The Virus Diary of an Expat.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China.
Today February 3rd 2020 is fourteen days since the day when I could have become infected by the Wuhan virus. Seventeen days ago I was a teacher and a judge in the China Daily heats of a national speaking competition held on the campus of Zhejiang University. There were over 300 students. I taught four classes of over 80 students over the first two days and then spent the Monday judging the competition. We stayed in the same hotel, on campus, as many of the students. All went well as I enjoyed the teaching, doing the judging and meeting the High School age students.
Two days later: I received a WeChat message from the organisers of the competition that around 30 students had come from Wuhan and they were trying to follow them up to check on their health status. My Chinese colleague also reports having a cough that evening and will be going to the hospital first thing in the morning. The next day he reports back that he is free of the virus and has a common cold. I start to consider my own health status.
Most of us have masks in the house, one or two for those days when the air pollution is bad. But recently the air is good so it becomes a bit of a hunt around the apartment to find them. Once we have them we decide to go to the supermarket to stock up on some food, just in case things get worse as the advice is to stay in and not go out. The pharmacy across the road is open so we go in to buy some more masks. The shelf is nearly bare and even as we look at them there is a steady stream of people coming in to make the same purchases. We buy four masks and some hand sanitizer. We should have bought more – hindsight is a great thing.
At the supermarket around 50 per cent of the customers are wearing masks. There are none for sale neither is there any hand sanitizer. We buy food and the goods we need spending around 900rmb which is more than we usually spend on one shop.
Later in the week my wife is going to Changzhou to visit her mum. She is following the news and decides that it is safe to go. DiDi is still working so she gets to the station in good time. By now temperature checks at the entrance to the station have been instigated. Once on the train she sends me a photo. She is the only person in the whole carriage.
During the week she is away I am still concerned about the possibility that I might have been infected at the speaking competition. Staying in the house alone, ‘bugging in’ as the preppers have it brings with it its own problems. Psychologically, it does get tough, not going out, not meeting people. The only window on the world is WeChat and other media accessible through one’s computer. WeChat quickly becomes a place of myth and lies. Numbers and conspiracy theories abound, racism and untruths about the genesis of the virus are bound together.
I try to maintain a level, logical head. But every cough, sneeze, wheeze, ache and pain becomes suspect. Have I been infected? Boredom quickly becomes one’s default position. There are only so many cat videos one can watch on the various websites we use. I binge watch a few movie trilogies, Beverly Hills Cop, The Bourne movies. I am usually a creative person and can fill my time with writing, painting, reading but my brain seems to have become zombified – maybe the zombie apocalypse is not bought on by a virus but by boredom.
I go out around the community grounds, the dog still needs to be walked. The place is empty. When I do come across another person out walking we give them a wide berth. One day as I was peering out of the entrance to see if the pharmacy across the road was open an ambulance turned up and men in full haz-mat suits got out. I hightailed it back to my apartment. Out of my window on the 9thfloor I watched the ambulance park outside the apartment block next door. I though maybe they were coming to check all the resident’s temperatures, as I had seen this happen in one of the videos I saw on the internet. But no, next time I looked the ambulance had gone. “Maybe someone is ill” is the next thought you have as your anxiety levels jump up another notch.
The week passes boringly, I eat all the snacks in the house and run out of wine. My wife returns from Changzhou. She tells me that it was impossible to buy masks there as all the pharmacies were sold out and her mum and brother only have a few. While she was away I purchased masks from Ebay in the UK and a friend will courier them out to us. Amazon UK had sold out, yet ironically was in stock for masks that would be “shipped from China.” We will not receive these masks for at least another seven days or more.
Someone on the internet was pooh poohing the idea that the virus was so voracious given the massive population in China. But my experience shows how just happenstance can be the catalyst for infection. The day after my wife returned from Changzhou her mum told her on WeChat that two people in her community had been tested positive for the virus. These were people who had ‘escaped’ from Wuhan. This shows it does not pay to let one’s guard down. Then, when seeing how the news had been supressed in Wuhan, I realised that I, myself, was in Wuhan on the 2nd and 3rd of November 2019 when the virus was surely abroad. Life really is a matter of chance.
On the 1st February we once again ventured out to the supermarket. On this occasion 100% of the shoppers were wearing masks. We were able to stock up on food and there was little or no evidence of panic buying. The government has already stated that keeping supermarkets, vegetable markets and pharmacies open was a priority. The only shelves that were nearly empty were the instant and dried noodle shelves. Otherwise we could buy everything we needed with no problems - this time we spent around 1100 rmb. We even stopped off and had a Starbucks and a cake sat outside in the warm February sun. For a brief moment everything seemed normal again.
Since my wife has been back she has been watching the news. One has to be impressed with the dedication of the doctors, nurses, police, army, ancillary workers, workers in the factories making masks and haz-mat suits, down to the delivery guys and taxi drivers still working, and to our own community cleaners who rigorously disinfect the lifts and the community spaces every day.
We are not at the end yet. But I am staying in Hangzhou and I am staying in China. This thing will end and life will go on.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.