As the coronavirus outbreak in China intensified, with increasing deaths and blocking 36 million people near the epicenter, it was as usual more than 700 miles away in the capital, Beijing.
The only sign that something was wrong: there were normal surgical masks that hid the faces of pedestrians, subway passengers and motorcyclists, and, among some, a vague anxiety that things might get worse.
The death toll rose to 26, but the attitude between beijingers and tourists could be summed up as something less than panic and more than “let’s get ready just in case.” A nuisance shrugged at the unknown.
Many residents had already left the city for the Lunar New Year vacations when the outbreak worsened a few days ago. Every year at this time, the capital empties, and 2020 is no different, although perhaps a little more disturbing, with the Year of the Rat scheduled to start on Saturday.
On Friday, New Year’s Eve, many restaurants were closed, with handwritten signs that indicated when their owners would return. Underground trains, usually full even in the busiest hours, had many seats. The locals supplied themselves with food for the holiday weekend, when even the supermarkets would be closed. Tourists did what tourists do, taking pictures of themselves in environments worthy of social networks.
It is common in East Asia to wear surgical masks to avoid catching a cold or transmitting one. But noticeably more people than usual were masked in Beijing.
Already sheltered against the weather of 40 degrees with coats and heavy hats, people with light blue masks, white or black, some with high-tech ventilation knobs, walked through the city with only their eyes. Security guards at subway stations and soldiers who were near Tiananmen Square also wore masks.
At least five cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in the capital city, and the virus has also spread to other countries, including the United States, although most of the patients had recently been in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province.
Scientists are still determining whether the lethality of the virus is more like influenza or SARS, a more deadly virus in the same family that devastated Asia in 2003. Many of the deaths from coronavirus have been among the elderly. It is believed that the virus was transmitted from an animal to a human in a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan.
In recent days, there was a death by coronavirus for the first time in a place other than Hubei, in Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing.
Meanwhile, in Wuhan, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients with flu-like symptoms, regardless of whether or not they had the coronavirus. Residents prepared for a siege with only the odds and ends up in their pantries, fearful of leaving or without mandatory surgical masks in the city.
For them, the New Year’s holidays, usually a time to reunite with the extended family during holidays, have been ruined.
Yanzhong Huang, who has researched SARS extensively, predicted that the coronavirus would spread more widely in other parts of China and beyond. What is unknown, he said, is the severity of the infection and how much the virus can mutate as it migrates from one host to another.
The moment, just before the Lunar New Year and the largest annual mass migration in the world, could not have been worse. The unprecedented quarantine of the Wuhan Chinese government, with a population of 11 million, and the surrounding cities may have been too little, too late.
Wuhan, which Huang called Chicago from China, is a magnet for high-tech workers, students and academics, as well as for those in the service and construction industries. Many people had already left the city for vacations or to flee the virus.
“When this happens in China, with hundreds of millions of people traveling and mixing, it’s like a Petri dish for a virus to mute and probably become more virulent,” said Huang, who heads the Center for Global Health Studies at the Seton Hall University and is a principal investigator of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
For all people with masks in Beijing, a significant minority ran out of New Year’s Eve.
In front of an exclusive shopping center near the Forbidden City, three restaurant chefs strolled East Chang’an Road with bare faces. They trusted destiny, and the Chinese government, not to send any deadly pathogens in their direction.
“It’s better to wear a mask, but not wearing one is fine too,” said Li Jiangyun, 45. “I don’t think I get here. The country will take care of that.”
Li’s co-worker Wang Hao, 22, said Beijing was so crowded with people, some masked and some not, that their chances of contracting the virus were low.
The three men, who work in the same restaurant, decided not to travel to their home villages for the holidays because train tickets were too difficult to get. It is lonely to be away from home in a largely empty city of residents, on a vacation that usually goes with the family, said Li, who is from Xinjiang Province in the western end of China. The third cook, Ah Buli, 22, is also from Xinjiang, and Wang is from Ningxia Province.
Many tourists arrived in the capital city despite the virus and were watching.
In the Forbidden City, tourists swarmed the halls along the high walls of the palace and the frozen moat, even though the doors were closed for visitors.
Media reports had said that the former imperial palace was closed due to the virus. But a guard said that the closing of New Year’s Eve had been scheduled in advance, and that the palace would open on New Year’s Day at 8:30 a.m.
In a busy shopping plaza near the palace, a high school student visiting Beijing from Henan province wore a black surgical mask, but said he was not worried about getting the virus.
“It has been very well controlled,” said the 16-year-old student named Yao, who did not give his first name.
His mother was not worried either.
“You just have to pay attention,” he said, although it was not clear in his comment how he would distinguish a person carrying a coronavirus from a germ-free one.
A family of three from Chengdu City in Sichuan Province bought surgical masks after arriving in Beijing on Monday. They had traveled many historical sites in four days: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven.
They said they were not worried about the spread of the virus and that they had obtained the masks as a precaution.
“We bought them here in Beijing!” Said the 9-year-old son, whose English name is Gary, showing his blue checkered mask.
A public security officer hovered over the interview, then stopped her and said it was not necessary for a foreign journalist to talk to the common people.