Coronavirus outbreak: Situation in China

Coronavirus: Life in Beijing slows to a crawl with most residents staying at home

A sign announces the closure of the Forbidden City as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, on Feb 4, 2020.
A sign announces the closure of the Forbidden City as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, on Feb 4, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING • The stores have closed, along with theatres, museums, cinemas, temples, barbers, hair salons, karaoke bars, and most other shops and restaurants.

The Forbidden City has shut down "until further notice", as has a popular section of the Great Wall in the breezy, wintry hills to the northeast, far from urban congestion.

Beijing is not under a strict, government-ordered lockdown, like that in Wuhan and other cities in central China's Hubei province at the centre of the coronavirus epidemic. Beijing has, however, imposed restrictions on practically every aspect of life since declaring "the highest level of public health emergency" on Jan 24 - the eve of Chinese New Year.

Fliers from the Beijing government have been posted on shop windows and apartment buildings, urging everyone to take necessary precautions.

Many stores and shopping centres have set up temperature checks for anyone entering. Some, including the Yves Saint Laurent in the upscale Sanlitun shopping district, have posted signs refusing entry to anyone not wearing a mask.

Suspicion has become its own contagion. "Stay there," warned one man playing badminton with his daughter in Chaoyang Park, both wearing masks. "Don't get close to us."

Beijing, at the last count, had 212 coronavirus cases and one death, though those figures may rise. A city official announced on Monday that five medical workers at Fuxing Hospital had been infected.

At Beijing Capital International Airport, a new banner hanging in the concourse for the express train from the city centre hailed those helping to contain the coronavirus. "Kudos to all the medical workers who fight against the epidemic at the front line and all volunteers in society!" it read.

With most Beijing residents staying at home, the sprawling capital - the second-largest city in China after Shanghai and the beating heart of the Communist Party state - has slowed to an eerie, uncharacteristic crawl. Traffic, which is usually chronically bad, has disappeared.

The public places that are open are practically empty.

In the Temple of Earth, a park north of Tiananmen Square, the public chorus that gathers to sing every morning has stopped coming. The only sound in the park on a recent day was a loudspeaker announcement repeating the advice posted on fliers about avoiding crowded places, refraining from spitting and washing hands frequently.

Anyone entering any park must, by government edict, wear a mask and have his temperature checked.

Not far from the Temple of Earth, the Lama Temple, the city's most important Buddhist site, remains closed in what would normally have been its busiest season.

Ms Wang Haixia, a 62-year-old retiree, stood watch on Monday on a nearby street. She was one of hundreds of volunteers, sporting red arm bands to convey authority, who have answered a call from the Chinese Communist Party to do their part in this time of challenge.

"We're just overlooking the neighbourhood," she explained, adding that she and her colleagues would call the local authorities the moment it seemed necessary to do so.

No one knows when things will get back to normal.

"Of course, all of us want this to end as early as possible," Ms Wang said. "Nobody wants to live his life like this."

China's celebrated delivery drivers - the frenetic, ice-in-their-veins food and package scooter riders who have accelerated the country's e-commerce boom - have seen work plummet.

Some delivery companies have offered designated food delivery drop-off spots with "No touch" signs, while others have sent drivers with certificates recording their temperatures.

One driver, Mr Liu Chaohui, complained that business had fallen 90 per cent since the outbreak started, defying conventional wisdom that people stuck at home would be ordering in.

"I'm going to quit after this month if it continues to be like this," he said.


Over the last decade, the food-delivery industry became pervasive in China, serving more than 500 million customers and employing three million delivery drivers.

But as the virus death toll rises, those workers, in trademark blue and yellow jackets, are being shunned as potential carriers of the disease.

That is rattling the US$36 billion (S$49 billion) business and every slice of the economy it touches. Restaurants that rely on the services are moribund. Consumers are scrambling for alternatives.

"I've stopped ordering delivery food because the epidemic is really serious now and it freaks me out," said 25-year-old Cathy Liu, who lives in Beijing and used to order in once or twice a week.

"You don't know the people who make the food, how well it's protected in the delivery process, especially those carriers - they are dangerous as they come in contact with a lot of people every day and that definitely increases the chance that they may be infected."

Meituan Dianping and Alibaba Group Holding, the two biggest delivery companies, are racing to address the health concerns, not only to protect their businesses, but also to help millions of citizens under government lockdown.

Meituan introduced a service across 184 cities where food is dropped at a secure pickup station and people have no direct contact with deliverymen. Alibaba's has done the same in select cities.

In the virus' epicentre of Wuhan, said it is providing subsidies for drivers, while reducing restaurant commission rates, according to a Weibo post.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2020, with the headline 'Life in Beijing slows to a crawl with most residents staying at home'. Subscribe