Across the ocean in Anchorage’s sister cities, pandemic life feels both different and the same

A street with a white colonial apartment building
Lenin Ave. in Magadan, on Oct. 5, 2020. (Evgeny Pimanov/Wikimedia)

During the long pandemic year, many Alaskans have turned their focus inward, to their families, homes and other things that are close at hand. But around the world, other cities are dealing with their own restrictions, often in very different ways and with very different consequences. 

For a look at what’s going on around the world, Alaska Public Media turned to residents in two of Anchorage’s sister cities: Magadan, Russia, and Harbin, China. 

Magadan, Russia

The city on the Pacific Coast of Russia is perhaps best known as being the center of the Gulag labor camps in Soviet times. It’s at roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, with a population of about 100,000. 

One major difference that stand outs is the direct government enforcement of COVID-19 rules and regulations. Unlike Anchorage, in Magadan, police officers are active in enforcing coronavirus regulations, though they’re not always harsh, said Igor Dadashev, a former journalist who lives in Magadan and runs a theater production company. He said early-on in the pandemic, he saw police reminding people to wear masks outside on the street. 

“I watched the police walk up to people outside and ask, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a mask?’ but they just told them, ‘Wear a mask’ and let them go,” he said, speaking via Zoom from his office in Magadan. 

He said police have recently been getting more aggressive about enforcing the rules, even issuing small fines. Police have shut down bars and restaurants caught breaking social distancing and capacity requirements, according to media reports. Authorities are also more aggressive about enforcing quarantines for positive tests, which some Western commentators fear has discouraged people from seeking tests. 

There are some areas where Magadan’s coronavirus response seems to be going well. According to officials, almost 40% of its hospital beds are still free. And with new case counts stabilized, the regional government is prioritizing different sectors than Anchorage is as the city reopens. While authorities are quick to shut down bars and restaurants that aren’t complying with the rules, Dadashev said, schools are back in person across the country. Teachers will also be first, alongside medical workers, to receive Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V. 

In Magadan, there’s even some limited entertainment, said Dadashev. 

“For Christmas, for New Year, they’re letting us do performances with one restriction: In the audience, it’s just 25%,” he said.

Outdoor events like tree lightings and visits from Father Christmas can go on as well, assuming hospital beds aren’t filled and cases continue their plateau, according to local government announcements. 

Harbin, China

The Harbin Snow and Ice Festival in 2009. The annual festival draws as many as 20 million visitors and is tentatively set to take place this January, pending government approval in mid-December, according to the event website. (Creative Commons)

On the northern edge of China, 1500 miles southwest of Magadan, Anchorage sister city Harbin is home to about 10 million people. Despite a population many times larger than Anchorage, the number of COVID cases has plateaued at zero since midsummer. 

Ran An, a barista and cafe manager in Harbin, said early pandemic lockdowns in the region were strict. 

“For the entire four months, I stayed home and so did everyone else. Nobody was able to work during that time unless you’re a hospital worker, nurse or doctor,” she said, speaking through Zoom late last month as a snowstorm raged outside her window. 

Like the rest of China, the area was locked down in January with draconian measures, but had a second scare in April, with cases that authorities attributed to people crossing the border from Russia. That resulted in an extra month-long lockdown, but caused fewer than 100 cases, according to Western media reports. 

The government furloughed its workers, while private business owners like Ran An got tax deferrals and landlords delayed rental payments. An said that contrary to what Westerners might think, residents of China weren’t all quietly submitting to the regulations the government put in place at the beginning of the pandemic: There were anti-maskers at first.

“But as time moved on, the [Homeowner’s Association]-equivalent organization, would check in with these people one-on-one and tell them what a serious disease this is and eventually convinced them to follow the standards,” she said. 

Ran An said a big part of Harbin’s success in convincing citizens masking was important was not the heavy-handed Communist Party government edicts coming from Beijing. It was in fact a hyper-local form of government, roughly translated as “Homeowners Association.” They’re run by the Communist Party, but because of their on-the-ground nature, they can monitor what people are doing. An said these HOAs have gained trust, even attracting volunteers during the pandemic. 

“These volunteers, and people working for this organization, would go door-to-door to distribute rubbing alcohol, masks and also to let the residents know open their window to allow air circulation,” she said.  

Having hyper-local information is also helpful, said An. In addition to daily updates on TV and online, there’s a nationwide web-program that lets residents track COVID outbreaks down to individual neighborhoods or even buildings. 

“That way we can avoid the area that’s most trafficked with the positive personnel,” she said. 

In Harbin, things are getting back to a form of normal. Ran An is back at work in her shop, and there are small events taking place, albeit with masks. The Harbin Snow and Ice Festival, an annual event that draws up to 20 million visitors, is still scheduled to take place in early January, pending final government approval, according to the event website. 

An said it feels like the city has largely beaten the pandemic. There won’t be any mass gatherings any time soon, but she said knowing the worst is behind them is a good feeling. 

“That’s a holiday itself,” she joked. 

And An hopes that her sister citizens in Anchorage can see from Harbin that things can get back to normal. It will just take diligence and some sacrifice.

Jin Chen provided the Chinese translations for this story. 

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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