Thursday 6 February 2020

What's It Really Like In China Right Now...

I've been following the 2019 nCoV Coronavirus outbreak since the beginning of January, and from the outset it was obvious it had potential to become really big, and for lies, misinformation and panic to spread around the world.

Is what we see on social media or in the news the truth? I have already written a post which explains the basics about the 2019 nCoV Coronavirus and puts straight a few of the crazy myths going around on social media about the disease, but what is it actually like to live in China at the moment?

I've been speaking to someone who returned to the UK from eastern mainland China a few days ago, to find out what their experience has been...

( This was a surprise interview with about 5 minutes notice and I made up most of my questions on the fly, so there are a couple that could definitely have been worded better... )

Me: Hiya, and welcome back to the UK.
T: Thanks

Me: Was it scary, did you feel like you were in the middle of a disaster, or did you feel it was controlled and everything would be fine?
T: Umm, it was hard. Where I live was super, super quiet and most things were closed. We weren't massively concerned about getting unwell, there were really too few people, however we were concerned about freedom of movement being limited (which has now happened).

Me: Were you kept in touch with the fact people were ill nearby?
T: There have been a few cases in my city, and nearly 1000 in my Province

Me: Were you aware how bad things were becoming in Wuhan?
T: We were in Japan when it started, so yes, we did. From within China, its harder

Me: In your opinion then, do people around China realise how big this has become?
T: It's illegal to "spread rumours". We get numbers, but not a lot else from Chinese news. I think it's important to remember that we've still only got a 2% mortality rate. I follow the New York Times, and their info has been great.

Me: I'm assuming you don't know anyone, or of anyone, who was confirmed with Coronavirus? Did you get the impression people were scared, or genuinely is everyone mostly unperturbed?
T: Most people aren't worried, and no I don't know anyone infected

Me: Now that you are in the UK, have you been surprised by any news reports or anything you've seen? Or do you think you were kept well informed.
T: For me, knowing the numbers was enough. I am concerned about spread, but it's still lower mortality than even the flu. I do believe in the measures that are being put in place.

We flew in from Japan mid January and there was no fever checking, in Japan, Shanghai Airport or Shanghai Station. However it was incredibly quiet.
We left China in early February, before the UK Government announcement on 4th February that expats should come back. When we flew out, it was the quietest flight I've ever been on, and there were medical staff in hazmat suits, we were regularly temp checked, on and off the plane, and the airports were being sprayed with bleach and the planes with disinfectant. We also had to sign various documents with a considerable amount of details about our health, address, even our seat number on the plane. Ultimately, when people can remain without symptoms, I believe they have done a good amount. I'm not sure what else would be possible.

It's also important to note that movements are heavily tracked in China. So anyone that had been to Hubei wouldn't be allowed to board and plane out unless they were expats and it was managed by their embassy.

Me: They've just announced 180,000 people are on watch for symptoms - I don't know how good that translation is.
T: No that sounds accurate. They are monitoring as many people as possible

Me: People really are concerned that the Chinese govt. are not reporting true figures - and as growth of infections is exponential, that misnumbering could also be exponential. Do you think the figures are going to turn out to be a lie?
T: No. If the WHO trusts the numbers, I do.

Unfortunately there is a lot of mistrust and racism and false information around the Chinese Government. Unless you live there you kind of label them untrustworthy. It’s where I live, I have to trust them. I believe the figures. I also wouldn’t underestimate their ability to set up hospitals to treat and count. You cannot imagine how effective they are. I’ve been waiting with 500 people for blood test results and been out within half an hour. I’ve gone in for a basic thing, had 6 tests done in 20 minutes, my results in 40 minutes and my medicine in 10 more. Don’t underestimate the number of Doctors that are available

Having said that. I do think that any misunderstanding of numbers will be used to throw mistrust on the Chinese Government. Obviously we won’t get true figures because there are people my age who have not gone to hospital. If I thought I had Coronavirus, I wouldn’t go to hospital , I’d wait it out at home. It’s just a respiratory infection, I can probably beat it. I would not want to go to a more infectious place full of people with Pneumonia. It is estimated there are a large number of people in their 20’s-40’s not reporting. That’s not the Chinese government, it’s people not reporting and choosing not to go to these massively overfull hospitals.

Again, my concern is, any discrepancy will be picked apart by foreign media. If the WHO says they are happy with the numbers and they believe them, I’m inclined to believe that.

