Inside scoop: coronavirus in China

The very first coronavirus case was recorded in Wuhan, China, and the province locked down as early as 23 January 2020. But how has the situation developed, and what does life in China look like at the moment? Read on to find out.
Empty traditional tourist boats on canals of Shanghai Zhujiajiao Water Town in Shanghai, China. Photo: Travelpixs/Shutterstock
Empty traditional tourist boats on canals of Shanghai Zhujiajiao Water Town in Shanghai, China. Photo: Travelpixs/Shutterstock

While the first recorded cases of coronavirus came from China, the country took decisive action, rolling out a series of ambitious public-health interventions from late January. And the good news is that the measures seem to have – for the most part – worked. We caught up with our local expert, Helena Pan, based in Guangzhou, to see how life in China has changed and what travelers can expect in the future. 

In conversation with Helena 

Helena Pan. Photo: private archive

Q: Where are you based and what does life look like at the moment for you?

A: William and I are based in Guangzhou, a city that is located in the south of China, very close to Hong Kong. William is a native Cantonese and I am originally from Shanghai – but have lived in Guangzhou for over 30 years.

While China suffered the most from Covid-19, we were also the first country in the world to get the pandemic under control. We all stayed at home and tried not to go out. To start with, it was very difficult, given it coincided with the Chinese New Year. We had planned to go back to Shanghai and Suzhou to see my mum and my sisters, but of course the trip had to be canceled. And we also had to cancel our trip to the US in February for the Adventure Travel Show. In early March, we were forced to cancel our tour to Berlin for our yearly ITB Travel Show. In spite of all that, I am still very optimistic. We went through Sars in 2003 and trusted that things would get better, although this time it will take much longer for China and the world to recover. So I stayed at home, accompanied by my lovely dog Tangtang and started to learn many new things, including gardening and cooking. I read many books that I have always wanted to read. In order to keep my English up, I got on Netflix to watch English-language TV series. So I have actually been very busy and time passed so fast.

Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province with Guangzhou Tower and Liede Bridge. Photo: HelloRF Zcool/Shutterstock

The Chinese government realizes technology can help fight the virus. They had an IT technician invent a phone app to track all the places we visit. If you’ve been to an infected place, you won’t be able to get a green code on the app for 14 days. The government has also categorized different regions into 3 risk levels: namely high risk (50 or more cases in the past 14 days), medium risk (less than 50 cases in the past 14 days) and low risk (zero cases in the past 14 days). People who have been to a low risk area will have their green code, unlike those who have been to high or medium risk areas. This largely protects people from being infected, even if we have an outbreak of Covid-19 somewhere in China. For older people who may not have access to a cell phone, volunteers will take them to fill out a form so they can enter a hospital or other public institution.

As a precautionary measure, face masks are still mandatory in public places. However most people in the street do not wear them – but just keep one in their pocket in case they need to. People know what they are doing and things are under control. I have one interesting observation: I have noticed that there are more women wearing masks than men in public places; it seems women are more cautious than men. 

The good news is that since as early as March, most business has returned to normal in China. Except a few cases coming from outside the country, the number of community virus cases has remained around zero for the past few months. From late August all schools and universities are open and students are back learning in the classroom again with smiling faces.

Landscape of Guilin, Li River and Karst mountains, located near The Ancient Town of Xingping, Guangxi Province, China. Photo: aphotostory/Shutterstock

Q: China's borders have reopened for selected countries, but only with quarantine upon arrival and for non-tourist related reasons. When do you think international travel will pick up again?

A: Unfortunately the Chinese government has decided to keep our borders closed to in-bound tourism. So far, we have not received any official notice in regard to a timeline for the country reopening to international tourism. I think the government is waiting for the day that the virus in the other countries will drop to far fewer cases. Hopefully the vaccine will be ready in the later part of the year, which will help people all over the world. We are hoping our country will reopen to foreign tourism by June 2021.

Q: What can travelers expect to see in China and in the next few months to come?

A: I think travelers should remain realistic, given the pandemic is still spreading in North and South America, Europe and India. In some places the virus seems out of control, so the Chinese government has to be cautious. The good news is that Hong Kong may be open to mainland China by mid October, without applying a 14-day quarantine. Macao opened a couple of months ago. And people can still travel to China for business, although they will need to undergo the 14-day quarantine.

Buddhist stupa and Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Photo: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Q: Domestic tourism is on the rise in China, with millions traveling over the weekends and holidays. What are the most popular destinations for domestic and international travel?

A: Domestic travel has now been normalized and public transportation is very busy – our flights and trains are full. The country is full of activity again, and all our tourist attractions are welcoming visitors. Hotels and restaurants are busy day and night. Cinemas are opening at long last. People are looking for interesting places to visit and domestic tourists are everywhere. We are sure if the Chinese government opens its door to outside, there will be seas of people swarming out of the country and going everywhere in the world!  

Q: What are your favorite hidden gems in China for travelers?

A: It all depends on what one likes. For first timers to China, I’d recommend Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. These big three will give you a taste of China in terms of history and culture.

For those who love nature, I’d recommend Guilin, Zhangjiajie, Mt Huangshan and Mt Huashan, Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong, Mt Emei, Leshan and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Adventure lovers should explore the Silk Road, Rainbow Mountains and Tibet. There are also many exciting cycling routes – and hiking trails.  

The breathtaking view of the Rainbow Mountains Of China. Photo: Wirestock Images/Shutterstock

Q: Chinese food is popular all over the world, often in a more westernized form (for example the famous fortune cookies which are not Chinese at all). What is your favorite authentic Chinese dish? And do you have recommendations on what travelers should try?

A: There are a great many. I would highly recommend the Cantonese Dim Sum, which are delicious. I always go with my friends for a Dim Sum lunch – we chat and exchange life experiences while drinking tea and enjoying the Dim Sum. So it is not just a kind of food, it is more of a lifestyle and how we meet people. After all, Dim Sum literally means "little heart” or “touch your heart”.

 And apart from Dim Sum, I would also like to mention some of the other  popular Chinese dishes: Roast Peking Duck, Kung Pao Chicken, Mapo Toufu, Spicy Chicken, Sweet and Sour Carp, and Sichuanese style hotpot. They are all great!

Cantonese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer. Photo: TY Lim/Shutterstock