How does an economy reopen? It’s the question facing so many nations that implemented mass or partial lockdowns as the deadly COVID-19 virus swept the globe. In these places, the worst physiological effects of the coronavirus appear to have passed—at least for now. The devastating economic toll—purposefully inflicted by the shuttering of nonessential businesses—remains and must be urgently addressed.
China, the first country to confront the coronavirus, has made an initial attempt to respond to this question. The answer is not easy. Like their peers globally, Chinese cities implemented restrictions at different times and by different measures as they weighed economic costs against public health benefits. Their reopening reflects that patchwork.
Caught up in local directives to close and reopen—and in some cases, to close again—are people, whose individual stories provide snapshots of how the coronavirus continues to touch the most populous country on Earth.
Below, Fortune has captured seven of those stories from seven people in seven cities.
Individually, they depict the distinct ways Chinese cities are trying to return to “normal”: the incentives, deterrents, and digital tools they’re using to reignite their economies and protect against subsequent coronavirus waves. Together, they reveal the pandemic’s shared human experience—in China, and beyond.
Zach Bielak, an American tech entrepreneur who’s lived in Shenzhen for three years, faced an invasive ordeal when he returned to post-lockdown China by plane. A 6 a.m. throat swab and two-week mandatory quarantine were only part of it. The process was disorienting—even in a city known for mass surveillance—and Bielak expects it to be the new normal.
Zhexuan Huang, 21, was supposed to have spent this winter and spring on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Instead, he was holed up with his parents and grandmother in their Wuhan apartment. Nearly a month after Wuhan’s lockdown lifted, his time in isolation feels distant, but deep anxiety remains.
Jasmine Yang, a 37-year-old cofounder of a coding education company in Chengdu, describes the city’s lockdown in apocalyptic terms. Its reopening has been jarring too as she’s had to rethink how her workplace operates in a world shaped by the pandemic.
Vicky Zhao’s hometown of Shanghai, largely spared from the worst of the outbreak, eased into its shutdown, and—just weeks later—it eased back out. The consultant is still taking some precautions, but she’s so far eschewed the contract-tracing app that’s become so essential in other Chinese cities.
Peter Zhou, a 25-year-old Cornell graduate working for a tech startup in Hangzhou, says some reopening restrictions in the city, known as a technology hub, have already become formalities. Health monitoring QR codes, for instance, aren’t always checked seriously. Yet technology of another kind has taken a firmer hold: manual labor—carried out by virus-susceptible humans—continues to be automated, but now at a quicker clip.
Cathy Fu, a communications professional in Beijing, was nearly turned away from a favorite restaurant when she emerged from a 14-day mandatory quarantine. The staff finally let her in after she displayed a certificate that she’d completed two weeks of isolation. Beijing never implemented a blanket lockdown, but Fu’s experience illustrates that the Chinese capital is still employing precautionary tactics that go beyond measures taken in other Chinese metropolises.
In early April, the situation in Harbin, a city of 10 million was finally looking up for Bill Bailey, a 60-year-old American who teaches English at a university there. He had been largely confined to his on-campus apartment for 10 weeks owing to the pandemic, but cars were back in the streets and people were returning to local businesses. But days later, a second-wave of coronavirus cases dashed that progress, as the city reimposed some lockdown measures it had just lifted.
Read all the stories in this Fortune series:
—A Shenzhen entrepreneur gets a 6 a.m. throat swab and mandatory quarantine
—A Wuhan college student still avoids restaurants and public transit
—A tech founder in Chengdu returns to a changed workplace
—A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app
—A startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating
—A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown
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