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The early stages of the COVID-19 crisis: China and the UK

It was mid-January 2020, and news began filtering out from China of a type of Coronavirus, at first appearing similar to SARS, largely affecting the city of Wuhan and wider Hubei province of China.

With a planned return to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian to celebrate Lunar New Year, we were closely monitoring the situation. At that stage, the north of the country had very few cases, with the outbreak largely contained to Hubei province. As we were travelling to a city that hadn’t registered any cases that we could see reports of, 1400 kilometers from the centre of the outbreak, we decided it was safe to travel. Certainly, if we were due to visit Wuhan or the wider Hubei province, we would have called our plans off.

Now back in London, my experience enables me to compare the early stages of the outbreak in northern China with the same in the UK.

On 23rd January, we flew to Dalian with KLM via Amsterdam and Beijing, arriving the following day. On the day we arrived – 24th January – China was reporting 550 cases, but the vast majority of these cases were in Hubei province. With so many cases, this is when Hubei authorites began to impose restrictions on residents leaving home, and travel to and from the province was also suspended. At a time reserved for important family gatherings, this was a huge deal – many people were forced to celebrate Lunar New Year without their family, some even by themselves.

Wuhan has an urban population of around 9 million, similar to that of London, Hubei province has a population close to 60 million, roughly that of England and Scotland combined. Most of these 60 million people were already on lockdown by 24th January when there were around 500 cases in the province. The UK had this many cases on 12th March, when generally speaking, everyone was going about their lives as normal – travelling on packed trains, going out in busy pubs, attending crowded horse-racing events. It wasn’t for another 11 days that the UK imposed restrictions, and less-strict than those imposed in Hubei.

But, 1400 kilometres north, our destination of the city of Dalian had by then experienced just 2 cases. It is what we experienced here that gives the clearest demonstration of early precautions taken against a possible epidemic contrasted with our experience in London.

Our flight to Beijing was normal, with only the one Chinese crew member wearing a face-mask – all other crew members who seemed to be Dutch, went without. When we arrived at Beijing airport on the morning of 24th January, it was clear that everyone was wearing one, mostly the pollution type, designed to filter out PM2.5, the most dangerous of air pollution particles. Having been based in Beijing for more than 2 years, seeing crowds of people all wearing one was a sight I was very well used to throughout the many polluted days, but never inside an airport. This was not the same.

We arrived with our own face-masks from London, knowing that it was unlikely the airport shops would have any in stock. So face-masks on, we had a couple of hours at Beijing Capital airport, before taking our flight to the northeastern city of Dalian, close to the Korean Peninsula. Dalian is a pleasant beach-side city with an urban population of around 4 million. I lived there for almost 2 years – I’d recommend going, especially over the summer when the weather is pleasant and the seas are warm.

A man sets up firecrackers in Dalian for Lunar New Year

A man sets firecrackers on an empty Dalian road for Lunar New Year

Arrival was on Lunar New Year’s Eve, and the celebrations were typical – family gatherings in homes with lavish spreads of food and baijiu rice whisky, deafeningly loud fireworks and firecrackers going off left, right, and centre, making the streets sound more like a war zone. Every building, street and tree lit up with neon lights and red lanterns. The sulfurous smell of firecrackers permeating the air. The normal, jovial atmosphere that is wonderful to experience at Lunar New Year in China. Really nothing out of ordinary.

Right from our arrival on 24th January when Dalian had 2 reported cases we saw people using their own initiative to take extra precautions, and two days later on 26th January the city began to see the closure of areas where large gatherings might occur. I first noticed this, as I had plans to go snowboarding at the city’s ski hills just outside of the centre, but it was closed. Disappointing at the time, unsurprising with hindsight.

We went for strolls along the beaches, freezing cold this time of year, but with blue skies and bright sunshine, the temptation was enough. There were a few families and couples on the beach, and even though it was open-air, and fresh sea-air at that, all were wearing face-masks. It was much quieter than it would be on a normal sunny winter’s day.

