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The grey veil lifts in Beijing

Publication Date : 28-02-2014


Although the smog has dispersed, with industry and transportation contributing to the pollution, how long will Beijing be spared from the "airpocalypse"?

Soon after I returned from dinner on Tuesday night, I started having a sore throat.

I had worn a mask that came with a thin filter within the fabric, but clearly it could not provide me with full protection against the vicious smog.

The discomfort grew in intensity when I was out again for a couple of hours around noon on Wednesday. I reached home in time before the China Air Quality Index (AQI) app on my mobile phone notified me that the air quality in Beijing had gone “beyond index”.

The index runs on a scale of zero to 500. By 2:15pm, the AQI recorded by the Chinese Environmental Protection Ministry had exceeded “severely polluted”.

When I looked out of the window, I could hardly see past the building directly opposite mine. I also wondered how clean could the indoor air be when outside was covered in nothing but a grey veil?

The stretch of six bad air days in the capital of China had been widely reported in the media, at home and abroad. The pollution alert was raised from yellow to orange for the first time last Friday. The second highest level after red, the orange alert, prompted the city to order 36 companies to halt production and another 75 to reduce production.

The public was also encouraged to use public transportation to cut down emissions. The metropolis was shrouded in smog as the AQI spiked.

Visibility dropped and the number of people wearing masks has increased, although some were just using surgical masks that do not block PM2.5, the airborne particles with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns.

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of other facemasks said to be able to fend off the hazardous PM2.5 was not clear either. The filters in the masks also made breathing difficult as they required more effort to draw in air. People bemoaned the toxic air everywhere.

A friend complained of dizziness. Another said it’s time to consider relocating to another city.

Seemingly targeting those who make the most complaints but take the least actions to improve the situation, Beijing Municipal Environ­mental Monitoring Centre said on its official Weibo account: “Power plants light up the darkness, heating plants provide warmth for the cold winter, steel and cement factories contribute to the construction of roads and high-rise buildings, trucks transport daily necessities, and cars bring you everywhere.

“You despise the smog and think you do not contribute to pollution, but everything you consume is produced at the cost of pollution.

“This is where we live together. Those who love her will stay; those who love her will be responsible.”

A man from the capital of Hebei province, Shijiazhuang, made headlines amid the smoggy weather for taking a radical step.

Le Guixin filed an official complaint with a district court requesting the Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to curb air pollution, while seeking compensation for smog victims.

Whether his bid would be successful or not, he had become the first person to take the government to court over air pollution.

On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a surprise appearance at Nanluoguxiang, a popular hutong in Beijing. He also visited the Beijing City Planning Exhibition Hall and a water plant. The fact that Xi was not sporting a mask became a topic of discussion on cyberspace, with many Netizens applauding him for “breathing together, sharing the same fate” with the people.

Finally, the long-awaited respite from smog came when cold fronts arrived to disperse the pollutants on Wednesday night.

When I woke up on Thursday morning, the veil that had been shielding the city had lifted and the AQI was only 12, or “excellent”.

Rays of sunlight shone in through the window, a welcoming sight and a nice change indeed. I joined the rest of Beijingers to rejoice at the blue sky, not knowing when will the “airpocalypse” return.

Hopefully, Xi’s calls for strengthened efforts to curb smog would translate into more actions that come with effective results, in addition to those already introduced by the authorities.


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