Lessons on lockdown life from China

With Latin America now the region worst hit by Covid-19, Chinese reflect on lockdown and its influence on their attitudes towards health and nature

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COVID-19 lockdown cooking

As well as cooking more at home, the Covid-19 lockdown made many Chinese citizens reflect on their attitudes towards health and the environment (illustration: Eréndira Derbez)

Covid-19 has not completely disappeared from China. But in many places, restrictions have eased and life is returning to a semblance of normality. For others, it has changed irreversibly. With Latin America and the Caribbean now the epicentre of the pandemic, recording over 250,000 deaths, people from Wuhan to Beijing shared their lockdown experiences with Diálogo Chino, offering tips for coping in tough, unprecedented times.

Beyond enabling them to rediscover their culinary skills, some said the experience caused them to reflect profoundly on the health and wellbeing of their loved ones and the planet – thoughts common to many of us around the world. At the same time, Chinese have had to face prejudiced claims Covid-19 is “a Chinese virus” as well as a unique set of restrictions on movement and information that are often confusing and appear stricter in the wake of the outbreak.

The names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.

Gao Lingyuan's story

I currently live in Hefei, Anhui Province (eastern) China. Currently in Hefei we haven’t seen any new cases since the end of March. Many companies are back to work and taking precautions, making sure they continue to take the temperature of their students and staff. Not entirely normal, but getting there. Due to the Beijing outbreak [in June] we now have ramped up security in the communities to make sure people are closely monitored.

I am an English teacher working in an international department of an English Institute. Economically, I was cautious because I was nervous about whether the company would still be open. I was able to save three-quarters of my pay cheque every month. I’ve become more aware of my spending habits and will really analyse if I need to buy certain items after the lockdown.

When it comes to food and health, I’ve also become more cautious, especially when it comes to eating from small shops and buying street food. When it comes to groceries, before I didn’t care if it was packaged or not but now I buy more packaged food that hasn’t been in the open air where people can breathe on it or touch it.

To make life during lockdown more manageable, whether you are working from home or doing housework, the goal is to stay busy. There are plenty of days to lounge around but make a routine and try to stick to it, although you should make some adjustments so you won’t get bored. Most importantly, get dressed every day. 

if the environment is sick or isn’t doing well, then nor will the people who are near it

If I had to do this whole thing again I would definitely order more groceries from home, buy a sewing machine and learn how to make my own clothes. Most importantly, I would start a small club for the youth to have more social engagement with other cultures about their different experiences of Covid – a safe space for youth to interact with others around the world.

I’ve also learned that if the environment is sick or isn’t doing well, then nor will the people who are near it. We must do better at recycling and making sure we take care of our natural environment if we want to maintain good health.

lockdown changes to attitudes towards nature
illustration: Eréndira Derbez

I also yell at people when I see them without their masks or spitting and tell them to do better. I don’t think others in China are so bold to tell others to practice good habits but I hope it gets better.

Zhao Tingting's story

I live in Beijing now. In the first outbreak in February only a few hundred people were infected by the virus. However, the city was almost shutdown for that. Adults were working from home and students were studying at home. My younger daughter is four years old. Her day care has been shut down until now and we don't know when it will be reopen.

The policy of controlling social interaction was loosened in late May [when this interview was conducted], but in the last two weeks [mid June], there has been another round of cases in Beijing. The policy is tightening again. My son, a seventh-grader, is studying at home again. We suspect our lives won't return to normal again.

Sometimes, I think the pandemic is a curse on people who ruthlessly exploit the earth

I am working at a research institute, which is owned by the state. I am not affected by the pandemic economically. Because I don't dine out, nor send my kids to extracurricular activities nor travel around, I actually reduce my expense and can save more money. I have been working at home since late January. Because my kids are at home, my work is not efficient. I'm less productive as a researcher, reading less and writing less. Sometimes I'm too depressed to do anything. I haven't left Beijing for almost six months.

To reduce interpersonal interaction might be the most effective way [not to contract the virus] but it's impossible and inhuman. People are feeling depressed when isolated at home for a long time.

The delivery service in China is very convenient. We do shopping online and have grocery delivered to the gate of our residential unit. There are many such residential units in Beijing, and in other big cities all around China. This kind of living situation makes the mobility of population easier to be controlled.

I do pay more attention to health and have started doing exercises regularly, though. I'm more pessimistic to the future of human beings in general. Sometimes, I think the pandemic is a curse on people who ruthlessly exploit the earth.

I don't think people are reflecting about this situation in a collective way yet. People in China actually seem stick to their values and the political system more firmly. I guess the pandemic and the international pressure from outside kept the Chinese people more consolidated as a nation.

Don't eat wild animals! I think this is the most important lesson regarding the environment. But I think those who like to eat wild animals will eat anyway, while those who don't won't. I don't think the overall attitude regarding the environment will change a lot in China. 

Deng Wenxuan's story

I live in Beijing and life has been pretty much back to normal for me. All the restaurants are open, but clubs are not open yet. Movie theatres are starting to open. I’m a freelancer. I’m a translator, so there’s not as much work. But it’s definitely not as bad as for other people who lost their job.

