As It Happens

Beijing looks like a 'ghost town,' says BBC correspondent under quarantine

After weeks of driving around China covering the spread of the coronavirus, Stephen McDonell is now staying put. 

Stephen McDonell is in lockdown in his apartment in the city after reporting in Hubei province

BBC China correspondent Stephen McDonell undergoes temperature screening at a hotel check-in, not far from the Hubei provincial border. (Stephen McDonell/Twitter)


After driving around China covering the spread of the coronavirus, Stephen McDonell is now staying put. 

McDonell, the chief China correspondent for the BBC, has been forced to quarantine himself in his apartment in Beijing after returning from a visit to Hubei province, which is in lockdown. 

The World Health Organization said Thursday the coronavirus now represents a global health emergency. At least 212 people have died, most of them in Hubei.  

Here is part of McDonell's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

You're covering one of the biggest stories in China in years, and yet you're forced to stay home in quarantine. As a reporter, what's that like?

It's not too bad. At least I got to initially go to the sort of heart of it in Hubei province. And it's because we were there that upon returning to Beijing, I've had to stay at home for a couple of weeks, so as to not pass on the virus, potentially, to my colleagues.

It's been a sort of a contrast. We certainly were crazy busy down there for a few days.

It is also interesting here, though. Because Beijing — it's incredible. Like, normally, it's quiet anyway for the Spring Festival. But at the moment ... in this enormous city, there's barely anybody on the streets. Shops are closed, businesses also closed.

We've had news now that these big companies — Toyota, Samsung, Ikea — are all delaying starting up work again after the Spring Festival break because of the fear of their workforce being contaminated. And it's like the whole country has gone into sort of ghost-town mode.

For anyone who's normally been to China, it's not what you would expect it to be like.

What's the level of fear that people are feeling right now?

It's more serious when you're in the sort of what you might call ... the virus hot zone.

The closer we're getting to Hubei, the more people are worried. There are obviously more checkpoints. There are police, there are medical teams dressed head-to-toe in protective gear. To pass those checkpoints, you need to have a temperature screening.

Once you go into Hubei, well, of course, people are most worried there, because that's where the corona virus outbreak started. 

But I think mainly they're pretty happy that the government is taking this very decisive action — even though it's kind of Draconian and heavy-handed.

Locking down a province of 60 million people — it's like the entire population of Italy not being able to move around — it is quite a drastic step to take. And yet most Chinese people, I think, can understand why it's being done. And even the World Health Organization isn't criticizing China over this.

Paramilitary officers wearing masks line up in front of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on Thursday. (Stringer/Reuters)

How did you get out? How difficult was it actually to cross a border and get out of that province and get back to Beijing?

We sort of thought we'd ease ourselves in on a small little back street — a small road.

But even on that very little road we were attempting to cross over the border, there was a police checkpoint. And when we went to go in the police were like, "Well, we'll let you in. But we're not going let you back out again."

So we thought, well, what the hell? And we just pushed ahead and went in — not knowing how we'd get back out again.

We travelled through lots of towns, which just felt like were completely deserted. If people had told you that nobody lived there anymore, you would believe it — apart from the odd person walking down the street, sort of hunched over with their face mask on. And then we went to a small city. And we were interviewing a patient from their hospital bed via a phone app.

I wished this person good health ... and hung up the phone. As if on cue, the police turned up. And the local ... government officials were hot on their heels, and basically said they didn't want us there. 

And so we said to them, "Well look, you know, even if we wanted to go, how would we get out of this province? Because you know it's all locked down."

"Oh, no worries," they said, and escorted us back across the border ... with the police lights flashing.

It was more important for them to breach their own quarantine procedures than have a sort of team of pesky journalists hanging around.

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.