Beach in Dalian, China

People out for a New Year’s stroll, but not in the usual crowds

Whilst there were no immediate enforced closure rules, plans to dine out for Lunar New Year were cancelled as the preference to avoid contact with others became apparent. Meetings with old friends were also cancelled, as they thought it was best not to go out to KTV (karaoke) or have any kind of gathering. Again, this was not enforced, most people were taking their own initiatives to restrict their behaviour and limit contact with others. This, at a time when cases of the Coronavirus in the city were still in single figures.

Around 27th January food and beverage outlets and entertainment venues were apparently requested by authorities to close. Coronavirus case numbers in Dalian were still in single figures.

A shop in Dalian that has sold out of face-masks

Typical of many shops – sign on the entrance telling customers they have no face-masks

As the week went on, there were fewer people walking around outside, fewer cars on the road. The people that did venture outside would most certainly be wearing a face-mask. The usually ubiquitous PM2.5 face-masks became extremely difficult to buy: we only found them at the useful chain-store Miniso, and they restricted the sale to 1 per person.

The wearing of a face-mask is very normal in China, especially in industrial cities of the north during heavy air pollution. Living in Beijing, I would always check the level of PM2.5 in the air just as I would check the weather before going outside. But during this week in Dalian, there was a feeling of a social obligation to wear a face-mask. In fact, some shops, such as the convenience store Lawson, had signs denying entry to those not wearing one. There was an obvious fear over something that had not yet really reached the city in any significant numbers.

As the week went on, so of course we gave up hope of eating out at all our favourite Sichuan and Japanese restaurants we had been planning to visit over the previous months – Dalian was once part of Japan and today has a large Japanese community – as the gravity of the crisis unfolded, and restrictions of course remained in place. All restaurants remained closed.

Roosevelt Shopping Mall, Dalian, empty on a Saturday

In Dalian, an open shopping mall, but deserted on a Saturday afternoon – before any enforced restrictions on movement

Shopping malls stayed open, although many of the shops inside were themselves closed, and the malls were deserted caverns. Some mall security officers were checking the body temperature of anyone wishing to enter their empty cavernous corridors. Public transportation was not closed down, but buses that we took were not only very empty, but must have been regularly cleaned so thoroughly that you could almost get high off the smell of bleach.

As the week progressed, fewer people were venturing out. By 2nd February, Dalian had registered around 11 cases of Coronavirus. Although there was no mandatory restriction in place requiring residents to stay inside, people were simply using their common sense. There was a real and palpable fear of Coronavirus. Even though Hubei province is around 1400 kilometres away and was effectively quarantined off, being part of the same country must psychologically makes it feel closer, than say London and Milan, which is a similar distance. The fear was understandable, and was enough to make people exercise caution without having to be told what to do. Huge credit should go to the Chinese people for this collective level of self-discipline.

Although residents were free to come and go as they wished, visits were beginning to be regulated. I wanted to visit my old apartment building to reminisce, but the security guard wouldn’t let me in without explaining who I was visiting. So I left, and went to my old local shop to chat with the owners who I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. I had to remove my mask so they would recognise me.

We left Dalian on 2nd February, but only just – our airline KLM had cancelled flights from 3rd February onwards, so we were on one of the last to leave Beijing. China Southern had cancelled our flight from Dalian to Beijing and not told us – we found out by chance – and after hours on the phone to the airline, were transferred to an earlier Air China flight with only a few hours’ notice.

The procedures and health checks we experienced leaving China were remarkable. Entering Dalian airport we had our body temperature checked. There was an unofficial and unspoken obligation to wear a face-mask, only removed briefly for identity verification. A further body temperature check at the boarding gate prior to boarding our Air China flight to Beijing.