My family is in Wuhan. It’s very similar to the situation in Beijing, but my mum told me recently that there are still Covid cases in Wuhan but the government isn’t reporting this. She doesn’t feel completely comfortable. She feels like it’s still out there.

If I had to do it [lockdown] again, I would probably not buy so much food. I bought insane amounts of grain. I bought enough food for about a year. You don’t know what’s real news, what’s fake news. You really did feel like it was going to be an apocalypse. I bought too much medicine. Now I just have to finish all of them which is annoying: Bandages, cough syrup, band-aides, disinfectant.

money is important but should not replace happiness and health

I discovered that home cooked food is much better for you than restaurants. I became much more knowledgeable about food, and I appreciate that Covid made a cook out of all of us.

illustration: Eréndira Derbez

I definitely feel I want to be more healthy. You realise it’s the most valuable thing. When Covid was happening in Wuhan, I saw a video of a 50-year old man who died in his apartment. He had money but he couldn’t bring any of this with him when he passed away. Health and happiness are more important than ambition or money, money is important but should not replace happiness and health.

The first month was very stressful, I would call my family in Wuhan three or four times a day. Hospitals were packed with people, people were falling on the street. We didn’t know if it was much bigger, there was so much uncertainty. For the first time I felt like things could collapse completely, judging by the information we were receiving. And because nobody really trusts the official news outlet nobody knew what to believe.

Before January 26, the government hadn’t really got themselves together to censor the internet and there were a lot of dissenting voices, in that period of three days, there was so much anger about the real situation.

Censorship has become more draconian after Covid

All of us were able to see in real time the content and citizen journalism was being wiped out. Most information came out on Weibo [the Chinese equivalent to Twitter]. They deleted those posts and hired people to comment positive reports, sometimes you could catch a glimpse of the real reactions.Then they replaced them with positive ones.

There’s a really steep price to pay to do citizen journalism in China. I read about a guy who collected information on protests and now he has been sentenced to four years in prison. Censorship has become more draconian after Covid. We’ve been living under strict censorship. Some Chinese people collected all the news reports and deleted information about Covid and shared it on github.com and they were arrested. We don’t really know what’s going on with them.

lockdown citizen journalism
illustration: Eréndira Derbez

I think we don’t have free public space for people to exchange ideas and introspect, so there’s no public reflection [on the pandemic]. There could be in very limited places, within a small community, but I wouldn’t say as a society there’s a conversation going on.

In person we can talk about it, but even when we’re doing one to one on WeChat we replace words that could be detected by AI, we have to think about what not to say in case it compromises us, it’s not a great place to talk about these things online.

Fang Yao's story

I’m a freelance journalist, working on cultural and social issues for an international cultural organisation in China, writing about Wuhan. I live between Beijing and Wuhan. In Wuhan things are generally getting back to normal. In the past month there are no new cases, business are getting back to normal and in the streets, people are going back to work.

There’s now a health [QR] code that is like your digital identity. Everybody has this code. If you are healthy, your code will be Green. If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the virus or you have symptoms, you are yellow. If you test positive you are red. If you want to move freely you have to have a green code.

The hardest part for me was January and April. After February 15, no one could get out of their compounds because the government ordered it, so I worked as a volunteer in WeChat groups. There were many people asking for help registering information, or they needed help getting food. Some didn’t know what hospital they needed to go to for certain procedures. I volunteered to make calls, to help people get treatment. I worked from 9am till midnight because there were so many people asking for help. And a lot of people couldn’t get health support.

A lot of hospitals wouldn’t take people under 65, and there was nothing we could do. We could only help them get food or medicine. Everything was still developing. There was a lot of fake information.

there is something you must remember about this: this will eventually end

Even though I have over 3000 messages on my WeChat, and they are still talking, now I can’t look at them often because I had this emotional meltdown. After three months of being a volunteer, now I no longer watch any news, I don’t follow it anymore. I read books that are not relevant to Coronavirus. I read and do translation work, it’s too much for me.

If you want to protect your [mental] health, it’s better not to focus so much on the news. You can learn things you always wanted to learn. You can read more books, make some phone calls to friends.

It’s important to record what is happening to you. Try to be sincere and as accurate as possible, recording the memory of a significant year in the history of every person’s life.

Now, I cherish whatever I can. Before, I spent more money. I had this habit of buying many things I didn't need, but sin, now I only have what is necessary for daily life. It’s not about my economic situation, it’s about what is necessary in life. It’s important to talk to people. Consumerism is turning into entertainment, it’s a waste of time and money. I look back at my life now and think I was subconsciously living a life I didn’t really want to live.

People are still lost in the aftermath of the Coronavirus here, the situation is still developing. Some people think it has nothing to do with the government or the system, some people are thinking about the holding the government accountable. There are many people who just want to get back to normal and not think about what happened because it was horrible.

But there is something you must remember about this: this will eventually end.