It all starts so quickly. On 24 January I am on my way to one of the big local state schools to run my regular football coaching session. Halfway there, I get a message on my phone telling me not to come.
All the schools and nurseries have been ordered to close immediately in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Beihai, the small coastal city where I live, is more than 700 miles away and nobody here thought the implications of the virus were going to affect everyone in China.
I read that the British government is advising all UK nationals to leave China – not just those in Wuhan. I am shocked. I have lived in the Guangxi province of China for the last five years and have mainly spent that time teaching, including a year as a lecturer in journalism and broadcasting at Guangxi university in Nanning. I have no intention of leaving, I’ve got friends here.
The Covid-19 virus seems to be almost out of control in Wuhan and Hubei province, but here in Beihai not so. Yet the reaction to the outbreak has transformed the city and the suburbs into a ghost town. Everyone has been told to stay indoors. Everywhere feels grim and desolate. The big palm-tree-lined roads that criss-cross the city are virtually empty. The streets, usually bustling with locals and tourists, are the same – empty. Nearly every shop, restaurant, business, office and the three main shopping centres are all shut. All the hundreds of small lock-up shops selling everything from bottled water and fruit to computer parts and floor mops, all have their shutters closed. It feels like being in a science fiction film – some alien force has spirited away nearly everyone and only I remain … at this moment with three other bemused locals, curiously looking to see if McDonald’s is still open in the big square. Of course not. Only to order online.
It has become unusual to see anyone without a mask, although they have been very difficult to obtain. Every pharmacy sold out of its small supply within hours of the emergency restrictions coming into force. Luckily a doctor friend of mine gave me some. Some people ordered masks online but they never arrived. The postal service has been badly affected.
It’s not total lockdown here yet, like it is in Wuhan, but it feels that way. Local government cars with loudspeakers pass by regularly now during the day, issuing warnings, and orders to obey the new restrictions. Only one person from each family is allowed out of their home every two days, to buy food or medicine. Anyone from Wuhan is told to report to the local police department, with threats of prosecution if they fail to do so. There are now roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere, demanding your name, address, ID or passport number. Contact details are written down by officials and your temperature checked – on leaving the area and on your return.
Beihai is popular with tourists, especially from the north of China. They have also bought holiday apartments locally, where they spend the winter period, to escape the cold weather back home. I hear that some people from Wuhan are in Beihai and have tested positive. It’s reported that there are 43 confirmed cases of the virus in Beihai. There has been one death; an 80-year-old man. All the cases are attributed to people from Wuhan and those who had visited Hubei province but had returned before the lockdown there.
The general feeling of a state of emergency is starting to hit home. There are officials and red posters everywhere – warning of the dangers of the virus and details of the emergency restrictions. Now everyone is required to download a new government app on their phone, and register all their contact and ID details. Without the app, you are not allowed to go out.
Reaching the roadblock, the official scans my app. This not only keeps track of everyone’s location but also stores people’s details on government computers. I go to RT Mart, the main supermarket, which is open. Operating hours have been limited although there seems to be plenty of stock. The place is virtually empty – all staff are wearing long thin plastic coats, goggles, paper hats and, of course, masks. The atmosphere is surreal.
I find out that friends and families are lending each other money to get by because they can’t work. As I’m a part-time teacher, I’m not getting paid by the school. As the crisis continues, many small businesses might never reopen again as rates and rents cannot be paid. My favourite Chinese pizza restaurant has shut permanently. The owner told me he’d spent the equivalent of £15,000 refurbishing the place just six months ago.
The government has now banned the sale of wild animal meat at markets such as the one in Wuhan. But can the ban be really enforced? The sheer size of China and its population throws up so many challenges.
My Chinese friends say they are embarrassed and angry at how the virus happened and how it has spread. It’s hoped schools will reopen in two weeks and I can go back to work. But there’s no official news yet. The current number of confirmed cases has not increased here: still 43 and one death.
Even if I wanted to come back to the UK I can’t because the flights are too expensive, and my biggest fear is contracting Covid-19 while I’m travelling.
• Mark Bishop is a lecturer in journalism and broadcasting at Guangxi University in Nanning