It was January 2020 and I had travelled from China back to Scotland to spend a couple of weeks with my family. I’m a teacher so my time off coincides with Chinese festivals rather than Western holidays. We were having a belated Christmas and New Year, as has become normal for us in recent years. I had travelled home at the start of my nearly six weeks winter holiday (the joys of being a teacher in China!), rather than later, to avoid travelling during the upcoming Chinese New Year – the largest human migration on the planet.
Before I left China I had been aware of news filtering out of Wuhan about a possible new virus, and while back home in Inverclyde these reports and rumours started to make the international news. At this stage we were unsure how things would develop. Would it be another one of those health scares that the media sensationalises every now and again that wouldn’t actually amount to anything and soon be forgotten?
Towards the end of my time back home, all the Chinese apps on my phone started giving updates and advice about the virus, as it was becoming apparent that this was something serious. To this day I am grateful for the information I got from the Chinese side. Unlike the rumour-mongering and sensationalism that was passing for “news” in the West, the Chinese were giving us useful and factual information about the changing situation.
One piece of advice we were given (which in due course become mandatory in China) was to wear face masks while in public places. So before I caught my flight back to China I headed out into Greenock to buy some masks. This gave me my first indication of the problems the UK would encounter when the virus inevitably arrived there. I simply couldn’t find any anywhere. Not only that, but pharmacists seemed genuinely perplexed that I was even asking for them. I remember saying to my father, after I had returned to his house empty handed and frustrated, that the world was lucky the virus had happened in China because at least there you could buy the basics needed to contain it.
The world was indeed lucky that the virus started in China, because Chinese workers and volunteers made a Herculean effort to contain and defeat the virus. The entire country was put onto a sort of war footing – the enemy would come to be known as Covid-19. This bought the rest of the world plenty of time to start preparing. Some had nearly two months before the virus arrived within their borders. It was a missed opportunity. Too many countries’ leaders simply did nothing. Their inaction and arrogance has cost lives, and after this is over we need to hold them to account. The “we couldn’t know how bad it would be” excuse doesn’t work here. They did know. Wuhan was the example of how bad it could get, and China was the example of how to react.
When I arrived back in China I quickly managed to get some face masks and other basics. The government had mandated that employers provide their staff with stuff like masks. To give you a sense of what can be done, prior to the epidemic China was manufacturing about 20 million masks per day. That has soared to 180 million masks per day. Chinese workers feel a responsibility to make a contribution to the fight against the virus, and many are working around the clock for that purpose. Sure they are being well remunerated for it, but all of us should be grateful to them.
During these early days there was very little thanks being given to China for their efforts to keep the rest of the world safe. What emerged instead was hate and racism towards Chinese people. They eat anything that moves, they don’t have proper hygiene, they should all die…. Social media started overflowing with stories and comments of the crisis. Just check the Wuhan hashtag on Twitter, the purpose of most of those tweets was to promulgate fear, horror, hatred and racism. Almost nothing else.
I was back in China now. My city, Xiamen, is located in Fujian province on the south east coast of China – part of China’s “tropical fringe”. The city itself is comprised of Xiamen Island, four peninsulas on the mainland and some smaller islands. In total about 3 million people live in the built up areas. My home is in a community of 7 buildings, each with 32 floors and a large communal courtyard and garden area. As you can imagine, “normal” involves a lot of human activity in the communal area – kids playing, people exercising, musicians practising on their traditional instruments, neighbours chatting with each other or just walking around. Its always lively, full of life and noise.
Then almost overnight it turned ghostly silent. The government had put Hubei province on lockdown, and was now mandating social distancing everywhere else. For weeks not only my community but the entire city of some 3 million souls felt like a desert. No cars passing, no kids playing, none of the noises of everyday life. Everyone was staying home. The government was necessarily very strict. Parks, restaurants, clubs, bars, tea houses, malls, small shops – all were shut. Only a few supermarkets stayed open, and we could order meals for home delivery from restaurants and cafes that offered that service. Everywhere from the little alleys to the highways, the entrances to communities and any public or private place had checkpoints to establish the health of passer-bys. The door handles and elevators in our communities were disinfected multiple times a day. Everything was disinfected in the supermarkets.
