Beijing in a time of coronavirus

Ah nostalgia…

In 2003, I had just started working at the National University of Singapore, and not long after that, something else came to Singapore–SARS.

Not knowing the full extent or mortality of the outbreak, Singapore went into lock down. The university put up checkpoints, and professors were recruited to institute temperature checks on students entering lecture halls. Being a young cad, with no especial attachment to breathing, I didn’t mind, but some of my colleagues took real offense to being conscripted to the front lines. A few quit, and their names were never spoken again, as per custom.

Singapore itself was already facing a tourist slump, and the outbreak drove down arrivals even more. As the well-heeled banking set fled to more Londony climes, the raging alcoholism that fuels the island’s nightlife went on hiatus, leaving entire bar streets eerily quiet.

It looked dark, but of course everything bounces back. My greatest regret was not taking advantage of the momentary gloom to buy real estate.

How different things are now in 2020. Music has gotten undeniably suckier, social media has ruined all of our lives, and the Simpsons‘ most terrible predictions have come to pass.

And yet continuity.

The coronavirus outbreak hit just as I started up my new position at Beijing Normal University, and I get to see first hand how institutions react to a health crisis. Universities are an especially good test case. They are centrally run, but with the constant flow of people, many of them close quartered in dormitories, are undoubtedly among the most dangerous places to be.

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From my limited view on the ground, the response here really seems to have been exemplary, if a bit exaggerated. The prudent steps have all been taken. Public venues and schools have been closed, big businesses have been ordered to add extra days to the New Year holiday. Masks are everywhere, even where not necessary (such as outside).

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Beijing is not precisely a “ghost town,” but it is pretty darn quiet. Taxi drivers complain about the loss of customers, but the mostly empty roads are certainly a lot easier to drive on. I went to lunch yesterday with a visiting colleague, and we had the restaurant pretty much to ourselves. You can peacefully ride a bike around Tiananmen square, something that hasn’t been possible for many years.

Still, if I do see zombies, I’m aiming for the head. That’s just common sense.