This was meant to be a very special and joyous week, filled with parties. fun, and laughter to mark my daughter Hayley’s 13th birthday. Instead, it will be a quietly subdued celebration at home, with only her mum and dad present to sing Happy Birthday and share the cake.
Am I disappointed? Well, obviously, it is a huge let-down for Hayley, who had been planning her party for many months, thrilled at the prospect of finally becoming a teenager. But on the plus side, the weeks of citywide confinement, in keeping with the strict orders of the government, have resulted in coronavirus being under control in Beijing. Indeed, we are probably living in the safest major city in the world right now, with only a handful of new infections daily, all of them brought in from overseas by returning residents.
Hayley understands – kind of, to use her own parlance. She knows that she has lived through the worst crisis modern China has seen, unable to go to school and discouraged from seeing other children to counter the risk of infection, and realizes that venturing outside the country is, for now, impossible.
The quarantine rules in Beijing are wide-ranging and have been rigidly enforced. My husband Mark had to make an overseas business trip last week and, in keeping with the regulations, faces two weeks of home quarantine, unable to venture out for his daily 10-kilometer park run. To make matters worse, Hayley’s grandmother cannot visit, as she is confined to hospital, recovering from a hip operation.
Even as recently as six weeks ago the prospect of being house-bound for a long spell would have been unthinkable, let alone the notion of Europe and the United States in a state of virtual lockdown. I came back from Paris and London in January – both cities buzzing with energy with only a vague awareness of coronavirus – to a sombre China, with hundreds of people dying daily.
The capital city of Beijing, where I am based, brought in a series of measures to try and curb the spread which, ultimately, proved to be effective. Temperature checks were mandatory at housing compounds, malls and office blocks, people stopped mingling altogether, everyone wore masks, schools were closed indefinitely, bars and restaurants were bereft of customers, the normally traffic-clogged streets were free of cars, trucks and buses. The extreme measures have halted the spread, for now at least.
After six weeks of draconian lock-down, life is gradually beginning to return to normal: shops are open, with a smattering of customers, restaurants and bars are operating, albeit with a rule that specifies no more than three people per table, carefully distanced from each other.
In short, there is a semblance of the big-city vibe once more, but also a feeling that the very fabric of life has changed. Here in China, we feel we are coming out of the nightmare, but gradually and hesitantly; there is no celebratory mood, just one of relief and gratitude that we are alive and healthy.