Wheel comes full circle as China focuses on outside threat

Beijing Letter: Dwindling daily numbers of fresh infections now barely registering on global graph

A shopper    in a supermarket in Beijing. China’s consumer spending and factory activity fell more than expected in January and February as it fought to stem the pandemic. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

A shopper in a supermarket in Beijing. China’s consumer spending and factory activity fell more than expected in January and February as it fought to stem the pandemic. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

 

As we watched, the coronavirus epicentre jumped to Europe – leaving China standing dazed after a 50-day shellacking.

The switch around is presented on the streets in small ways. Until very recently every Apple store in China was shuttered, while they were open everywhere else around the world. Now, it is the opposite. The tech giant’s 42 China branches are bustling, but the pandemic has forced them to close elsewhere around the globe.

Wuhan Zall FC, the professional football team who play at home in ground zero, spent the past six weeks at a training camp in the safety of Spain’s Costa Del Sol – until it was safe no more. They have just been dispatched back to China, the current haven in a game with shifting goalposts.

Panic-buying scenes are on hold here, and the only queues seen in central Beijing over the weekend were for bubble tea and smart phones.

China has registered 81,000 confirmed cases of the virus, which have led to the loss of 3,226 lives to date. But now, instead of the thousands of fresh infections per day that we witnessed until recently, the daily numbers are barely registering on the global graph.

On Tuesday, the health commission reported just one new confirmed local infection across China’s 31 provinces. There were, however, 20 new imported cases. That brings the number of imported infections to 143, making border points the current frontline in China’s battle to stem this outbreak.

Officials said many of the new cases were asymptomatic when they arrived in China, with symptoms showing only later.

To plug this hole, international travellers landing in Beijing will now be transferred to a central isolation facility for 14 days of observation. The travellers will be billed for their stay, officials said, with daily rates varying depending on the facility.

One Wexford man who teaches here flew back into China eight days ago. He was doing his 14-day self-isolation period in his apartment, as planned, when he got a call to say the regulations had changed, and he’d have to finish out his quarantine in a designated hotel.

He won’t forget this St Patrick’s Day anytime soon, as men in hazmat suits came to his door in an ambulance to ferry him to his new temporary home.

“It’s hard to digest,” he said. “I was given two or three hours’ notice.”

With severely reduced services, flights to China are scarce these days – even with the prospect of a quarantine facility waiting. Some Chinese parents with children in UK schools are so keen to bring their loved ones home – and far away from Boris Johnson’s “herd immunity” theory – they are clubbing together to try to charter a plane from London to Beijing, local reports said.

Dropped dramatically

Though infection levels have dropped dramatically in these parts, restrictions are still being slotted into place. Even the fabled Mount Everest will be off limits this year, from the Chinese approach at least, with officials saying they didn’t want to risk an influx of foreign climbers.

The silver linings, however, now also highlight the fact that Hubei has recorded zero infections outside of Wuhan for 12 straight days – sweet news for the near 60 million people in the province who have been in lockdown since the end of January.

Numbered among them are seven Irish who tell me they are very much looking forward to ending their extended stint of social distancing, when the city gates finally do open, and celebrating the return of their liberty in The Paddyfield Irish bar in the heart of Wuhan.

Nearly 69,000 people have recovered here so far, with the number who are still infected now down to about 9,000.

It feels like relief is waxing, while anxiety is finally on the wane. Yet the mood also reflects the uncertain and uneasy days in store

Slow-motion images of normality are appearing here and there in Beijing, but the sound is still somehow muted in this typically cacophonous cityscape.

Health concerns are just one worry. Reading the tea leaves can’t reveal how hard an economic blow is ultimately coming this way, but for many it will likely be a crushing one.

People seem taut, braced for what might be next.

In a small noodle shop a woman orders her elderly mother a healthy broth with chicken and ginseng.

“You’ve got to get strong,” she said. “You never know when it will be back.”

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