A tale from China: life where the covid crisis began

Max Platt has lived in Beijing for seven years and had to spend part of lockdown in the province directly above Hubei where it is thought the coronavirus crisis began. With his wife Alicia and son Lucas, Max remained in his step-parent’s apartment compound in Pingdingshan where there was a covid outbreak.

-Guardian at the gates; working within inches of coronavirus
-Sunday Times report shows government response to the pandemic was sluggish

Severe lockdown restrictions

“We were not allowed to go outside at all.”

It was after Chinese New Year that the covid crisis really started to hit home in China. Max and Alicia were celebrating the biggest event in the Chinese calendar with her parents in Pingdingshan, a city in the province of Henan, situated directly above Hubei, when days later authorities started to close down the apartment complex having found two cases of covid in the building.

“We were not allowed to go outside at all,” Alicia explains. “Lockdown came really fast after new year. In two or three days my parents’ compound started to shut then all the restaurants and public transportation were told to shut too. These were the ways the government took to force people to stay at home and not go outside because then you had no places to eat and no transportation to take.”

It was almost a month that Alicia, Max and there 11-month-old son Lucas had to endure total lockdown in Alicia’s home town Pingdingshan (“town” of over four million people). Max describes how, with five people confined to the apartment, it took a lot of effort to organise a bit of time alone.

“We were just confined inside. There was no where else to go. If you wanted to spend time on your own you’d have to discuss it with everyone else in the apartment and say, ‘I am just going to go in this room for a bit, can you leave me alone’.”

Max initially went to Beijing in 2012 on a 6 month engineering internship then returned again at the beginning of 2013 becoming an English teacher. He and Alicia met in the summer of that year when Max was one of the people Alicia interviewed as part of her research looking into instant messaging apps. They married in China in 2015 (in a wedding ceremony that had over a thousand people in attendance) then had a more modest second wedding celebration in Surrey, England, where Max’s family are based.

Max, Alicia and 11-month-old Lucas
Max and Alicia spent part of lockdown in Pingdingshan just 300 miles from Wuhan

The truth about wet markets

The Eastern wet markets have become a source of international interest. Selling meat, fish and poultry the wet market is given its name partly due to the fact live animals can be selected and slaughtered on site. It is believed, but not conclusive, that covid-19 began in a wet market located in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with one of the leading ideas being the virus past from bat species to human.

“It is hard to believe that somebody would eat bat.”

Alicia is Chinese and has lived in the country her whole life. She explains how shops selling live animals are hard to find.

“It is not easy to find stores like that in China (selling wild animals for food). If you walk down a street or a food street and you want to find some shops or some restaurants that sell wild animals, you can’t find that.”

Alicia describes how there was shock amongst her friends when they saw photos of people eating dishes like ‘bat soup’. When she describes this strange culinary phenomena there is both shock and a tinge of disgust in her voice.

“It is hard to believe that somebody would eat bat!? Most of my friends were shocked. From what I read online most Chinese people were thinking “wow, you eat bat and you are proud of it?”

Alicia explains it is not easy to find shops selling live animals in China

Suspicions about Chinese governance

“People in Wuhan had to sacrifice a lot.”

Western and Eastern assumptions about each other and their different social philosophies has often sown suspicion between the two sides of the planet, however when Max and Alicia describe the Chinese measures put in place to combat the transmission of covid-19 it seems the world’s tactics for battling the spread of the disease were remarkably similar, even down to putting tape on the ground to mark queues in supermarkets.

“We were told to stay at home and wash our hands as much as possible, and in the shops there’s tape on the floor to make sure when you line up you’re at least a metre apart.”

The Chinese oneness ideal is something both to marvel at and be cautious of. But from what Max and Alicia describe, in this instance, China’s one people, one state one country ethic came from a sense of social responsibility.

Max says; “everyone decided together to follow the rules. There was no one who was like ‘I do not like this. I am going to go out and party with my friends’.”

Alicia explains that the stark reality of what they were seeing in Wuhan made everyone realise how serious the situation was. “Because we knew how horrible things were in Wuhan we did not hear a lot of complaints about lockdown like in overseas countries.”

Max adds: “In China, concern extends all the way up to the level of everyone, so it is like if you do not follow this rule and other people do not follow it as well then that will be dangerous for everyone. The Chinese sense of community extends from small groups of families all the way up to feeling like they are a part of one country.”

Alicia sums up the attitude of the Chinese people by describing what one of her close friend’s family, who live in Wuhan, had to go through.

“I have a very good friend whose family just moved back to Wuhan from Shanghai and from what I heard from her the situation in Wuhan was really really serious. Her family were made to stay at home for two months. People in Wuhan had to sacrifice a lot.”

Max has lived in Beijing for seven years in a district south of the city centre

Weird Beijing

Max returned to Beijing three weeks ahead of his wife and son for work purposes. He describes how when he came back, he’d never seen Beijing so weird.

“When I arrived back it was very strange. Beijing is a massive city where you expect all the time there to be the sound of cars and stuff happening, but when I arrived, it was so quiet and when you look outside at night it would be like you were not in a city because there were no lights on in any of the buildings. It was very weird.”

“Whenever I get a chance to speak to my mum and sister in England I just tell them to make sure they are being safe.”

When Alicia came back she had to go into 14 day quarantine.

“I came back to Beijing in early March and at that time everyone who came back from other provinces had to register where they had come from, had they been in contact with anyone from Hubei, what kind of transportation did they take to get back, everything down to your seat number.”

We will get through this

China seems to be out the other side of this crisis. When we speak, Alicia and Max say the reported new cases of covid-19 in the country was one person. It’s up to you how much you want to look into that figure. Never has there been a time when there was so much misinformation coming from all corners of the world – the US President’s claims and theories have been just as outlandish as any thing the Chinese could think up.

What is certain is that China is opening up again. Max and his family have returned to their apartment in Beijing where they continue to live, work and raise their son.

While the UK is still in the grips of the pandemic, with recorded deaths now the highest in Europe, Max explains that we will get through this.

“Whenever I get a chance to speak to my mum and sister in England I just tell them to make sure they are being safe and follow the social distancing rules. I reassure them that they will be ok if they follow the advice given by the government. We came through this and so will the UK.”

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