Living with coronavirus: ‘One couple said their sex life had never been better’

Chengdu Letter: Self-quarantine measures have some benefits as city hunkers down

The head of the local neighbourhood committee  carries a loudspeaker that plays a warning message about the coronavirus  in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

The head of the local neighbourhood committee carries a loudspeaker that plays a warning message about the coronavirus in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

 

More than 14 million people call Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, home – but wandering around the desolate streets in recent days you’d be unlikely to come across a dozen or two.

The province, home too of the pandas and spicy hotpot, is bracing for a battle. While Chengdu is 1,000km from Wuhan, as a regional hub it is considered a high-risk zone, and one susceptible to a major coronavirus outbreak.

So far the province has only reported 321 confirmed cases and one death, but the local government is already erecting a dedicated facility to handle an expected surge in patients as human-to-human transmissions increase in the region.

In the city’s outskirts, drones hover over people on the street who are not wearing masks, and chastisements and warnings come flowing out of the airborne speakers.

Shops, offices, schools, restaurants, bars are shuttered. Supermarkets and some local grocers open for a few hours a day, their fresh produce disappearing from the shelves rapidly as some shoppers panic and stockpile.

Trolleys overflowing with noodles, rice, meat and vegetables sail by. As I was picking a decent head of broccoli off a supermarket rack the other day, an elderly woman beside me wrenched it out of my hands and made a dash for it. A survival-of-the-fittest consumer experience, and I was well beaten.

Customers wearing masks select vegetables in a supermarket in Beijing. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
Customers wearing masks select vegetables in a supermarket in Beijing. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
A man takes pictures near a statue with a face mask on in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China. Photograph: cnsphoto via Reuters
A man takes pictures near a statue with a face mask on in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China. Photograph: cnsphoto via Reuters

The panic subsides when shelves are brimming, and ratchets up again when the shops empty out and rumours float about supply-chain issues.

Most people confine themselves to their homes for days on end, sending out one foraging family member every few days to replenish supplies.

Blaring speakers

Outside, speakers blare out reminders to citizens to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Big screens show a man scrubbing his hands with sanitiser and a woman sneezing into her arm in slow motion. In the city’s outskirts, drones hover over people on the street who are not wearing masks, and chastisements and warnings come flowing out of the airborne speakers.

Temperature checks are everywhere, with masked officials brandishing thermometre guns outside housing complexes and supermarkets. If you register 37.3 degrees or above you are in the net and face a period of mandatory quarantine.

They are learning how to cook new dishes, they are teaching their kids French, they are taking online violin lessons.

After hauling grocery bags back to their homes, some perspiring shoppers had to take the test three of four times before their temperature dropped below the red-flag point. With sighs of relief, they finally shuffled past the checkpoint.

At home, people serve their time glued to their phones following the never-ending news cycle about the outbreak and the deluge of online comments that follow each development.

Flats are cleaned and re-cleaned. TV series are binge watched and rewatched. Friends of mine said they arranged an indoor badminton tournament with the kitchen table stood up on its side as the makeshift net. They are learning how to cook new dishes, they are teaching their kids French, they are taking online violin lessons.

One couple said their sex life had never been better as they looked for ways to pass the time under lockdown. Similarly, there was something of a mini baby boom nine months after the Sars crisis 17 years ago when self-quarantine measures were also in place. The divorce rate reportedly jumped too around that time, as some evidently struggled with the prolonged close proximity to spouses.

The city is not fully closed off, as yet anyway. There are still some flights leaving, but a circulating rumour is that Chengdu will be one of the next cities to be fully sealed off in the battle to stem the spread of the virus, following moves made in Hubei and parts of Zhejiang province that have 80 million under full lockdown.

An empty street in Beijing on Wednesday. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
An empty street in Beijing on Wednesday. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
Passengers wear face masks on a subway train in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA
Passengers wear face masks on a subway train in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA
A dog wears a paper cup over its mouth on a street in Beijing. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
A dog wears a paper cup over its mouth on a street in Beijing. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

But for those wanting to leave now options are very limited, even with no full lockdown in place. Many countries around the world are not accepting travellers who have been in China for the past 14 days, and the European Union said on Tuesday it was considering making a similar call soon.

A fear many have is if they left now they would spend several hours on a plane, where contagions can spread relatively easily, and when they got to their destination they would either be sent back to China or put into full quarantine for 14 days.

For most, continuing self-quarantining at home is a better option. Just hunker down and get through this, seems to be the feeling of many. Most are not panicking, aware that it is people with serious underlying conditions who are most susceptible, and that the mortality rate remains low at about 2 per cent. Many infected recover quickly.

The official death toll is now more than 560, with the number of confirmed cases at 28,000. Factoring in all the suspected cases, those currently under observation and those who haven’t got medical attention yet, it is widely believed these figures will continue to rise for some time more before we start to see any tapering off.

Information issues

It is now well established the Communist Party system did not make full information about this virus public in a timely manner. Weeks after officials knew they had a deadly new virus on their hands, with human-to-human transmissions, they were still downplaying it to the public.

They arrested Wuhan medics who tried to warn people about the dangers of the pathogen more than three weeks before the authorities took decisive action, by which time five million people had already left Wuhan for the lunar new year holiday.

The Wuhan mayor has apologised and offered to resign, but he ultimately laid the blame firmly at the feet of the party leadership in Beijing, being the only ones with the authority to declare an epidemic. President Xi Jinping and his politburo have been humbled and spoke of serious shortcomings in the system, and in an extremely rare rebuke the supreme court lambasted the government for stifling the information flow in the outbreak’s early days.

Also extremely unusually, we have seen flows of angst and anger tolerated online. The party are past-masters at managing torrents of emotion online, and judge when to flick open the valve to release societal pressure, and when to nudge it shut again. For now, they are letting a lot go, particularly when the barbs are aimed at local-level failings, rather than questioning the overarching ideological infrastructure that holds everything in place.

Opaque system

Regardless of who publicly takes the blame, Xi’s government is facing a challenge like never before. The full details of who knew what exactly, and when, may never be disclosed, but there is a widespread understanding that the opaque, rigidly controlled, top-down system, where officials are discouraged from passing on bad news, seriously slowed the information flow here.

Heads will no doubt roll, but in Chengdu and elsewhere people have other things on their minds for now.

The lunar new year is often a time for resolutions and one woman recently posted hers online, half in jest, summing up the mood:

“This year my three resolutions are simply: Survive. Survive. And survive,” she wrote.

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