[Video] End of pandemic: What now for China’s makeshift quarantine facilities?

Despite its end, the pandemic in China has left behind some issues, in particular the makeshift quarantine facilities that cost the government millions of RMB to build. While some have been converted to residential apartments, these temporary structures could be on the road to a pricey demolition. Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Wong Siew Fong takes a closer look at one of these quarantine-turned-housing facilities.
A shot of The Colorful Community.
A shot of The Colorful Community.

(Photos: Wong Siew Fong/SPH Media)

“At first, it was pretty surreal, as if I was being quarantined again. But after getting used to it, it's no big deal.”

Ma Shilu, 20, is a student living in The Colorful Community in Jinzhan, Beijing. I interviewed him in the cramped room he shares with another tenant. At first glance, the room looks like any other room. But look out the window and one sees neat rows of makeshift hospital buildings, while the ceiling made of corrugated iron sheets sets it apart from the average apartment. 

These unique building features remind Ma that this place was once a quarantine space that has witnessed China’s unique history of pandemic control.

No fear of infection

The Colorful Community was built in mid-2022 as a makeshift hospital housing 38,000 people during the pandemic quarantines. After China eased its pandemic restrictions, local governments sought to repurpose makeshift hospitals. The Colorful Community was thus converted to "talent apartments" (人才公寓) and began being leased to the public at the end of September 2023.

These units are designed to meet the housing needs of the city’s new residents and youths, with the rent going for only 1,200 RMB (US$189) per month and the minimum lease period set at six months.  

This large 200,000-square-metre residential community consists of 4,910 units, each one 18 square metres in size. The rooms have an en suite bathroom and air conditioner, and are furnished with a brand new bed, television and sofa. Most of the residents in the community are young students and beipiao (北漂, those who travel to Beijing for work).

Ma was one of the earliest tenants at The Colorful Community, moving in during November 2023 upon a friend’s recommendation. Ma rents a room together with a friend.  

In late 2022, Ma was quarantined at a makeshift hospital after coming into contact with someone who had Covid-19. During the pandemic, he also had a stint as a “Big White” (大白, anti-epidemic volunteers in white uniforms), delivering meals at a quarantine zone.

The low cost of rent at The Colorful Community is one of its biggest selling points.

Makeshift hospitals were converted into a residential area. (SPH Media)
Makeshift hospitals were converted into residential blocks. 

Ma was stoic as he described his pandemic experience, showing no qualms about living in a room in a former makeshift hospital. 

He admitted that upon seeing the place for the first time, he was very satisfied with the environment at The Colorful Community and immediately decided to move in without considering other accommodations. 

He shared, “The makeshift hospitals aren’t that dangerous, as long as you protect yourself well. Furthermore, the place has already been disinfected, and the pandemic ended long ago. It’s impossible to get infected now.”

Low rent biggest selling point

The low cost of rent at The Colorful Community is one of its biggest selling points. For students like Ma, this is one of the few fairly new yet affordable accommodations with en suite facilities, besides school dormitories. 

A shot of a room at the Colorful Community. (SPH Media)
A shot of a room at the Colorful Community. 

Ma and his roommate share the cost of the rent, as well as the water, electricity and internet bills, with each person forking out less than 800 RMB per month. In comparison, other studio units in good condition around The Colorful Community would cost upwards of roughly 2,000 RMB. 

Facilities such as a gym, supermarket, canteen and security are available within The Colorful Community. A meal consisting of a serving of meat and vegetables at the canteen costs just 15 RMB. While pets were strictly forbidden from the makeshift hospitals previously, the community now allows pets. 

... the remote location is one major challenge when it comes to reusing them in the post-pandemic era. 

Occupancy rate of only 10%

Even though there is a host of facilities, the occupancy rate for The Colorful Community is only at roughly 10%. On the day of the interview, the weather was chilly, below -10 degrees celsius, with the nearly deserted streets and howling winds making the community seem even quieter. 

The makeshift hospitals meant for quarantine use were set up at areas relatively further away from the city centre, and the remote location is one major challenge when it comes to reusing them in the post-pandemic era. 

