BEIJING – Beijing, the bustling capital of China, where one can find anything, has become a ghostly megalopolis from where life seems to have vanished, as have its nearly 22 million inhabitants, owing to the coronavirus outbreak.
The former imperial capital displays deserted streets, closed stores and restaurants everywhere and very few people who dare to come out in the icy, winter air, wearing masks and latex gloves to avoid possible infections.
Although Beijing is not under lockdown like Wuhan – the center of the epidemic – during the last few days, residents have been under voluntary quarantine, more so since the end of the Lunar New Year festivities Monday.
People are scared of the new virus and most of them – following the government’s recommendations – have opted to work from home or extend their holidays rather than risk running into people who could transmit the infection.
“This week is very important, even if theoretically we should start to work, we have to avoid that the virus further spreads,” said Ting Wang, a banking employee in her thirties who stepped out to shop at one of the few open supermarkets in the capital’s financial district.
Supermarkets and small grocery stores – most of them still well stocked – are among the few commercial premises that remain open in Beijing. The government there has asked – as in the rest of the country – that only essential industries and services reopen this week.
The city’s big and popular shopping malls have closed their doors and at the half-empty hotels, visitors have their temperatures taken on entering, as is being done at every station of the Beijing metro, normally crowded but deserted on Wednesday.
This also happens at the entrance of the city’s many residential complexes, always by means of a digital thermometer that never comes into contact with the skin of those examined.
If someone has a fever, he is not allowed to enter the building, even if he lives there, and is usually sent to the nearest hospital specializing in treating the virus.
Many of these complexes have erected all sorts of makeshift fences to close their entrances, leaving only one open access, where couriers and home delivery people pile up their shipments – which before the epidemic, would have been delivered at the doorstep.
The delivery people on their mopeds, a common sight in all of China, are almost the only ones who continue to be seen on the streets of the city.
A 42-year-old school teacher doesn’t understand the attitude of some countries such as the United States in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I am really worried about the countries closing their borders or having bad manners against Chinese people, this is surprising from a human perspective,” she said before rushing to find another pharmacy. The one in the central district of Dongcheng has run out of disinfectants and masks.
The awareness and discipline displayed by Beijing citizens is impressive. They follow medical recommendations and maintain a reasonable distance when talking to each other or journalists, even if they are wearing masks.
The bleak sight of empty streets and closed establishments – including cinemas, theaters, restaurants, museums, temples and salons – is further exacerbated by the posters stuck on the doors and windows of many shops with the government’s recommendations to avoid infection.
“It was the saddest New Year of my life,” said young computer programmer Hao Li, who had also came out to stock up on food, and had to cancel his trip to spend the holidays with his family due to the epidemic.
Hao is concerned that “small businesses are suffering a lot because they have to pay their employees anyway” and said he is unable to recognize the city he arrived in five years ago from the northern province of Inner Mongolia.
“Beijing was always for me the place for life and bustle and look at it now, it seems that a nuclear catastrophe happened,” he said, pointing to the empty avenue in front of him before hurrying back home.
According to the latest official data, one person has died from the virus in Beijing while 228 people have been infected and 23 have recovered.