Finn, Are YouWorried Because of the Virus?
A WeChat message marked the first intrusion of COVID-19 into my day-to-day life. It was a few days before Chinese New Year, and a series of increasingly alarming reports were coming out of the city of Wuhan, 500 miles away. Because of China’s strict internet controls, I wasn’t closely following current affairs, but a mystery virus was increasingly dominating the news cycle to such an extent that even an ill-informed foreigner like me was aware of it.
That week, I had become more on edge. Mask wearing in my city of Ningbo was commonplace before COVID-19, owing to the abysmal urban air pollution that descended every winter, but now people were wearing them indoors too. I noticed that all of a sudden, people were consciously staying as far away from each other as possible. I had been accustomed to people queueing so tightly there was often full body contact - it was as if someone had flipped a switch. I was spooked.
I went to a premature Chinese New Year party with a mutual friend’s family. It had all the expected hallmarks: prodigious consumption of alcohol; a married couple younger than me whose salaries already dwarfed my own; being embarrassed in games of mahjong with old men. There was also, however, a sense of unease. Beneath the jokes, the singing and the laughter, there was a feeling of tension. Cases were rising. None had yet been counted in Ningbo, but who knew how long it would be before similarly draconian measures were imposed by the government here?
I asked, in stilted Mandarin, whether anyone was concerned by the virus. People didn’t seem surprised that a virus had originated in Wuhan. ‘Those people in Hubei, they eat strange food, wild animals’, my host remarked, to general nods of agreement. I finished chewing a mouthful of raw crab eggs, rather taken aback. It seemed that the only thing spreading faster than coronavirus was a profound distrust of outsiders. Towards the end of the night, one of the innumerable uncles offered to give me a ride home. I followed his cue and kept my mask on during the car ride. It felt this had already become a habit.
That was my last normal day in China. The next day, parents were messaging me on WeChat to indefinitely cancel our at-home lessons. I turned down an invitation to celebrate Chinese New Year at a hotel in town. This felt like an overreaction at the time, but as a friend noted, who could know how many people staying at the hotel had been to Wuhan in the last month? I rearranged with my colleague to come over to my apartment, order food, and watch a movie. It felt novel at the time; little did I know that takeout and a movie would become such a staple of my life for the next year.
Within 24 hours it had become clear that the rapid spread of the virus had become the biggest news story on every website. The international media was describing the situation in Wuhan in tones of increasing agitation. I took a bus to visit another colleague and was startled to find myself the only occupant for almost an hour. The pre-lockdown trademarks were all falling into place. I found myself rushing to crowded supermarkets for toilet paper, plastic gloves, water, ramen noodles – the lot. I spent the next few days inside my apartment, nervous about using public transport or going out, periodically checking live blog coverage of the disease on Western news sites.
According to the Chinese government at the time, cases were at around 2,000, but other international health experts were predicting that the disease had spread far more rapidly. It was possible, they said, that there could already be as many as 100,000 cases.
I started worrying now. What could this epidemic mean for my life in Ningbo? I lived in a cold apartment without drinking water or WiFi that I was keen to spend as little time as possible in. The place was arctic; the heating worked only intermittently and I slept in a sleeping bag within my bed to stay warm at night. For entertainment I had a handful of books and a laptop. I had seen footage of other expats in Wuhan wheeling gigantic suitcases to the supermarket for their weekly (or monthly?) shop whilst bedecked in elbow length gloves, woolly hats, face masks and swimming goggles. I had no friends who lived in my building. What sputtering social life I had been building before the virus would now be extinguished. If my life for the foreseeable future was to be shut in a cold flat by myself, perhaps I should go home to the U.K.? After all, I would almost certainly return to China and pick up my old life in a few months.
Before I knew it, I was standing on a rainy street corner near my apartment, fully be-gloved and masked, with a duffel bag in hand. As I waited for my taxi, I watched the storefront neon melting in hues of blue and purple, swirling in kaleidoscopic puddles on the street. I had only just started to familiarize myself with my neighborhood, having been a) broke and b) essentially mute for my first three months in China. Now I had a fumbling grasp of basic Mandarin and the money to go out and explore my city. I was frustrated to leave, but I calculated that a few months at home would outweigh a few months of total social isolation.
I had made my mind up. I was going to leave. I talked with my fellow expat teachers and to our boss, who encouraged us to fly home from China if we were able to. He was certain that even if the whole country was locked down, the disease would be controlled before July and the foreign staff could return. In the end, he would be proven half-right. China was indeed more or less fully reopened by July 2020. What nobody had counted on was just how badly most Western democracies would handle COVID-19. As of right now, China still has broad travel bans in place against most foreigners. I left at the end of January 2020. I have been away from my job for over a year now. Despite the incredible speed at which the world has formulated vaccines, the virus remains out of control in much of the West. It seems unlikely that my entry visa to China will be approved any time soon.
The uncomfortable truth for many onlookers, including myself, is that COVID-19 has been an unequivocal public relations triumph for China. It is one of a handful of countries that actually grew its economy in 2020 - despite locking down the entire country for months. For most Western democracies, on the other hand, COVID-19 has been a disaster. The political bargain that the Chinese Communist Party puts to the Chinese people translates roughly to this: Sacrificing some individual freedoms results in greater overall social stability and prosperity. It is difficult to look at the bungled and erratic strategies deployed by wealthy and well-resourced countries like the U.K. and the U.S.A. and argue that China’s framing of this bargain is an unpersuasive one.