I was supposed to head back to Beijing a week from today.
The extent of the epidemic didn’t really hit me until my returning flight with Delta was canceled last Friday. Of course I’d been following the news like everyone else, and I’ve been dutifully checking in daily with my location and health status along with the rest of my coworkers. However, for whatever reason it didn’t feel real to me until that moment.
I do feel lucky to have gotten out of Beijing during my month-long break for Chinese New Year. Initially my husband was supposed to visit me there after his dissertation defense (side note – I’m now married to a doctor!). Now I’m so glad we missed out on not only the travel restrictions, but the calls for self-quarantine by staying at home.
This Year of the Rat, the start to the new 12-year cycle, feels slightly ominous thus far compared to last year’s exuberant Year of the Pig festivities (see my post on that here). Going on two weeks now, all big gatherings have been outlawed and our break extended with the hopes of containing the outbreak.
Living in Limbo
It’s nerve-wracking waking up to messages like this and being told to report in everyday.
It’s hard being stuck in a defacto helpless observer status. I’ve never been good with waiting around without direction, and the lack of official information about the spring semester has been frustrating and overwhelming. I hate not knowing what’s going to happen with work or my students. My husband wonders if my school will cancel the summer holiday due to the virus, or maybe the market for foreign teachers in China will be even better if people decide they don’t want to work there for a few years after. Either way, I’ve been advised to wait until Feb 17 (our original back to school day) and wait and see.
Supposedly, right now, the number of recoveries far exceeds deaths and in Beijing there’s only 200+ cases out of 21 million people. The problem is, though, when everyone comes back to start work on the 10th, and the fact that there are 3,000+ more cases each day. Speculation is we might do class online, but no idea how that would go as many of my colleagues abroad don’t have their textbooks.
My Wechat feed is filled with Chinese and foreign friends alike battling cabin fever back on the mainland. I want to say about 99% of the Chinese messages posted are those bolstering each other up, such as: “For health and freedom!” “Stay! Don’t move is the greatest support for society!” “Fighting! The government and the people will get through this extraordinary period!” and “As long as you have a bowl of rice at home, don’t ruin the efforts!”
As with the 2002 SARS and the 2012 MERS, this year’s Novel Coronavirus is a respiratory virus. Similar to SARS’ spread from a cave colony of horseshoe bats to civets then to humans in Guangdong, the Novel Coronavirus also seems to have spread most likely from bats to another intermediate animal and then to humans within a wet market that also sold live wild animals in Wuhan. The Novel Coronavirus was declared a global health emergency as of January 31st.
It’s scary. The virus is different in that it essentially targets and changes RNA rather than a person’s DNA, making it harder to treat. Supposedly SARS was comparatively easier to contain because it’s infection method was different – SARS was weird in that some people weren’t infectious and others were super infectious, making it easier to find the super infectious people and isolate them.
With this Novel Coronavirus, everyone’s equally infectious, making it harder to contain the spread. Originally, the Novel Coronavirus was thought to spread human to human by coughing and sneezing, but there’s new evidence people who are infected are spreading it before they even know that they have any symptoms. More people have now died in this current epidemic than in the SARS outbreak (349 mainland deaths).
Latest news show that it’s spread to at least 24 other countries. China’s Health Commission as of now reports that 65 people died on Tuesday and that 3,887 more people have been infected. So far, 24,324 people are known to have been infected with projections of many more unreported (all but the most severe cases are being turned away from hospitals with a shortage of beds and space). Two thirds of the deaths so are are men, and more than 80% of them over 60 years old, many with pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases or diabetes. Last I heard, the projection was it may take months to years to develop a vaccine, although the Chinese government says it has promising results from its experiments with flu and HIV meds.
Quarantines and Misinformation
Any US citizen who has been in China’s Hubei Province in the last 14 days is subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine upon return to the United States, said US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. US citizens who have been to the rest of mainland China in the last 14 days must undergo screening at one of 11 designated US airports. If passengers are screened and show no symptoms they will be re-booked to their final destination and asked to “self-quarantine” for up to two weeks inside their home, Department of Homeland Security says.Marnie Hunter, CNN TRAVEL ADVICE. Feb 3, 2020.
While airlines limit or shut down flights to and from mainland China, countries are taking actions to get their citizens out of the epicenter, Wuhan. The US and Australia have both evacuated citizens into a two week quarantine. My husband jokes I could’ve lived in base housing again. Russia, Mongolia, and Singapore have closed most of their borders with China.
From what I’ve heard from friends, the buses into Beijing from Hebei are no longer running with some neighborhoods cordoned off. Some provinces in China are not letting in cars not registered to that specific province.
Greedy shopkeepers have been seen selling marked up face masks and food to inconceivable prices – a friend in Hong Kong remarked he saw some for over $70! Some cities have dropped disinfectant from the skies in hopes of combating the virus (see photo above). Even American University, my Alma Mater, is forcing its students studying abroad in China back to the US.
One particularly awful news report I read stated that local authorities in villages in Hebei were paranoid to the point of telling people to get kill their family pets! Anshan, a city in Liaoning Province, even demanded all stray wild pigeons to be culled. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Netizens have been sharing all sorts of bad advice, reminiscent of the SARS epidemic – anyone remember when Chinese campuses were steaming vinegar to disinfect the air from SARS?
There’s also been lots of downplaying of the seriousness of the virus (the memes do tend to be hilarious) and an uptick in racism against those of Asian descent (targeting everything from what they eat to how they look). My friends have faced discrimination over not covering their Asian features with facemasks – in the USA – and I’ve had my fair share of side comments about coming back from China.
A few of the memes/stickers going around Wechat:
Well, I did complain about not having much time to breathe or think over the past semester, and now I have too much time while my colleagues and I play the waiting game.
I’m grateful I decided to leave for this vacation, and I feel bad for everyone back on the mainland dealing with the self-imposed quarantines. Nothing we can do except wait and see.
*Cover photo cartoon from Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper