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Postcards from an infected world: Life is returning to normal in China, but the costs are yet to be seen

After weeks of quarantine, Shanghai is slowly reopening. Many here say that China is the safest place now: no new cases have been reported in the city for four days.

We spent the month of February fleeing. My girlfriend and I had just returned to Shanghai from Chinese New Year holidays, having been in the US with my parents and then Brazil. I was inclined to scoff at the coronavirus. Yet something about the cancellation of flights to and from China in rapid succession – first US airlines, then British Airways, then the rest – made me flee. Anyway, I told myself, it was an excuse for another holiday.

We boarded a flight to Thailand, which doesn’t require Chinese visitors to apply for visas before arrival. I had already started to wonder why staying at home had seemed like such a punishment. I’ve been to Bangkok several times, but that strange afternoon, as we checked into a hotel filled with the sound of Mandarin voices from behind face masks, I wondered: is this my new home? As the weeks dragged on, and the virus spread and spread, I picked fights with my girlfriend, drank to excess with British holidaymakers, and scanned the headlines in hope that this irritating thing would magically go away.

Shanghai is a bubble, whose conditions don’t have much in common with the rest of the country. While Wuhan was registering huge numbers of people infected, Shanghai has just 342 confirmed cases at the time of writing – which, considering 24 million people live in the city, along with its dense urban core and constant population flux, is remarkable.

With President Xi Jinping paying his first visit to Wuhan on 10 March, there’s a sense that the government is envisaging life soon returning to normal.

Ironically, most new cases we know of in Shanghai and Beijing appear to be returnees from Europe. There have only been three fatalities in Shanghai at the time of writing, and for me, the costs of quarantine have been confined to boredom. The office and gym are closed, as are most parks, and schoolchildren are at home. Going out and meeting friends feels illicit and subversive. Twice a day, we send our temperatures by text message to our local neighbour-hood authority.

The costs of shutting the economy for months, and the social unrest that may follow, are yet to be seen. Only 47 of the 5,000 factories in the suburb of Jiading are open. Entrepreneurs, freelancers, or those on fixed incomes will be hit hard. China’s demographics – dense, ageing, with many smokers – make it uniquely vulnerable in a way that Western societies, with low-density suburban spread, might not be.

Our office has, in theory, since reopened. Before the outbreak, anybody entering the building had to register with their smartphones and scan in. The data that we surrender to the authorities is even greater now, coordinated between different layers of government and involving QR codes and temperature checks. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll give it back when the outbreak ends.

As we returned home from Thailand on 3 March, I speculated whether – like friends who had returned to Beijing – we’d be forcibly quarantined. In the event, we had our temperature taken and registered with some nice middle-aged women down the street.

The city is now almost open again. We recently visited the riverside and saw hundreds of people bursting out from enforced hibernation: skateboarding, jogging, walking their dogs, laughing. Many here in Shanghai say that China is the safest place now: no new cases have been reported in the city for four days.

The new ways of life, and new industries, will remain. All children are studying from home, and grocery deliveries have rapidly increased. China’s e-commerce giants Taobao and JD.com (Jingdong) both emerged from the Sars outbreak in 2003, as quarantined Chinese urbanites turned to shopping online. It seems certain that Covid-19 will have unpredictable, far-reaching impacts.

Chinese citizens have all sorts of traumas in their national memory. My partner grew up in Daqing, an oil city in Heilongjiang province founded during 1960s Maoism, where she heard of food shortages in Siberia. She took the coronavirus quarantine with stoicism and trust in the country’s resilience.

Some scattered acquaintances (mainly from the art world, or based in Hong Kong) have criticised the government’s response in social media posts. Entrepreneurs forced to continue paying wages and rent with business at a standstill have made public complaints.

Yet the majority of Chinese people I know wear their masks as a badge of social solidarity, and my partner is proud of what she sees as the ability of Chinese to make sacrifices for the good of the country. As news of infections in Milan, New York and  other cities around the world come in, they say: “Good thing we’re in China, where  it’s safe.”

For my partner, staying at home for a few weeks isn’t a big deal; when her grandmother was her age, she ate nothing but carrots for years, living in a barracks next to frozen oil refineries. I’m not quite so tough, and even a few days living in a shutdown were enough to drive me into all sorts of pointless speculations: Should I have children? Should I leave China? Where is truly safe?

For a long time, I’ve felt that the engine of the world is overheated. I’ve yearned for safety, normalcy. This February, China fell silent. Will your country be next?

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

Jacob Dreyer is a commissioning editor at Palgrave Macmillan in Shanghai

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down