Either in lockdown or preparing for lockdown: life amid zero-Covid in Beijing

Life in Beijing these days is spent either in lockdown or preparing for lockdown. Stockpiling food at home, just in case, has become the new norm. Meeting friends is hard because every few weeks one of us is sealed inside their home for days. Carrying out the daily routine of only working, eating and sleeping has become interminably boring and there are the complicated new technologies and rules we have to navigate.

The health code dominates every aspect of our lives here. Because the results of my mandatory Covid test, taken every 48 hours, are connected to my public transport pass, I don’t have to use my health code to get into the subway station. But when I arrive at the gate outside my work building, I have to show my scan result to the guard. The young man in uniform gives me a slight nod, his facial expression hidden under the mask. A smattering of cars run through the bright Gingko tree-lined streets.

When cases surge, the government basically shuts down the city, including malls and entertainment, and suggests people work from home or commute from home to work directly, in one line. With restaurants closed for dine-in, deliverymen work tirelessly from dawn to midnight throughout the city. At home or in the office, I can still easily enjoy a bowl of warm kimchi beef udon for lunch in just 40 minutes by ordering on Meituan, a shopping app that provides consumer products and retail services and – especially now – is often used for food deliveries.

One morning in November, I walked towards the dry cleaning store from my apartment, only to find it closed along with most of the shops in my neighbourhood. Standing far apart from each other, men, women, and elderly people lined up at the few grocery stores that remained open to buy vegetables, fruits, and meat. It was all preparation for a lockdown that officials had announced after five days of thousands of cases. We had been given 12 hours’ notice.

A woman wears a mask as she walks by an epidemic control worker as outside a locked-down community in Beijing. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Social scenes revive or die with the policy changes, but I was lucky enough to have attended an event just before one wave of strict measures. Though taking a Didi, the Chinese Uber, still required me to scan my health code, the bar staff seemed to be busy with other work and no one checked it at the door.

The event was a big success with the room filled with laughter and applause from Chinese and foreign audiences. It was a chance to forget for a moment. No one seemed to be bothered by frustrations over constant Covid policy changes and life being interrupted. The literary scene in Beijing continued to be vibrant and thriving.

At other venues, some patrons have developed strategies to avoid being tracked by authorities, in case they are quarantined as a close contact. These people take a screenshot of a negative test result and its green health code, and quickly flash it to the security guarding venue doors. Since most guards only glance at the codes, they hardly ever notice the difference. The strategy was useful until we had nowhere to go again.

From time to time, I call my father, who lives in another province. It is a way for me to cope with the lack of human connection during zero-Covid. I would like to visit him more often, but travel comes with a risk of getting stranded. So I call. We talk about his childhood when China was not ravaged by a pandemic but by poverty and hunger. He asks me if I had ever felt I didn’t have enough in life. I laugh and say no, never. Our conversation stirs up a warm feeling inside me. During these abnormal times, I have learned to notice even the slightest joy. Even just being able to talk about old times is a blessing.

I use my evenings for the mandatory testing. When the night comes, I move towards the nucleic acid testing booth near my apartment to line up for the test and obtain my green health code. The 48, sometimes 24-hour green code is required to enter public places though it seems pointless when so few places are open. But it has become a habit for many of us to still take the test daily. Standing in the line, I know restrictions won’t be eased overnight. But I have hope that we will survive this just like we survived poverty and hunger, and we will all have a better life tomorrow.

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