Just a few days ago, Richard White could freely enter and leave the International Grand Bazaar, a major tourist attraction in the Chinese city of Urumqi.
The last time he went, armed police officers took his temperature before letting him in.
That’s the reality of the swiftly changing situation in China, even in Xinjiang province. It’s about far away as you can get from the epicentre of a novel form of coronavirus that, as of Friday, had killed 26 and sickened nearly 1,000.
“You can hear out the window people are still setting off firecrackers. Even though a lot of people are nervous, there's still a desire to celebrate.”
- Richard White
White spoke to SaltWire just moments after the Chinese Lunar New Year. He said even returning to his hotel after stepping out to watch fireworks resulted in questioning and a temperature check from police.
It's getting serious
White is originally from St. John’s but has lived in Shanghai for the last two years. He teaches English at an elementary school in the city’s southern Fengxian district.
As of Friday, however, White was staying at a hotel in the far northwestern city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.
Urumqi is situated about 3,500 kilometres away from the more central Hubei province, where 35 million people are locked down in the capital city of Wuhan—reportedly ground zero for the virus—and surrounding cities.
White had to travel through Wuhan via train about a week ago to get to Urumqi, where he had made plans to visit during the holiday.
“Wuhan is. . .very centrally located in China and it's a major transportation hub,” White said.
“At that point (last week) none of these measures had been put in place to restrict travel and control the outbreak because I don't think it was taken quite as seriously at that stage.”
It's clear that has changed.
Public gatherings cancelled
“Within the last three days, I've noticed all the hotel staff, they are all wearing masks. All of the police officers you see on the street and in Xinjiang — and there are a lot of them — they are all wearing masks,” he said.
White, too, has begun wearing one, though he questions the effectiveness.
Even celebrations for the Lunar New Year have been scaled back with many public gatherings across the country being cancelled.
“I've been talking to people in the city and they say, ‘We were supposed to have a big dinner with all of our family members but we don't feel safe to do that now,’ ” White said.
“You don't know if you're going to be transmitting the virus unintentionally because it has an incubation period.”
With so much travel taking place around China as families celebrate the New Year, the school White works for, which was supposed to resume classes early next month, is suspending them until mid-February.
“They want to give a chance for anyone that's travelling to sort of show symptoms,” he said.
While White had planned to return to Shanghai much sooner, he has decided to stay in Urumqi for the time being as he feels safer being so far away from the outbreak.
“On social media, I have noticed, compared to my Chinese friends, I think that Westerners have been maybe overreacting a little bit.”
- Richard White
Shanghai is less than 1,000 kilometres from Wuhan and is much more densely populated.
White also said there have only been two confirmed cases in all of Xinjiang, and both individuals had travelled to Wuhan.
“The equivalent that all the media has been talking about is the SARS outbreak of 2003, but in the last 15 years, China has become so much more connected and so many more Chinese people have the means to travel within the country and without,” he said.
“That’s the reason why the government is acting in such a harsh way to try and control this because there's a really strong chance that it could spread quickly.”
Despite the measures being undertaken by authorities and a widespread feeling of nervousness among Chinese citizens, White said there’s no mass panic, and that he doesn’t feel overly concerned for his safety.
“On social media, I have noticed, compared to my Chinese friends, I think that Westerners have been maybe overreacting a little bit,” he said.
“For the most part people are still trying to go about their daily lives, and I think maybe that's because it's the holiday season and they still want to enjoy family time and everything," he said.
"You can hear out the window people are still setting off firecrackers. Even though a lot of people are nervous, there's still a desire to celebrate.”
White said he will need to keep monitoring the situation closely in the coming days and weeks to see when and how he will be able to return to Shanghai to begin work again.
“We live in that 24-hour news cycle so I don’t know if when I wake up in the morning there will be another update from the government,” he said.
“It changes at the drop of a hat.”