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Life and Death in Hangzhou, China

Nearly seven months since the Covid-19 lockdown in Hangzhou we find ourselves becoming complacent. Maybe even a bit self- congratulatory that we are not facing the problems other countries are as the virus spreads through the population. We can even gloat a little that we didn’t run. Out of the frying pan into the fire, perhaps we don’t say it out aloud, but certainly we might think it about those colleagues who upped and ran as the first wave of the virus washed out of Wuhan.

Many of us stayed in China. I stayed because I have a Chinese wife and I know for a fact the British Government would not let her in. The wife and child of a British guy in Wuhan, who had a valid tourist visa, wasn’t allowed on the ‘rescue’ flight for British citizens in January. She and their daughter were only allowed on the flight after the media got hold of the story and the British Government officials had discussions with the Chinese authorities. Others who were repatriated from Wuhan and documented their ‘escape’ and quarantine on YouTube had a belated change of heart as the virus took hold in the UK and wished they were back in China.

Notwithstanding the quick and efficient manner in which the Chinese Government and people worked to deny the virus a stronghold the past seven months has not been without its problems. Working practices have had to change and evolve. My wife has heard first-hand from many new DiDi drivers who have lost businesses and employment and had to take to driving to maintain their families. Those of us who are teachers have had to get to grips with new modes of teaching such as online lessons. This often meant learning new skills and being adept at changing lessons and syllabus to suit the new medium. Many others, students and teachers are still locked out of China either at home or in the countries where they were vacationing when the Chinese borders were closed to foreigners.

Our social lives also suffered as we sat in our apartment during the lock down getting fat and drinking too much alcohol (or was that just me?). But as the lockdown lifted we could go out and a semblance of normality was maintained. Of course this was the “new normal” where we tried to stay away from people, wore masks and got used to showing our green health QR code to staff at entrances to shops and malls. Now seven months on many of us still wear masks, but will drop our defences to suck in the fresh air or a beer if there are not too many people around.

On the news we see day-by-day how other countries are coping with this scourge. My country, the UK, doesn’t seem to have much of a plan as the deaths have mounted to nearly 50,000. Many of those deaths have been the elderly and the infirm. Many thousands of those deaths have been elderly people in care homes sent there to free up hospital beds little knowing they carried virus with them.

My parents are elderly and well within the “at risk” category. Fortunately, they were able to be secure in their own home. My sister, who was in Turkey when the lockdowns started, was able to catch one of the last flights back to the UK and get to our parents and stay with them to make sure they were safe. I was able to send them masks from China and sighed a breath of relief that they were safe. All they had to do was hunker down until this thing had run it’s course.

However, life is not like that. Despite both my sisters, my dad and the support workers care my mum’s health started to deteriorate. She had been suffering from creeping Alzheimer’s and over the long term been suffering from Emphysema – mainly her blood was not getting enough oxygen, this had developed over many years. But now she was becoming more difficult to look after. The National Health Service was fantastic. A decision was made with in consultation with the matrons who attended my mum that she should sleep downstairs. Within hours a lift-up chair and a bed had been delivered along with other essential equipment such as commodes and walkers.

However, to no avail, my mum swiftly went downhill. The end-of-life nurse and doctor who attended gave a prognosis of two weeks. She only lasted two more days. On the 8thJuly my mum, Betty, died. I was telephoned at 3 a.m. in the morning with the news.

What to do? The virus crisis has shut down international travel to a large extent. No doubt I could have probably jumped on a plane back to the UK. But when would I return to China, to my wife and my job? Also what would happen in the UK? Would I be quarantined and where would I stay? Not to mention the risk of becoming infected myself­­––I’m no spring chicken either. It was and is a terrible dilemma.

No doubt many people are facing similar hardships, split up from their families, stuck in countries for months on end not knowing when and if they can travel. Losing a parent is doubly hard. But this is the expat life. Ironically, this time last year I was with my parents in the UK. I was discussing with my 93-year-old dad if I should be an executor on his will. He thought I was too far away. I pointed out my sister lives in Scotland, an 8-hour train journey away, where as if I jumped on a plane I was only 12 hours away. How times change.

Yesterday, I visited Lingyin Temple and organised prayers for my mum and to find some release for this terrible numb feeling I had. The monks will pray 3 times a week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for 2 months. The funeral in the UK will be streamed on the 27thJuly, delayed because of the Covid-19 backlog and the difficulty in booking a minister for the service.

We make the choice to live and work in a foreign country. I have done this most of my life. It is, in the main a good life, full of adventure, close knit friendships and wonderful opportunities for travel which can be very fulfilling. What Covid-19 has shown is the fragility of the systems we take for granted in the west. Here in China the system is strong and we remain protected, and shielded from the realities of life back home. What we cannot protect ourselves against, anywhere in the world, is our own mortality and the mortality of our loved ones.

Here are the first and last verses of the poem Mortality by William Knox

Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud

A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave

He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

'Tis the wink of an eye -- 'tis the draught of a breath-- From the blossom of health to the paleness of death, From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud:-- Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

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