TENS of thousands of people – as far as my eyes could see – greeted me when I first arrived in Beijing more than two years ago.
It was the Spring Festival temple fair.
The “people mountain people sea” (a Chinese idiom which means a sea of people) terrified me.
My first instinct was to turn back and to return early the next day, hoping to see fewer people but how wrong I was. The crowd size was no different from the day before.
To be honest, I have covered the street rallies since the first reformasi in Kuala Lumpur and have not seen such a huge crowd in one area within my view.
But this year, the big crowd is missing.
The temple fairs – a traditional annual event during Spring Festival – were all cancelled.
Although daily life seemed to be rather normal with people still heading to the markets, malls or restaurants, the number has reduced by two-thirds compared to the previous two years.
The square dancing “damas” (elderly women) and “dayes” (elderly men) were nowhere to be seen.
The Chinese capital of an estimated 25 million people now looks like Kuala Lumpur during a long holiday break, at the commercial zones.
Tourist attractions, including the Forbidden City, were closed and festive celebrations and carnivals were cancelled to prevent the virus from spreading.
Most people have followed the government’s advice to stay at home.
“Stay at home or away from the crowd. This is the best you can help to fight the virus, which will die off eventually if we do not provide a host for it, ” reminded the health experts.
This may sound like a line in the Alien series but it is the best solution for now.
A survey conducted by thepaper.cn – a news portal – showed that some 60% of the respondents stayed at home all the time and 3% were living a normal life or spent most of their time outside.
The rest went out occasionally to shop for groceries, have meals or take a stroll nearby.
Most of them replied that the number of people on the streets has reduced by half.
So what did the Chinese do during their Chinese New Year break?
Around 44% of the 1,029 people surveyed went shopping, 21% took a walk in the neighbourhood, 16% spent time studying and went out for meals while 14% were at work.
The rest were visiting relatives and friends, going to entertainment outlets, walking the dog and seeking medical assistance.
Those who stayed at home spent most of their time surfing the Internet, playing computer games, sleeping, watching TV and cleaning the house.
A netizen wrote on Weibo that he could finally stay at home doing nothing and still contribute to the country.
Some said they now understood how their dogs felt as they, too, wished to go out for a walk.
Supportive and encouraging messages for the front liners at the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan residents and those who had fallen sick flooded the Internet and WeChat.
“Be strong, we are with you. Wuhan jiayou!” wrote the netizens.
Jiayou, literally means adding fuel, is a term to cheer or encourage one to fight on and do not give up.
Messages urging the people to wear a face mask at public places and wash hands frequently have been showing on television and been broadcasting at subway stations as well as malls.
TV health programmes have increased with experts talking about the virus outbreak, clarifying the people’s doubts while guiding them to stay healthy and on the correct ways of putting on a mask.
The Beijingers are serious in the fight against the deadly virus.
Everyone must have their body temperature taken at the subway stations and some malls.
At my apartment, two guards were assigned to monitor people entering the premises and checking their body temperature.
Notices urging those who came back from outstation, especially Hubei, or have come into contact with people from that province to contact the management office were put up all over the public areas as well as the door of each unit.
Taking into consideration that the coronavirus has an incubation period of a maximum 14 days, a count from the lockdown of Wuhan, the week-long Spring Festival holiday, which is supposed to end on Jan 30, has been extended until Feb 9.
However, those in the essential industries such as utilities, food manufacturing and logistics start work today.
All the schools and universities have postponed the resumption of classes until further notice.
This week will be a challenging period with an estimated 15 million people returning to work.
Prof Dr Zhong Nanshan, who discovered the SARS virus in 2003 and is now heading the team to combat the new coronavirus, was optimistic about the situation.
“The virus carriers would have shown symptoms by then. If there are no signs of infection, they would be healthy, ” he said last Thursday.
So far, although there is a shortage of face masks, food supplies are sufficient in the metropolitan area and there are no signs of panic.
The local government has also directed that vegetables, fruits and the necessities be sent straight to residences that have been placed under quarantine.
Food delivery and courier services are operating as usual.
As of on Sunday morning, there were 14,411 confirmed cases throughout China with 304 deaths and 328 have recovered.
Meanwhile, Beijing has 168 confirmed cases, one death and nine have recovered.
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