crossed paths with the carrier.

Some shopping centres and office buildings use more high-tech methods of tracking, including facial-recognition temperature scanners and mobile phone data-linked QR codes that confirm whether a person has been in Beijing for more than two weeks.

Since March the government has shifted its focus outwards, towards the threat posed by incoming travellers. A new danger zone is the border between Russia and the Heilongjiang region, where last week 49 Chinese nationals tested positive in a single day as they attempted to travel home from Russia’s far east.

People arriving in Beijing from overseas or elsewhere in China are now required to complete a 14-day hotel quarantine, at their own expense.

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