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How the coronavirus changed life in China: CNBC Beijing Bureau Chief Eunice Yoon

Key Points
  • CNBC's Beijing Bureau Chief Eunice Yoon has been on the ground in China covering the coronavirus outbreak since its origins in Hubei province. 
  • Her life, she says, was far from normal: "In the beginning ... security guards started wearing gloves, and then masks, and then suddenly they're wearing goggles and they're taking your temperature."
A Chinese woman wears a protective mask and sunglasses as she waits for a bus on a nearly empty road during rush hour in the central business district on February 13, 2020, in Beijing.
Kevin Frayer

It started in December. A few cases of pneumonia with unknown etiology were reported in Wuhan, China, apparently isolated and, at first, no cause for alarm. Seventy-two days later the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

Eunice Yoon, CNBC's Beijing Bureau Chief, has been on the ground in China covering the outbreak since its origins in Hubei province. Yoon's reporting began in January, when one of China's top epidemiologists confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus. That confirmation coincided with the beginning of Chunyun, the travel period for Chinese New Year, the largest annual human migration in the world.

"That's when we started to think, 'This is going to be a really big story,'" says Yoon, reflecting on the beginning of her coverage with CNBC Senior Producer Katie Kramer in Friday's episode of "Squawk Pod."

In the two and a half months since the novel coronavirus was confirmed to spread among humans, more than 125,000 cases have been reported worldwide. "In the beginning ... security guards started wearing gloves, and then masks, and then suddenly they're wearing goggles and they're taking your temperature," Yoon recalls.

"I was in a park and I thought, 'OK ... I am just going to take my mask off for a little bit … I'm just going to breathe properly because it's kind of hard to breathe in the mask.' And then there was a line of police and I got scolded," Yoon says of what daily life, as both a reporter and a Beijing resident, has been like during the COVID-19 outbreak in China.

As the Chinese government shut down businesses and limited domestic travel to contain the outbreak, official scrutiny of residents mounted. Two months into the epidemic in China, Yoon was showing her passport to move around her own neighborhood. She, along with other Beijing residents, applied for residential ID cards, capped at three per household. "If you have more people in your house, then too bad. They can't leave," she says.

Despite reports from the state media that the situation was improving in February, Yoon's experience living and working in China was far from normal. "I had to go in early one day [to work], and the first thing I saw was a guy wearing a hazmat suit right outside my door, and I got so unsettled seeing that, because we had just been hearing that things were getting better."

According to the Chinese Commerce Ministry, 19 provinces and cities in China are finally back to work, but the habits and protocols prompted by the epidemic might remain in communities long after the economy returns to 100% capacity. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box" this week, "Just like after 9/11, security was put in place, but some of it never went away. Some of the steps we take now will be in place for a long time, and that's probably a good thing."

Chinese state media: 'Victory is near' in coronavirus fight

In China, officials may phase out hazmat suits, but social-distancing measures could remain as wary residents get back to work. Yoon's compound in Beijing has tape on elevator floors, delineating recommended partitions between residents who ride the elevators together. Last month residents in her compound were using toothpicks to press buttons on those same elevators, as well as sanitizing before and after entry.

elevator tweet

As the pandemic spreads across the rest of the world, precautionary measures follow suit. Sanitation teams in Iran, Italy and elsewhere are working to disinfect high-touch surfaces and locations, including religious centers and markets. In New York City, teams are disinfecting public transit.

Reuters reports that the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported more cases of coronavirus recoveries than new infections. South Korea's strategy for testing and disinfection nationwide has largely been regarded as a model for other countries facing the outbreak. It has offered free testing to as many as 15,000 people a day to identify infection "hotspots," as well as almost 200,000 screenings.

Whichever mitigation model countries choose to pursue, daily life in affected areas will change.

"A lot of times, you have a big story and then after that you come out of it because it's not so personal to you. But in this one, everything is so personal, all the time," Yoon says.

To hear Eunice Yoon's full conversation with CNBC Senior Producer Katie Kramer about reporting during an outbreak, subscribe to "Squawk Pod" on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.

By Cameron Costa, CNBC Segment Producer