China Power | Society | East Asia

Everyday Life in China Under the Shadow of Coronavirus

“Living on top of a mountain” with food deliveries, no masks – and a surprisingly upbeat outlook.

Bonnie Girard
Everyday Life in China Under the Shadow of Coronavirus

Travelers wear face masks as they wait for trains the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

“Our whole family has been living on top of a mountain since a month ago, until all be smoothly safe.”

Lightly edited for clarity, that is the message from a Chinese couple in Zhejiang province, China, 700 kilometers (approximately 432 miles) east of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

All over China, people are finding creative and individualized ways of handling a deadly health crisis that is getting worse before it gets better.

In messages from Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang province, and Jiangsu province, Chinese friends report that they are “doing fine,” that “we are still alive,” and that “it will all be fine, I believe.”

One family in Beijing, 1,100 kilometers (just over 700 miles) north of Wuhan, have opted to remain in their two-story townhome indefinitely. They have solved their food problem by ordering online. Through a neighbor, meals are delivered outside their doorstep by the following day.

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Their lives are complicated by the fact that they can’t risk going out even if they needed to. Despite being business owners with a comfortable income and two properties in the Beijing area, they cannot get face masks.

Going through a relative in South Korea, 300 face masks are waiting to be sent to them. “But they are not allowed to be sent to China now,” the couple reports.

Even the masks they have ordered from TaoBao, the largest e-commerce shopping site in the world, have not arrived, and there is no indication when they will.

So, they remain inside, with a 7-year old, not knowing when they will be allowed to go back to work and send their son to school.

And in Shanghai, a student who recently returned to China from the United States with both a BSc and an MSc under his belt reports that the virus has “high infectivity but relatively low toxicity” and that his family are “safe so far.”

“The government and companies are working hard on isolating infected and potentially infected ones,” he adds.

In fact, it seems that most people around the country are handling the emergency with a great deal of stoicism, practical measures, and long-term optimism.

Perhaps the experience of the 2003 SARS epidemic, a respiratory virus in the same family as the novel coronavirus, is helping those who went through it to remain calm and cautious this time around.

A cultural tendency to accept a situation and bear it with dignity comes into play, as well.

In Yiwu, Zhejiang, home to the largest small commodities wholesale market in the world, a market trader says that “the market is still closed.”

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“Maybe it will open on the 21st of this month,” he added.

That means that the normal period of closure during Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, will have been extended to nearly a month’s time, possibly longer.

The market is made up of more than 75,000 individual booths and showrooms over a complex of five football stadium-sized buildings. The gargantuan collection of products sold in Yiwu includes jewelry, bags, scarves, home accessories, clothing accessories, office supplies, and electronics, to name but a few. These products ship all over the world container by container, mostly out of Ningbo, on Zhejiang coast, and Shanghai. Thousands of foreigners, mostly from the Middle East and other parts of Asia, live in Yiwu under special residency conditions that allow them to act as middlemen between the Yiwu manufacturers and traders and their markets back home.

But right now they have little to do. The February 7th official notice that referenced the February 21st possible opening date also says,

Based on the situation that Yiwu has ZERO new patient cases on Feb. 05 and Feb.06, Yiwu market started a procedure to allow certain market suppliers to return to Yiwu in advance to get ready for market open on Feb.21.

Suppliers from all areas except Hubei province, Wenzhou city, Taizhou city (these 3 areas have the most coronavirus cases in China) are allowed to return first.

However, these suppliers need to apply for approval…by submitting an online report through an App….They also need to have a 14-day-medical-isolation-and-watch before they can move around (emphasis added).

A local consultant predicts that “Yiwu market will be open on February 21st, but will not be fully in operation before the first week of March. Buyers’ visits are not suggested before the middle of March (emphasis added).”

Estimates differ, but it is generally accepted that Yiwu sells close to $1 billion worth of goods a month. The impact of the shutdown due to the coronavirus, if buyers do not return until mid-March, and if shipments are not being made for e-commerce customers, is therefore going to be at least $1 billion just in sales revenue, not including the loss of revenue that is affecting all of the supporting businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and shipping companies.

It is to be suspected that the everyday Chinese will suffer a significant economic impact from the coronavirus outbreak and the quarantine and isolation process that has followed. Most people around the world, even in the richer countries, who would find themselves out of work for a month or more would suffer a tremendous financial blow. But Chinese laobaixing – average people – are nothing if not resilient, and reactions from people around the country to which this author has been privy demonstrate that positive attitudes and practicality are the norm, not the exception.

Some are not daunted. One senior executive whose home and family are in Beijing but whose work is in southern China says that his whole extended family have “always been at my home.” He, however, will head down south to work “next Thursday.”

His closing thoughts are for others. He, who is metaphorically living in the jaws of the dragon, reminds those of us in relative safety thousands of miles away, “Health is the most important thing, so take care of yourself.”