Me: People have been saying they are running out of food and medical supplies because of the lockdowns and problems getting to shops (which are open) with no public transport.
T: Our city wasn't that bad yet, however the supermarkets were starting to empty. My area is extending the lockdown only a week at a time, I assume to limit panic and panic buying. Where I live the concentration of people is about 1/6th that of London. Wuhan is massively more condensed.

Me: Before the lockdown was everyone (in your area) mainly staying home through choice? And maybe social expectation? And obviously for a lot of people no work or school.
T: Yes. And many people hadn't returned from Chinese New Year yet either.

Me: Was it mainly just schools and public meeting places closed where you were? Most businesses as normal? Although I appreciate the new lockdown may have an effect on that.
T: Supermarkets are open, and factories seem to be running. Local family bakeries, and clothes shop etc aren't open – or weren't when we left.

Some provinces have extended the holiday till Monday, so there's more travel to come. They're just trying to limit movement between cities as much as possible. A lot of people have yet to go home. Our province has said that schools will not open in Feb. That decision is usually made at city level, so for the provinces to have taken over is a different thing.

We wanted to leave, my biggest concern was my job and their expectations. They couldn't speculate on when we would return to work beyond the official government dates. That was the hardest thing. Those dates have just been extended further.

Me: I know everyone was locked down, but presumably you still talked to neighbours and others? I've seen videos of people having rooftop picnics with neighbours or playing badminton over garden fences.
T. We visited friends and as most of my team were in China at the time, even went into the office to prepare some work to do remotely. The lockdown only happened around the time I left.

Me: How do the authorities contact you? Eg. How did you know the lockdown was going to happen?
T: We got a long text. Government texts are very common in China.

Me: Was that scary? 
T: The text warning us of lockdown was our indicator to get out. Again, our worry wasn't the illness. The lockdown is preventative, but with more airlines cancelling flights, we wanted to get out while if was still easy.

Me: Did you expect that and see it coming, or until then were you still thinking you might be back to work next week?
T: No, we knew we wouldn't be back yet. There is less room for panic. I can't imagine what people may be feeling, but expression is more closely controlled in China.

Me: How did you go about coming home? Through the embassy or pretty much just as you would usually?
T: We just booked a flight, there aren't any restrictions on international flight outside of Hubei.

Me: Are the UK in any way monitoring you now you are here?
T: They took details from us, our flight, our seats and current address and contact details. If we became unwell, they would be able to locate and notify others on our flight.

Me: In the UK, if we were put on restricted movement there would be outcry and panic - the Chinese people are more used to less autonomy I think, but generally it seems from what you say that no-one did panic, people aren't complaining en masse, even when they see no sign of the Coronavirus. It's exactly what any government would pray for in a situation like this. I don't even know if that would be possible anywhere else. 
T: It's difficult to understand exactly the mindset until you see it. But its a level of civil obedience you would never see in the UK. The management of information is very careful to be fair.

Me: I've seen footage of drones being used in Wuhan to take temperatures etc. Did you see anything weird and unusual like that?
T: Not at all, sorry.

Me: Don’t be sorry! It's a relief to know most people in china are mainly affected by being asked not to mix - and aren't scared and frightened in their homes.
T: No, not at all. I think the aim of the game is to avoid panic on the government's part.

Me: Let’s hope the numbers peak and plateau soon.
T: I hope so.

Me: Has anything you've learned since you landed back in the UK been a real surprise to you?
T: Not really, but then I haven't been looking. My concern is, as someone who lives in China and really likes living in China, any discrepancy in figures will be picked apart. I have seen a lot of racism, I have seen Chinese people being called disgusting, foul, inhumane. All kinds of awful things around this. Actually it is a very different culture and it's very hard to understand unless you've lived there. These are my friends, the people I work with, these are people that I know.

The current figure for people confirmed to have caught the novel Coronavirus is 28,368, and as I type, at least 566 people have lost their lives. People who have loved ones who will miss them forever. 

If all of this is new to you, I have a simple English guide to Coronavirus, and you can keep track of what's happening in China and worldwide, thanks to Johns Hopkins University.


  1. This made an interesting read, its definitely a hot topic at the moment, I was quite calm about it at first, but sometimes I can feel a flutter of panic! x

    1. I think at first I was a bit concerned, but the worst that can happen really is that we all catch it eventually, and possibly most of us will never even know. Certainly the vast majority will not become seriously ill. We will struggle to avoid it if it becomes widespread in the UK, so there's not a lot you can do. It is as it is :)


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