The Colorful Community is situated outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road, with the nearest metro station eight kilometres away. To tackle transportation issues, the community provides a shuttle service to and from the metro station, but many residents use their own transportation, such as electric scooters.

The canteen at Colorful Community offers meals for its residents. (SPH Media)
The canteen at Colorful Community offers meals for its residents. 

Ma once recommended The Colorful Community to his fellow classmates, sharing that it only takes him 15 minutes by motorcycle to reach his school daily. However, he said, “While they considered renting a place here, it is still quite far for them as most of them do not ride motorcycles.” 

Issues such as relatively poor sound insulation between rooms and the extreme cold during winter are all factors that deter potential renters from choosing The Colorful Community. During my interview of less than half an hour, I was shivering underneath my down jacket.

... in the event of a pandemic or other unforeseen circumstances, the government may acquire the property in an emergency, and tenants must unconditionally vacate from their rental units. 

Ma, who is a sophomore, plans to continue renting at The Colorful Community for two more years until he graduates. But he is considering temporarily moving back to his school’s dormitory for next winter, adding that “The Colorful Community is more suited for living only during spring, summer and autumn”. 

While the quarantine-related signages have been removed from most areas of The Colorful Community, the informed consent form that tenants are required to sign before moving in still includes a special clause which says that as the housing project was initially used as a centralised quarantine facility for Chaoyang district, in the event of a pandemic or other unforeseen circumstances, the government may acquire the property in an emergency, and tenants must unconditionally vacate from their rental units. 

Although most quarantine-related signages have been removed, some pandemic-related displays remain.
Although most quarantine-related signages have been removed, some pandemic-related displays have remained.

Additionally, there is no clear statement on how long The Colorful Community, which was built in 20 days, will be available for lease. 

When interviewed, a staff at The Colorful Community gave a vague response: “They should be able to live here for three to five years… Such big events do not normally happen and we’re hoping for stability these days, and no more of that kind of situation.”

Once the focus of public attention

After China eased its anti-Covid policy in early 2023, the fate of makeshift hospitals, which the government had spent enormous sums of money to build, was once the centre of public attention. 

A research report referencing data from various regions such as Fujian’s Gutian and Putian; Hunan’s Changsha; Zhejiang’s Wenzhou; and Shanxi’s Shuozhou, highlighted that a single bed at a newly constructed quarantine facility could cost over 90,000 RMB.  

Jinan was one of the first cities to repurpose makeshift hospitals and convert them into "talent apartments" in January 2023, which became a model for some regions. Apart from Beijing, Wenzhou also converted local quarantine facilities into affordable rental housing to solve housing issues.  

... the makeshift hospitals were not designed to be permanent structures in the first place, and so the local governments would have to spend an additional amount of money on reinforcement and renovation in order to be repurposed. — Chi Chunhuei, Professor, College of Health, Oregon State University

A supermarket in The Colorful Community.
A supermarket in The Colorful Community.

But not all makeshift hospitals can be repurposed in this manner to kill two birds with one stone. Although Ningjin county in Hebei’s Xingtai city considered repurposing makeshift hospitals into elderly care facilities in 2023, the relevant proposal was rejected as the building is not earthquake-resistant and it would be difficult to install fire protection systems or incorporate elderly-friendly designs.    

In July 2023, Hainan’s Danzhou received backlash for placing a 13 million RMB bid to demolish its makeshift hospitals. 

During an interview, Professor Chi Chunhuei of Oregon State University’s College of Health analysed that the makeshift hospitals were not designed to be permanent structures in the first place, and so the local governments would have to spend an additional amount of money on reinforcement and renovation in order to be repurposed.

Chi also pointed out that most local governments are finding it even more difficult to repurpose makeshift hospitals because of their remote locations and people’s negative perception of these facilities. Furthermore, converting makeshift hospitals into residential or commercial facilities in cities already facing a surplus of housing and office units could exacerbate the existing oversupply of properties.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “告别疫情 北京方舱变民宅出租”.

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