Lockdown lingers on Beijing’s empty streets – The Irish Times

On Wangfujing, Beijing’s answer to Henry Street, a security guard stood on a low steel plinth, his long red winter coat a size or two too big and a black peaked cap resting slack on his head. Another guard looked on nearby as a handsome young couple strolled by, her arm curled around him as they held their coats closed against the wind on the broad, empty street.

Many of Beijing’s shopping malls have closed since the rise in Covid cases started gathering pace over the last few days and those restaurants still operating offer only takeaway service from a table wedged into the front door. But a number of shops along Wangfujing were open on Thursday afternoon, among them the big, old-fashioned department store on five floors that was my target.

Since Monday, when the school and business closures that started in Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang began to spread across the city, I had been pestering my Chinese friends to tell me where I could buy pillows. They told me I should stay at home and wait until everything was open again, but a woman in a mall said I should try this department store where I would find bedding on the fifth floor.

Walking past the perfumes and the make-up counters on the ground floor, I glanced at the sales assistants bent over their phones and saw that I was the only customer. It was the same in women’s fashion, menswear, formalwear and accessories on the upper floors until I got off the escalator on the fifth floor and saw three women in blue face masks standing in front of a bed.

I told one of them I was looking for two pillows, a duvet, pillowcases, a duvet cover and a sheet, something plain and sombre if possible. Within a few minutes, a bed was piled up with pillows and I took a picture to send to one of my friends who had urged me to stay at home.

I got a good-natured “well done” in response, but a moment later, he sent another message saying: “that’s a lot of money”. I told him we hadn’t spoken about the price, but by then the sales assistant was tallying it up on a piece of paper. It was the equivalent of almost €2,000.

When I said that it was more than I was thinking of spending she looked a bit let down but she went off to find some cheaper alternatives.

“I usually ask the price before I decide to buy something,” my friend messaged me, as if he was revealing a profound cultural difference.

The sales assistant came back with an alternative option but it was still too expensive and it was too shiny and luxurious for my taste, like something Doris Day and Rock Hudson would have enjoyed a chaste night’s sleep on. I left without buying anything, embarrassed and a little guilty in the knowledge that the three women in bed had probably not opened the till all week.

Outside, it occurred to me that my preoccupation with the pillows was as much about trying to resist the closing down of the city around me as anything else. I took a picture of the empty street and sent it to my friend.

“If we keep this up, the economy is going to collapse,” he said.

It was a familiar lament but, like most Chinese people I know, my friend has been staying at home for the past week and he is determined to avoid Covid. Another friend gave me an N95 mask the other day, saying she noticed I was still wearing a less effective surgical one.

“Walk everywhere you can, don’t take taxis and just stay at home,” she said.

The authorities signaled changes to China’s zero-Covid policy this month, making quarantine shorter and applying it to fewer people while telling officials to keep lockdowns as targeted and limited as possible. Ninety percent of the population are fully vaccinated, but the most hesitant group are the most vulnerable, the over-80s, only 66 percent of whom have received two vaccine doses and only 40 percent a booster.

There is a plan to step up the vaccination of the over-80s and to make the healthcare system more resilient with more intensive care beds, temporary hospitals for people with mild Covid symptoms and more access to drug treatments for those who are infected. This could take months and in the meantime, China is likely to maintain a modified version of the zero-Covid policy that has seen only 5,232 people die since the start of the pandemic rather than immediately embracing a “Living with Covid” strategy that could see hundreds of thousands of people dying with the virus.

My friend who fears the economy could collapse is self-employed and unable to work under the Covid restrictions in Beijing this week. He is worried about the future, but he’s also anxious about the present danger of infection both for himself and the people he lives with, who would all be quarantined if one of them tested positive.

“I prefer to stay at home these days. There’s a lot of disease around. You better stay safe, okay,” he said.

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