Life in times of the epidemic

First of all – I’m doing well and I am not in China at the moment. I left China a couple of days after the news about a new and contagious virus was out. I planned on leaving for the semester break anyway, but as for now, my planned trip to see John got extended for quite some time. After I have arrived in the US things developed very quickly: airlines cancelled their flights, countries banned (and are still banning) travellers other then their own citizens from entry when coming from China, quarantine measures, and overall an increasing number of new cases. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my University in Beijing, and also numerous German institutions in China recommend to stay away. So I delayed my return flight for a couple of weeks (yay!). 

On the one hand, I think that there is a lot of hysteria going on, and many people react almost in panic. Every year the flu causes more deaths, and that doesn’t get that much attention. But on the other hand, we don’t know a lot about Covid-19 yet. We know that it is highly contagious, as people can spread the disease without showing symptoms themselves, it has a considerably long incubation time of 14 days (presumably), and the actual disease can turn out everything from mild to fatal. China put up very serious measures and locked down cities with more than 50 million people in total. Also, there are various travel bans, that cause problems as the epidemic hit the country in the midst of the biggest “migration” of modern times. Due to Chinese New Year on January 25th, many Chinese travelled back to their home towns to spend the holidays with their families. Most of these people have not yet returned from their travel.

But it is not only a serious health crisis, it is also a serious crisis of trust. The Chinese society doesn’t trust its own government, and the rest of the world doesn’t trust China. This goes back to 2002/2003, when the Chinese government tried to put a lid on the SARS epidemic, and also to the fact that China is an authoritarian regime half of the world is suspicious about. My personal opinion is that China for the most part is doing a surprisingly good job in trying to get the situation under control. It helps that Chinese society is used to follow laws and regulations. Therefore, the streets and squares of Beijing and other big cities are deserted as everybody stays at home as they are told. People are supposed to self-isolate and only go out when absolutely necessary. Everybody seems to obey. Think about that scenario most everywhere else. The streets in China might be unusually quiet, but the digital world is not. In contrast to the times of the SARS epidemic, now there is the internet and social media, a perfect playground to spread rumours, conspiracy theories, and share and post not-so-reliable information. I was following the news online very closely and I am in close contact with friends and colleagues in Beijing. Especially following social media makes me upset because of peoples incompetence to read and understand texts. For instance, when news was out (at the end of January) that some airlines would cancel some flights, people spread the “news” that no airline serves China anymore. Also that race of news agencies and people alike to post and share information first: the urge to always being on the cutting edge and create the most clicks by presenting the most catchy headlines is horrific. In addition, spreading racism against Asian-looking people or Chinese in general makes me angry. For societies in the west, the society of “the Chinese” seems to display a diffuse, unfamiliar, and hence terrifying concept rather than a huge number of individuals with a very own culture and history, different mentalities, fates, and emotions.

However, fact is that the number of cases is high, the number of deaths also. I miss Beijing, but life there is very restricted at the moment and I – as well as my students – was told to not come back any time soon.  As a result, all over China, universities and schools started live-online-teaching. The country strives to function … but the pressure is high. Economically, but also mentally. People I know back in China are literally on the edge as nobody knows how long life will be that restricted, people fear of getting the virus, and also because there is eventually no tv-show left online they haven’t seen yet. But also sitting out the epidemic far from China is not easy as nobody can predict how long it will take and when I will be able to return. I’m stranded outside the country, but, in my case, fortunately not lost. 

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