A letter from China: Living with Coronavirus and its impacts

 In Interviews

by Simon Lee, Intro by Franziska Kast.

A few years back, I worked in Hancheng, Shaanxi, China for two weeks. Apart from some minor culture shocks there (no coffee? Are you serious, dudes?) and near-death experiences in traffic, I had the most amazing time, and I made some friends for life.

One of them is Simon, a passionate and eager-to-learn student of the German language and culture without whom I couldn’t have navigated the treacherous waters of this entirely new world or fulfil the various mission impossibles I was assigned: „Set up a festival office in a brand new cinema building which has no internet yet in a country where you can’t as much as read a bus time table. You’ve got three hours. Good luck.“ Simon and I exchanged a look, set up the espresso machine our European boss had wisely imported, and took it from there.

Officially, he was my assistant. In reality, I was the foreigner in need of a babysitter and he was the hero who saved the day, or to be more precise, my ass many times. He translated, organized, made payments on his WeChat account, set up hotspots for me and helped me take care of other confused Europeans. His German is as outstanding as his English, he even knows German DIALECTS while I – and I’m embarrassed to say that – up to this day can’t pronounce his real name (李瑞浓 – want to give it a try?) He became my guide to his country, culture and the way its people are feeling and thinking, all of which were unchartered territory for me, and he became a treasured friend.

We’ve had a lot of conversations since about how our respective countries are different and what we could learn from each other – more so since the Coronavirus situation started. We discussed how differently our cultures respond to the severe restrictions to personal freedom and had a long exchange about the rights of the individual vs. the best for the community.

Knowing that Simon and his family were exactly where we are now seven weeks back, I asked him for a personal account of his experiences since the start of the crisis. He wrote an honest and encouraging letter about lessons learned, staying at home without going crazy and the situation now, after almost two months of quarantine. What strikes me most is how often he uses „WE“ as opposed to „I“. We could do with more of that for sure. I hope you’ll read Simon’s text until the end – you will find some of the hope and courage we all need these days there.

Franziska Kast, Berlin, March 20th, 2020

Read Simon’s text in full length:

Today is March 18th 2020, and with shutdown and lockdowns happening all over Europe, I thought I would tell you a bit about our life in China since the outbreak of the COVID 19 epidemic which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11th.

About me

Hello, I’m Simon. I’m in my fourth year of studying German language and literature at XISU, which is located in the Shaanxi Province in central China. In early January, we were mainly talking about our graduation theses for the bachelor degree, the Chinese New Year marking the start of a new decade, plans for our upcoming last term. Our exams were scheduled for March 13th, the defence of our theses for May. We were looking forward to the graduation ceremony and some of us a graduation trip aboard with a couple of friends. All of these topics have now been replaced with one: When will the COVID 19 outbreak come to an end?

How did the outbreak start?

Nobody knows the exact origin yet. Some sources say somebody ate a bat that carried the virus and got infected. Others speculate about a biological weapon. I don’t know the answer to that so let’s just leave it there. But while the first cases that were diagnosed as having contracted an entirely new virus occurred in Wuhan, that doesn’t necessarily mean the outbreak originated there, or even in China – cases of the Sars CoV 2-induced lung inflammation may have occurred anywhere before the „official“ outbreak and not been identified for what they were.

When did we become aware of the outbreak?

I hit the road back home on Jan. 8th, and if I don’t get it wrong it was about Jan. 18th when I first heard about a new virus killing people in Wuhan on the social network app Weibo. However, a patient was diagnosed with a kind of unknown pneumonia as early as Dec. 8th 2019, followed by 27 others who were diagnosed with that same disease. Wuhan officials suspected the Huanan Seafood Market as the source, as all patients had a direct or indirect connection to it. They closed and sterilised it, but didn’t take the outbreak seriously until a couple of days later there were more cases reported around from Shanghai, Japan, Korea, and Thailand.

The local officials kept telling the citizens that there was only a limited probability of human-to-human transmission of the novel virus, and their negligence has obviously resulted in the waste of precious time to curb its spread in Wuhan. Finally our Central Discipline Inspection Commission sent investigators, and several officials were dismissed for what was deemed a catastrophic failure to react during the early stages of the epidemic.

The lockdown of Wuhan was issued on Jan. 23rd. The Chinese New Year fell on Jan. 25th, which means a lot of people are on the move as it’s THE social event of the year. Think about it: 1.4 billion Chinese, and everyone is on the go to see loved ones. If all who wanted to go home had done so, it could have resulted in a catastrophe.

Statistics: Should you be frightened?

I don’t think it’s wrong to release the latest statistics of the confirmed and suspected cases, as well as the death toll. You can only battle an enemy you don’t underestimate. In my opinion, covering your eyes and saying, oh, we don’t test them so no one is infected like some regions and countries did, is more dangerous than facing reality, and it’s self-betrayal. Information DOES MATTER.

What problems are we faced with, and how do people here in China live with the threat of COVID 19 and the restrictions two months after the lockdown?

