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Commute times in Beijing are among the worst in China, with many residents sitting in traffic for hours every day. Photo: AFP

China sees outpouring of support for workers laid low by Beijing coronavirus outbreak, and online censors have stepped in

  • Beijing has gone into ‘emergency response mode’ after detection of first local infections in five months
  • Travel records of some infected individuals are casting a spotlight on how difficult it can be to make a living in the nation’s capital

As Beijing braces for a rise in coronavirus infections during the winter months, Chinese citizens are lamenting the hardships facing infected workers in the nation’s capital, based on newly disclosed descriptions of their circumstances.

Beijing went into “ emergency response mode” on Wednesday after 13 cases were detected in the capital city in 10 days, including the first local infections in 152 days. Beijing has reported nine local cases in less than a week.

Among the five confirmed cases and one asymptomatic infection reported over the weekend, all are migrant workers living in Nanfaxin township, in the city’s northeastern Shunyi district near Beijing Capital International Airport.

The district has more than a million residents, nearly half of whom are not locals. Most have blue-collar jobs.

The latest wave of local infections began when a 34-year-old man in Shunyi, surnamed Fu, tested positive for the virus. When his test results came back early on Wednesday morning, Fu was on a business trip to Ningbo, nearly 1,400km (870 miles) from home – and just three days before he was due to take his graduate school exam, according to his travel records released by the Beijing government.

The details of Fu’s travails struck a chord with many people, particularly those living in Beijing, by casting a spotlight on the hard life of a typical working father in the city.

Fu spends at least three hours every day making the 50km (31-mile) round trip between his home and office, accompanies his child to early education classes and shopping on his weekends, and uses his evenings to prepare for his graduate school exam.


On Tuesday, he took a coronavirus test, as required for every exam taker, and flew to Ningbo in the afternoon before he was confirmed to have been infected.

During the latest outbreak in Beijing, what’s being disclosed is not just itineraries [of confirmed cases], but also the lives of ordinary people in Beijing
Weibo comment

“This is typical life in Beijing,” said a netizen on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service. “While it is common to work hard for a better life, the long commuting time is unbearable. That’s why I left Beijing two years ago.”

Other shared itineraries also offered glimpses into the working lives of men and women in Beijing. A 31-year-old man living in Shunyi, whose infection was confirmed on Saturday, spent his days working at a trading company while also holding down a night shift at a delivery transfer station for courier firm SF Express.

“During the latest outbreak in Beijing, what’s being disclosed is not just itineraries [of confirmed cases], but also the lives of ordinary people in Beijing,” said one popular Weibo comment.


“Life is so hard. These are the real lives of contemporary workmen, especially in first-tier cities,” another said.

A 32-year-old woman, whose infection was also confirmed on Saturday, was working full-time at an electric-vehicle firm during the day, then part-time at a delivery station from 10pm to 2am on five of the 14 days before her hospitalisation.


And a 40-year-old male patient had been driving for a ride-hailing company in the city for 17 hours a day in 11 out of the 14 days surveyed, from 6am to 11pm, to make ends meet.

 “Beijing’s cases always tell people what survival looks like,” another Weibo commenter said. “In a city where it takes more than 45 minutes to commute , many people even spend three or four hours commuting every day. It is difficult for you to feel the breath of life in such a city most of the time.”

Many such postings on Chinese social media have been removed by censors. On Monday, a popular Weibo hashtag referring to the “hard life in Beijing’s coronavirus cases” generated zero results.

As China’s capital, Beijing has one of the highest costs of living among cities in China, and in the world. According to an annual survey by asset management firm Mercer, Beijing ranked 10th this year on its list of the most expensive cities for expatriates to live in, with Shanghai coming in seventh place and Hong Kong ranked first.


Beijing also has the longest commuting distances and times among all Chinese cities, with an average journey of 12.4km and 56 minutes, according to a 2019 report by the Beijing Transport Development and Research Centre.

This year, young people in Beijing are spending an average of 5,100 yuan (US$782) a month on rent – the highest average among China’s four largest cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, according to a report published by the Beijing-based real estate brokerage platform Beike.

Steamed buns and cheap noodles comprise most meals of the working class, according to the report.

Life is so hard. I cannot help sighing. We live in the same city and are under similar pressure
Douban user

“While ‘low-end workers’ may be unwelcome in the capital city, the pandemic survey shows they work hard and deserve our respect,” a Weibo post said.


Beijing’s population stood at 21.5 million at the end of last year, with around 34 per cent of residents being migrants from other provinces, official data showed.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers were forced out of their homes in Beijing amid a citywide clean-up campaign in the aftermath of a blaze killed 19 people in 2017. The Beijing government has denied that it was aiming to evict lower-class segments, but there are widespread concerns that ordinary workers have become unwelcome in Beijing’s urbanisation and industrial upgrading drives.

“Life is so hard,” said a user on Douban, a social-networking platform. “I cannot help sighing. We live in the same city and are under similar pressure.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New cases expose misery of Beijing’s working class