As with everyone on board – passengers and crew – our masks were firmly strapped to our faces the whole flight, only removed briefly to drink some water. A crew member came around mid-flight handing out health declaration forms to fill out. In these we had to state our name, seat number, origin, destination, and contact details.

On arrival at Beijing Capital airport we collected our luggage and exited to

A group body temperature check, Beijing airport

A group body temperature check on entering Beijing international airport terminal

get to the international check-in, before which we had a group body-temperature check, which reminded me of the school photos I used to hate. It was an “all smile at the thermal-camera” kind of affair. We checked in for our onward international flight. Whilst queuing, I observed a toddler wrapped in polythene in his push-chair, being wheeled around by what appeared to be his parents. The child was less than happy, frantically trying to break out. Any child would have been the same.

After check-in, we joined a very long, serpentine queue to a body temperature check station, where we were also required to hand in another health declaration form.

We boarded our KLM flight to Amsterdam. All the passengers and crew wore face-masks, only removed for eating and drinking. There was no spoken requirement but anyone not, surely would have been frowned at by fellow passengers. Coincidentally, directly in front of us was the couple with the toddler wrapped in polythene from the check-in queue – now unwrapped, but the anxious mother was busy using sticky-tape and polythene to create another barrier around her child.

Despite the extra health precautions, it was a normal flight, and roughly 10 hours later, we touched down at Amsterdam Schiphol. The Netherlands on 2nd February had not registered any cases, but they had just received a plane-load of people from China, and there were no health checks. This, in contrast to everything we had just experienced in China, was surprising, shocking even. I persevered with my face-mask for a while out of habit, but saw very few others wearing masks. Those who did almost all appeared to be east-Asian.

The couple of hours in Schiphol airport, was uneventful, apart from smashing an entire bottle of Captain Morgan rum at the boarding gate, which made everyone around a little drunk on the morning alcohol fumes. The result of buying too many Dutch waffles and ending up juggling them all.

Our KLM flight to London Heathrow departed as scheduled. Still no temperature checks. I saw approximately two other people on the entire flight wearing a face-mask, and I wore mine. With the crisis, I almost forgot that regrettably we were returning home to a non-EU country. On arrival at London Heathrow, there was nothing but a few signs warning travellers to look out for symptoms of the Coronavirus. Beyond this, as at Amsterdam Schiphol there was certainly no active health screening of passengers.

We did not have any symptoms of the Coronavirus, and aside from transiting through Beijing, we had only been in a city with 11 reported cases, but as a precaution the decision was to self-isolate and work from home.

A few days after we left Dalian when case numbers were still under 20, authorities began to restrict movement. This was heavily regulated with each household given a certificate to be marked by a guard when they left home, and were only permitted to leave once daily. Easy to regulate in a country where most live in apartment compounds.

London, with approximately double the population of Dalian had approximately double this number of cases on 9th March. At this time, London life was continuing as normal.

Now, a month and a half since the lockdown, Dalian is seeing restaurants open again with residents permitted to leave home as they wish. Although schools remain closed, normality is returning.

Dalian appears to have only registered around 20 cases in total, which suggests that these early intervention measures were extremely effective. And although the authorities enforced movement restrictions when cases were below 20, what still sticks in my mind and what is most important is how well residents were practicing social distancing before they were required to by law. All the cautious behaviour I experienced was before it was enforced, and was entirely voluntary.

Hubei with its population equivalent to England and Scotland enforced movement restrictions at around 550 cases. The UK enforced movement restrictions when cases reached over 6000.

Prior to the enforcement, compared with China, the UK saw nothing like the same amount of social distancing going on. The threat felt remote to many, unlike in Dalian, where although the threat was a long way away, it was within the country’s borders.

Now cases numbers are high and the UK government has enforced measures, let’s hope a population not used to being ordered about will keep to them. The outcome of this crisis ultimately depends on the cooperation of the people.

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1 Comment

  1. Rose

    A very interesting article Simon. I remember your local shop!

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