Everyone had to register in a health care app provided by the health care department which tracked their history, and gave a green health pass to those considered to not pose a risk. This pass was required to be shown to gain access to many of the supermarkets that had stayed open, for example. Many apps added mini programs that showed the updated numbers of infected, recovered and dead in every city. You could even find the exact location and address of infected people on a map. Drill in further and you could find out what buses or trains an infected person had been on, or what supermarket they had shopped at and when. We always felt like we had a pretty good idea if we had been exposed or not.
Finding ways to pass the time wasn’t a problem initially. Movies that were due to be shown in the cinemas were now being shown for free on TV instead, with the exception of a few big budget flicks that decided to postpone opening. My wife and I also rediscovered binge watching TV shows, a habit that we had dropped since moving here. Online computer games gave an opportunity for something resembling socialising, my PUBG rank has never been better! The novelty doesn’t last however, and soon we were starting to feel the need to get out again.
We constantly reminded ourselves that social distancing was our contribution to the containment effort, and it was only a small sacrifice to make. Pictures of the front line medical workers touched me the most. Wounds on their faces from wearing the masks and goggles for too long, shaving their heads for hygiene, those who perished. Real bravery and real heroism.
A miracle never happened and the virus continued to spread. The problem was basically infected people who didn’t show any symptoms while in the incubation period of the virus were still able to infect others. This highlighted the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask. I was stunned by Western leaders who told their populace only to wear a mask if they are showing symptoms. Maybe you don’t have symptoms, but you could still spread the virus unknowingly. Or maybe that person next to you without any symptoms could pass the virus to you. Maybe you’ll be fine even if you do get the virus, but would everyone you pass it to also be fine? At times like this more than ever we need to think of ourselves as part of a community, not just a bunch of individuals. Don’t forget that we don’t know anything about the future of the virus and so many aspects of it are unknown, so a rational decision is to stay away from it and try not to get infected or infect others.
Everyday I would check the numbers of infected on my phone apps. Everyday the number kept getting larger and larger. And yet I had never felt safer. What I was witnessing in China gave me a confidence in the Chinese authorities that I had never had in the UK authorities. I was witnessing amazing crisis management at unbelievable speed. Cooperation and sympathy between a government and its people. I saw the government channel peoples’ fears in a way that not only made it so that people were not afraid any more, but also so that they were motivated to contribute towards overcoming the crisis. This was a new feeling for me. I have never been so in awe or so proud of my own government. I assume this bittersweet feeling will stay with me forever.
Eventually the measures taken started to have an effect. Our city saw consecutive days, then weeks, with no new cases. The city slowly started to come back to life as parks and shops began to open again. Things were starting to resemble normal when the news from abroad began to filter through. First Italy and Iran, and then everywhere. We waited for foreign governments to follow China’s example. Specifically we had an eye on our home nations, the UK and Russia. That is where our families and the majority of our friends are. Those countries, unlike China, had plenty of warning that the virus was about to hit. Surely they had prepared? Surely they had plans just waiting to be put into action? Surely they had secured face masks and ventilators that they now knew they would sorely need? Unfortunately these countries have a different breed of leaders from the Chinese.
The response from Western leaders was initially zero. They are now at that stage where they try to blame everyone else but themselves, as a way of avoiding scrutiny of their failure to act. See for example Trump doing his best to get everyone calling it the “Chinese virus”. The media in the West are no better than these politicians.
This is an outbreak that in one way or another has impacted everyone, and needs a response and effort by everyone. On a related note; problems like pollution, climate change, and poverty all suffer from the same false news and blame game approach taken by Western media – which I believe results in the general lack of effort and mobilisation to combat those problems.
Many of you probably don’t know me, but those that do will know I have a sort of moto – a theme to most of my writing: “Someone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something.” When you feel overwhelmed by these problems, don’t feel like you have to be able to solve every aspect of it yourself. We are a community, despite what decades of neo-liberalism has been telling us. We don’t have to have all the solutions individually, but collectively we can do it. As far as this virus goes, what is the “something” you can do? If that answer is social distancing, don’t feel like you’re not contributing. If we all do our “something” we will all contribute to making this situation better.