Ellen Cheng, co-founder of Boma China, has experienced first-hand the restrictions and health protocols imposed by the Chinese government in response to the coronavirus outbreak. She was in Europe when the virus first spread across the Wuhan province, and because of intense travel restrictions, it took her more than a week to get home. She spoke with us about her experiences living in Beijing since then.
(You can also watch her video conversation with Boma France founder Michel Lévy Provençal.)
What is your daily life like in Beijing?
When I finally returned last month, I had to wear a mask the moment I arrived. I was questioned about my health and my temperature was tested. I was then told to remain isolated in my apartment for two weeks and report my temperature and condition every day. I didn’t go outside once during that period.
Were you surprised by this level of precaution?
Not really. I think China is the only government in the world that is strong enough to impose such restrictions. Right now, everyone who goes out in public gets their temperature tested — in the subway, at the grocery store, almost anywhere. They place a sensor on your arm, it only takes a few seconds. If you’re too warm, you must go to the hospital. All public gatherings are forbidden, no concerts, no movies. We are also required to wear masks in public, even if we’re in cars.
Do you have family or friends in the Wuhan or Hubei province?
I have friends there. The city, the whole province has been closed. I heard several colleagues of my friend’s parents were infected with the coronavirus. I believe they have fully recovered from it, thankfully. There were mask shortages there, so I mailed them the only masks I could find in Europe. All the courier and mail services have been taken over by the government. You can only mail masks to Wuhan city. Nothing else can enter or leave the province. It’s strictly controlled.
What psychological impact do you think this crisis has had on Chinese people?
At the very beginning, everyone was very scared. People were panicked. We got so much conflicting information. “It’s very dangerous.” “No, it’s not very dangerous, just very contagious.” We thought it was SARS. We thought it came from animals. There were all sorts of rumors. Even rumors that it came from the United States. And just as things were at their scariest, the Lunar New Year was cancelled, and people were forbidden to gather. This is our greatest holiday, we look forward to it all year. We were forced to stay in our homes, and nothing like this had ever happened. There were very mixed emotions during this time: fear, anger, sadness, so much uncertainty. Then, with so much business and manufacturing paused for a month, some people got salary cuts, especially entertainment and travel. Right now, you can buy a plane ticket to anywhere in China for about $10. Anywhere for $10! And still no one wants to travel.
How has all this isolation affected people?
This might sound strange, but personally — and I think for many people — it’s actually been a good thing. It’s been a good time to pause for a moment and think about how we live and how we’d like to live. It’s allowed more time to read, and just have a moment to think. Also, there have been several positive developments because of this crisis. While all these bad things have been happening, we’ve seen some real innovations taking place.
In what areas?
Online education, for one. Every school in China is closed, every level of education from age 3 to 25. This has forced teachers and administrators to develop online programs, to livestream classes. It’s been a difficult process in some places, and some of the technology and data bandwidth has been hard to overcome, but they’re figuring it out. Because they have to.
Fresh food delivery, also. This has been truly amazing and a healthy thing for our country. Because we’re required to stay home, so many people have started cooking for themselves again. The fresh food providers have gotten so much better at managing their inventories and deliveries during this crisis. It’s had a very positive effect on people’s eating habits.
I think digital healthcare is another area. The government has instructed people with low-level illnesses or prescription needs to consult their doctors online, instead of going in person. It keeps contamination down, and it’s so much more efficient.
Air pollution. Ever since the factories and manufacturing centers have been shut down, there’s a noticeable difference in air quality. Although this has obviously had a negative impact on jobs and the economy — and is only a short-term situation — it’s amazing to see how much clearer the air can be.
I would also say that the ability to work remotely, in general, has also improved a lot. Many companies have had to learn how to conduct business online. This crisis has forced them to find new solutions to do this successfully.
With the virus now spreading around the world, how do you think other cultures, including Western cultures, will confront it?
I believe healthcare is a human rights issue. When a crisis like the coronavirus hits, governments have to be strong. They have to treat it like a very serious human rights issue. China is probably the only country that can be as strict as it is — and enforce its restrictions — whether closing whole cities and provinces, enforcing home isolation, shutting down factories, doing temperature tests on everyone. The result? I think it has been effective. Yes, in some ways, China is too strict. But I think Chinese people feel safer because of it.
What worries me about the rest of the world is that some government responses are not nearly as strong or coordinated. In the United States, for example, I read how the FDA and CDC were fighting over testing people for the virus. Something as simple as that. Yet for weeks, very few people were tested. When you face a public-health crisis like this, the government has to take stronger and more coordinated action.
Our world, all of us, will have to learn to live with this virus. In many ways, the last few months have been a big experiment. We’ve never seen a true pandemic spread across such an interconnected global ecosystem. As each country does what it can to fight the virus, we see more than ever that we need new systems and protocols to be able to work together. We see how important it is to have a strong centralized network of scientists, health care providers, economists, all exchanging information and ideas. I think WHO is doing a great job, but it needs to be strengthened and given more support. We need new systems so that we can source solutions globally.
Do you think it’s difficult to accomplish this at a time of increasing nationalism around the world?
Yes, it’s much harder. While this crisis unfolds, we’re closing borders, closing off information exchange, trying to create a more closed-off world. The virus spreads anyway. We need to realize that we’re all stakeholders in this. We all benefit by working together. And we will need to face many more emergencies beyond this in the future. There’s still Ebola and H1N1, to name a few.
The good news is it appears the spread of the virus is slowing down in China. Do you sense any relief from the state of fear people have been living in?
For the last three weeks I’ve spent a lot of time looking out my window. I’m starting to see more people on the street again. Although there’s still plenty of fear and anxiety around the country, people want to get back to normal. And I believe many feel the way I feel: That it has actually been a good time to pause — to get some new perspective and have some new thoughts about the way we live. China has changed so much so fast over the last couple decades. We all work too much, many of us 12-hour days, 6 days a week. Many of us have anxiety disorders because of all this work and all this change. Being forced to stay home has been a break for many people. Some of my friends have used it to try meditation for the first time, or to learn a musical instrument, or to read about philosophy. It’s like we’re trying to get back something that we’d lost — to learn some lessons about who we are and who we want to be.