Life in China during the quarantine

Peter Hessler is an American with a wife and two young children who has been living in China for a few decades as a college teacher of English. In a very long article in The New Yorker, he describes his experience with how the Chinese authorities reacted after realizing the danger of what was going on, and what measures were put in place during 45 days of the lockdown that is still in place, though it is being relaxed. It was a massive operation that depended on many people implementing and monitoring the measures as well as a high level of compliance by the general public.

My family rents an apartment in a nine-building complex not far from the center of Chengdu, where I teach writing at a local university. We chose the place, last September, primarily for its location: the apartment blocks are situated beside a pleasant, tree-lined stretch of the Fu River, and there’s a subway stop outside one of the side gates. But, after the quarantine began, the subway was deserted and both side entrances were chained shut. Anybody who arrived at the main gate was greeted by an infrared temperature gun to the forehead. The gun was wielded by a government-assigned volunteer in a white hazmat suit, and, behind him, a turnstile led to a thick plastic mat soaked with a bleach solution. A sign read “Shoe Sole Disinfecting Area,” and there was always a trail of wet prints leading away from the mat, like a footbath at a public swimming pool.

Compared with other places, our compound’s restrictions were relatively light. We could leave and return as often as we pleased, provided that we carried passes that had been issued by the neighborhood committee, the most local level of the Communist Party. The majority of my friends in other parts of China were restricted to one individual per household going out every two days, and often that person had to tell the authorities where she was headed. Even at our complex, which has few foreign residents, it was rare for people to go outside. All restaurants, government offices, and most shops had been closed, and, after the Lunar New Year holiday ended, in February, all schools would be suspended indefinitely. One of the new Chengdu measures even banned “every sort of group dinner party.”

After that, we visited the zombie subway station. It was still operating, but the place was silent except for a public-service message, played on an endless loop, that warned nonexistent passengers to watch their step.

By December, the disease had started to spread among people. Some early victims included medical staff who, unaware that they were dealing with a new strain of virus, lacked appropriate protective gear. In Wuhan, a small number of doctors tried to report what they were seeing, but officials suppressed their comments.

The coverup gave the virus more time to spread unabated. But, in early January, once Chinese health officials grasped the seriousness of the situation, they moved quickly. “Within three days, they had scientists who were able to sequence and characterize the structure of the virus, which is unheard of,” Wafaa El-Sadr, the director of icap, a global-health center at Columbia University, told me.

The I.C.U. physician was one of about two hundred Huaxi staff who had been sent to Wuhan, and when I talked to him on February 22nd he said that none of his colleagues had been infected. He seemed confident that they would stay healthy, and he attributed the high death rate in Wuhan to the time it took to recognize a new disease. The difference from the rest of China was striking: on February 29th, when the government issued an analysis of more than fifty-five thousand confirmed cases, 5.8 per cent in Wuhan had resulted in death, compared with 0.7 per cent in other parts of China. The latter number seemed likely to decline significantly over time—in part because treatment was improving, but also because the early testing didn’t include many people who were mildly sick or asymptomatic. (The percentage of infections that are asymptomatic is one of the major unanswered questions about the virus.)

People rarely spoke in these situations. There were no greetings, no jokes, no moments of commiseration. Part of it was the masks, which were an obsession. On my floor, residents wore them even if they were merely dropping off garbage, ten feet from their door. Mask-wearing, after all, was required by the new measures, and people were diligent: I often saw motorcycle deliverymen helmetless and fiddling with their phones at thirty miles an hour, their masks safely in place. When I went running along the river at dawn, the few other people who were out sometimes shouted at me for being bare-faced.

From what I could tell, the lockdown diet of my neighbors was remarkably healthy. If quarantined Americans were forced to survive on delivery food, health officials would want to track the X curve of body-mass index rising across the drop in coronavirus cases. In Chengdu, though, my neighbors were obviously cooking: lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. I never saw evidence of alcohol going anywhere other than 1901: my apartment.

It was widely acknowledged that China’s measures had been remarkably effective at halting the advance of the disease. In mid-February, the World Health Organization sent twenty-five Chinese and international experts to visit medical facilities around the country, including in Wuhan and Chengdu. In a subsequent report, the W.H.O. announced, “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” One member of the delegation, Dale Fisher, a professor of medicine who specializes in infectious disease at the National University of Singapore, told me that China’s actions prevented hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths. “I can look at the epidemic curve,” he said, citing the government-issued statistics. “I can look at the trajectory it had and the trajectory that appeared after January 23rd, and there’s no doubt.”

In the meantime, there were no announcements of how long schools would be closed, or when the lockdown might be lifted. Many measures seemed likely to continue indefinitely. Every day before noon, like many workers across the country, I was required to take my temperature and submit it in a standardized form to my employer.

At the entrance to my compound, the Communist Party’s neighborhood committee erected a series of information boards. They displayed the new epidemic measures, along with an organizational chart for an entity called the Communist Party Service Team for Home Quarantine. Head shots and cell-phone numbers of seven officials were included. I had never lived anywhere in China where such information was posted in public.

In Chengdu, there are 1,685 neighborhood committees, and each had prepared a quarantine team like the one near my home. Most details of our local lockdown—the information boards, the hazmat thermometer workers—had been managed by the team, which consisted of thirty-eight people, mostly volunteers. In a jurisdiction of nearly six thousand residents, there had been exactly one case of coronavirus: the person in my compound.

The Party secretary explained that the resident had travelled to his home town, in Hubei, during the Lunar New Year holiday. In the early days of the epidemic, the government tracked such links so intensively that locals became terrified by the sight of a car with Hubei plates. Many Chengdu hotels turned away guests from Wuhan, so the government finally designated twelve lodgings to accept them.

In my neighborhood, the Party team organized periodic door-to-door surveys, which was how they learned of the resident’s Hubei trip. Thus far, people had come to my apartment three times, and they always asked about Hubei and Wuhan. Their policy was to call the community’s Health Service Center if anybody had visited those places.

When I asked if there had been much resistance to the new policies, he shook his head. “Ninety per cent of the population agrees,” he said. “We have some people who think it’s not convenient, and they want to go out and play mah-jongg or something. But most people follow the rules.”

From what I had seen, he wasn’t exaggerating. The overwhelming compliance was one of the most impressive features of the lockdown, along with the dedication of grassroots officials. In Wuhan, the government had sent eighteen hundred teams of epidemiologists, each consisting of at least five people, to trace the contacts of infected citizens. The W.H.O. report noted that the containment effort had been possible because of “the deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action.”

As March progressed, certain aspects of the lockdown eased, and many people began to return to work.

The role that children play in this process remains unclear. Fisher pointed out that there’s no evidence that they have helped spread the disease in China or elsewhere. The W.H.O. report noted that, during the mission’s nine-day trip, none of the Chinese medical personnel who were interviewed could recall a case in which transmission occurred from a child to an adult.

“My view on schools is that children aren’t at risk of severe disease,” Fisher said. “They don’t amplify the spread, they don’t amplify the transmission. They are kind of bystanders while it goes on. There’s no good reason to keep them out of school, unless the society is in total lockdown. I’d rather see just a modification of school activities.”

On the forty-fifth day of the lockdown, our family went out to dinner for the first time. Businesses had slowly started to open, according to the logic of the Party. Barbershops were among the first, probably because there was no online alternative. Banks came later, and then a barbecue place across the river opened its doors.

So there is hope that life can come back to some kind of normalcy. But it is unlikely that the US will have the same intense level of government action or the same degree of public acceptance and compliance, especially given the willful obtuseness of some people who minimize the risks or think that it is a hoax or that their faith will protect them. So it may take longer to bring the virus under control here.


  1. johnson catman says

    The willful ignorance, denial of reality, and insistence that social interaction (like religious services) continue by republicans/conservatives and the lying, ineptitude, and intentional blindness of The Orange Toddler-Tyrant and his administration are the reason that many in the US will needlessly become infected and die. The number of those residents that could have been saved through swift and decisive action is blood on the president’s hands. A contributing factor is the fact that there are idiots that continue to support him no matter what he says or does.
    Under control . . . INDEED!
    He won’t take responsibility . . . OF COURSE!
    It will go away with warm weather . . . REALLY LOOKS LIKE IT!
    Only 15 cases and going to zero . . . IMMEDIATELY, RIGHT?!
    Rage doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings.

  2. deepak shetty says

    @johnson catman
    I know a lot of people feel well deserved rage at the current President, his sycophants, his party and Fox news. However its still not clear to me why this same rage isn’t also directed to the common people who are His supporters -- I think I was reading something about Sweden where the Administration asked people to stay at home and they just did and their prime minister said something to the effect off “We are adults and we need to behave like adults” and most of their citizens actually did so without needing an actual government enforcement.
    The fact that so many US citizens dont listen isn’t just the toddler in chief’s doing. The distrust of actual expertise (Joe the Plumber knows more about the economy than actual economists!) is a deep rooted problem in the US.

  3. says

    I doubt the writer has left Chengdu and travelled since this began. Given how the regime controls the media and information, he likely only gets foreign news through a VPN. I have to wonder if his acccount was sanitized and approved before the New Yorker received it.

    Chengdu and Beijing are almost equally far from Wuhan. If the sick were going to leave Wuhan, which one are they more likely to head towards? A month ago, a woman named Huang left a women’s prison in Wuhan. It was already known she was infected, but she travelled anyway and did not follow quarantine within the capital. Who can honestly say how far it has spread on the mainland and how many died? How many others went to Beijing hoping for an answer?

    This fast food restaurant owner talks about “getting back to normal”, but that assumes the same number of customers will be there. How many will be missing from various businesses and companies across the country? Xi Limping can’t just say “they were never there”.

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