Special edition: Living in Beijing in the times of Corona

A commuter looks through a water-stained window wearing a mask and gloves to help guard against the Coronavirus, on a public bus in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Iran's health ministry raised Sunday the death toll from the new virus to 8 people in the country, amid concerns that clusters there, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“I’ll come, I’ll come”, as I try explaining to the man, on the other side of the phone, in broken Chinese. I’ll meet him at the university gate. 

He was explaining, in Chinese, that he had the food which I had ordered online and they would not let him onto the university campus. 

Since my arrival back in Beijing, at the end of January, from my Christmas and New Year’s holiday in Cape Town, our university has been under lockdown. 

Only authorized persons may enter the university campus. We are not allowed to leave campus. We should get the necessary supplies from a small supermarket on campus and one can order vegetables online which will be delivered at the university’s gate every Tuesday and Friday morning. 

Food is available at the university’s canteen but for a South African palate the variety is not great. In that case, one has to rely on ordering online and the delivery guy will deliver it; at the university’s gate. 

It’s still winter though. So you have to dress warmly to take the three hundred meters walk to the gate. Don’t forget the mask, you remind yourself. The mask is an important but scarce commodity in China these days. 

On exiting the building, one has to sign out with university staff taking your details, your temperature and reasons for you leaving the building. I tell them it’s for food.

We are discouraged from meeting others and encouraged to stay indoors. A few nights ago, some students, who had been indoors and alone for more than two weeks, met up in the common area to chillax and chat. The gathering was soon broken up. 

Every morning we are woken with a knock on the door. 

A staff member takes my temperature. She shows me the result. It must be 37 degrees or less. Everyone’s temperatures are then shared in a WeChat group so that all may monitor each other together but in isolation. An infected one is an infection to all.

We receive updates every morning too. Developments on how to make life a bit more comfortable. On our department’s group, we are asked whether we are all still ok or showing signs of abnormality. 

The South African students’ group also has some updates from students across China. We hear some news of the student that is missing and those in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of Corona virus, complaining about wanting to go home.  

Leaving the building, I see that it has snowed. You have to tread carefully lest you slip and fall, as I did last week. Walk slowly, walk slowly, you say to yourself in your mind, but it’s freezing, your mind responds. 

I get to the university gate and the delivery man is not there yet. The young security guard, who must be in his twenties, asks me something in Chinese. I hesitate and he whips out his phone using the translating app. 

“You didn’t go back to your country?”, he asks using the phone. I find mine and respond using the same app: “No, I love China too much!”. He laughs. 

“I have to do some study work here and I will not be able to do it at home”, I add. He nods. 

“Ok”, he responds in Chinese. It is a word we all know and have come to use frequently. “Ok” I respond back in Chinese.

The food man comes. I get my food and thank him. “OK”, I say to the security guard again who has to sit on duty in the snow cold  safeguarded only by a temporary marquee they have set up during lockdown.

“OK”, he responds.

Yet directly translated from Chinese the word is not “OK” but simply “good”!

Wesley Seale is a student currently finishing his PhD in Beijing.