We were in short supply of resources, including protective clothes, goggles, surgical masks, test reagents, and also medical staff.

So how did we respond? Some factories went back to work spontaneously to produce more masks for the doctors and nurses fighting on the frontline. Some shops in Wuhan sell food at or even under the price of their own costs to medical personnel. People from all over the world bought masks and respirators and sent them to Wuhan. Workers built two temporary hospitals in Wuhan within ten days. Scientists found ways to produce test reagents and get test results faster. Some people chose to stay in Wuhan, others chose not to return there before the lockdown. The other Chinese also stayed at home. Most of us were going to visit relatives, but the absolute majority cancelled.

Panic buying and empty shelves happened in the early stages. Today I look at the cultural differences with some amusement. Americans and Europeans stock up on toilet paper, here we went for masks and food. I underestimated the situation in the beginning and went to the pharmacy two days after we learned about the lockdown. TOO LATE! All of the masks were GONE. We checked Taobao and Jingdong (both Chinese versions of Amazon). All of the qualified masks were gone there as well. At that time I started to feel a little bit panicked. The Chinese New Year was just around the corner. Employees and logistics workers would leave their workplaces. So by then you wouldn’t get your masks even assuming they were available in the shops.

A normal Chinese New Year holiday lasts seven days for workers and 15 days for students, but in order to prevent a massive population from moving across the country many big companies like Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu had their office staff work from home, others extended the holidays by seven, 14 or even 21 days.

The Stay At Home Policy: Should you take it seriously?

By all means. Listen to the experts’ words, be good boys and girls and stay at home unless you want to expose yourself to the potentially dangerous virus and get your family and loved ones infected. You might think it’s a small risk because most people only have mild symptoms. But the virus is treacherous, and not only old or ill people are at risk. You may not experience symptoms for two weeks after being infected.

And now for the most important question: HOW DO WE KILL TIME?

I’m sure you’ve guessed some answers to this question 🙂 We watch a lot of vlogs on Weibo and Chinese TikTok, some of the Internet celebrities share their funny daily life with us. Some people played a residential concert on the balcony, but were then ordered back inside because of the possibility of virus transmission through the air. That may have been the inspiration for the Italian balcony concerts and the joint singing. We say hello to our neighbours behind the window, or even dance „together“.

Some people say they sleep nine hours a day now, or that they go to sleep at 6 a.m. and wake up at 3 p.m. to enjoy their brunchupper all at once (Now? Nothing new there as far as I’m concerned!), while others still get up at 7 a.m. and eat three meals per day – usually because a responsible Mom wakes them up and keeps their daily schedules in order. Some use their fantasy to turn their apartments into amusement parks for their kids, complete with domestic waterfall (bathroom shower), wild animal to be attacked and tamed (parent still sleeping in bed), aquarium (fish tank) and souvenir buying options (snacks prepared for the Chinese New Year).

Here’s a funny video of the ideas Chinese people come up with to entertain themselves to prevent themselves from getting bored to death.

After phase 1 of joking around about how lucky we are to have such a long holiday, some started to complain. The reasons are apparent, no work, no money. A lot of us realized we need work more than work needs us. I feel bad lying in bed watching TikTok for whole days.

But it’s also seen as a chance for family time, especially for adults who aren’t usually able to be home on weekends because they work in another city. We try to treasure this period, we cook food, we try recipes we never tried. We watch films with our family, look through albums and tell each other what happened in our lives over the past year. It’s not the activities, but the time spent with our families that matters.

What are the economic consequences so far? How are businesses coping?

Some small and middle-sized companies or startups may become insolvent. They don’t want to stay out of business longer, but they also don’t want to make the situation worse. It was really a tough time for many.

Luckily, after a month or so the situation improved, the method of curbing the spread of the virus by locking down city and population movement turned out to be effective. Today I would say our society gradually found its way back to its former routines although it’s of course not fully back to normal yet. When workers return to their workplaces, they must follow a strict regulation of wearing masks and sterilising their hands with alcohol. Students are still participating in their classes through online education apps.

What is the outlook on the near future?

Today I heard Dr. Zhang, our leading expert on the epidemic, say it’s ok for different countries to take to different measures, the Chinese mode doesn’t necessarily work for other countries like Germany. Germany’s mortality rate from COVID 19 is so far about 0.29% and you can hopefully keep it that way by curbing the spread NOW. Another academic named Zhong warned that the idea of a quickly achieved herd immunity won’t solve the problem and is a risky road to take.

Personally, I think the safest and wisest thing to do is to quarantine yourself at home and avoid going out, esp. to public places where a mass of people gathers. As I mentioned at the beginning of this text, I know how hard that is. I was also looking forward to plenty of exciting activities in this final term at university, but many plans have been postponed due to the epidemic. Even now some are being rescheduled or cancelled. My graduation trip may not take place anymore, or at least not now. But I would prefer to see this epidemic end sooner rather than later and hope the restrictions will help to make that happen and restore our freedom to do the things and hang out with the people we want to.

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