Corona Update #2 from Beijing

Last night, I felt like I had been infected…

…by the panic. I started to sweat. I started to wonder what chaos is on its way and what it’s going to look like. The virus is coming for us. There’s a wave about to fold over Beijing and we will be trapped here under it, suffocating. How do I get us out? I thought. What do I do? I found myself wishing I’d left with the kids two weeks ago. What was I thinking when I was so relaxed about this?

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Photos like the one above fuel this panic, for sure. Wuhan is filling 11 different sports centers and arenas with beds to help the increasing number of cases.

My thoughts swirled to the school closures, predictions they’ll stretch into March, wondering if I should just pack up my life and move away now and enroll the kids in another school in Canada, give my landlord her 30 days’ notice, leave most of our possessions behind and just start my life again.

But then what if I book flights and they get cancelled? What if I take a week to pack our lives and then it’s too late and every single plane is grounded? Can I even afford such expensive flights? How quickly could I pack up nearly twelve years of living? And what if we need to do quarantine upon arrival? Could I cope with 14 days in isolation in a place that isn’t my home? I can barely cope with it here… Aren’t airports and airplanes the worst places to catch viruses? Isn’t it safer at home? If we had to go somewhere else first and wait for two weeks, like Thailand, won’t it be expensive to be on a sudden vacation? What if Thailand quarantines us too?

Just a few days ago, I wrote this to a friend:

被新型冠状病毒传染我并不害怕,我最害怕的是被公众的恐慌情绪传染。

(I’m not afraid of the new coronavirus. What I fear most is the spread of public panic.)

Yes, I’ve been infected. I called a friend. He calmed me down.

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It’s only been a week since I last updated you, but a week has meant an exponential jump in active coronavirus cases and a similarly exponential increase in scary news reports by media all over the world. Happily, as of last Sunday, the number of recovered cases has finally exceeded the number of deaths and this number we can assume will continue to rise. Even today, it’s 635 deaths versus 1487 recovered. That’s something!

Optimism.

But since this is the week when people return to Beijing from their (government extended) CNY holiday, predictions are that Beijing will become the next coronavirus epicenter. Many social media streams also assert that these offical numbers are far from accurate. Some say upwards of 100,000 people could be infected in Wuhan alone.

Nevertheless, we must remember, that this is less than 1% of that city’s population. And regardless, we have to also keep in mind that there are 25 million in Beijing alone. Currently, the official numbers report fewer than 300 individual cases here. Even if it’s unofficially ten times that, I still think we are relatively safe.

News reports urge Beijing residents to stay holed up in their homes and to limit contact with the outside world for the next two weeks or more. Most housing compounds have blocked anything but the main entrances, have extra security (read: police) noting who is coming and going, and some residential compounds in China have even gone so far as to allocate one individual per household as the responsible party for leaving the house once every 48hours for groceries. That hyper controlled situation could be coming to us…

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I woke up this morning feeling hungover from the panic attack. It had snowed. Big beautiful flakes of white still fell onto the padded hush of outside, much to the kids’ delight. They’ve been keeping track; it’s been a record winter for Beijing (which generally has a very dry climate) because this year “it has snowed six times!” exclaimed Pazzy, eyes wide and excited. They just adore snow.

The kids begged me to go out on the balcony and play with the snow as I let them do a few days ago, but as they were marveling at its beauty, I simultaneously received a bunch of alarmist messages about “the dangers of snow during a virus epidemic” from their dad with supporting documentation. He henceforth forbade me or his parents to allow them to touch it.

Sigh.

WechatIMG9(This pic is from a few days ago.)

The kids were not impressed. The homeschooling regime is also grueling and they were really resistant today about doing the assignments, so I relented and we didn’t get through the volume of work before they were fetched by their grandfather.

You see, I had been trying to teach them while simultaneously trying to convince everyone in the family (by text message in Chinese, of course) that virgin snow on my balcony that has come from the sky and has never touched or been sneezed on by another human being is SAFE! But by the time I had succeeded at winning this time-wasting and distracting battle, the time was up and the kids were gone. After that, I sat on my apartment stairs just hugging a hot mug of tea and stared at the wall for about thirty minutes.

I am starting to lose it, I thought. I have lots to do but I can’t seem to find productivity in moments like these. I snapped out of it enough to decide to “break the rules” and go for a walk. I gathered all my winter clothes and mask and sunglasses (it was overcast but you’re supposed to protect your eyes now), threw my grocery bag over my shoulder (for the eventual supplies I also needed), and headed out.

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I locked my door with the realization that it had been three days since I’d left my house. As I slowly descended my stairs, visions of recent web images (like the one above) came to me of the doors to apartments welded shut forcing people to stay inside.

This video is from a housing block that looks just like mine, just not in this city. I literally shivered, imagining an entire building of people trapped inside their apartments by welded bars.

Imagining us.

The truth is that I’m not afraid of this virus at all, and maybe what I’m really afraid of is not so much the panic itself but the autocratic controls that result from the panic. I’m afraid of my freedoms being taken from me. I don’t want to be tracked, let alone trapped. It’s already oppressive. Are we going to get more of this?

WechatIMG1(The ferocious lions supposedly guarding Chinese entrances are frozen by all this, just like us)

Instead of going straight for the store, I went along what is usually my running route. (Sadly, I haven’t been on it for almost 3 weeks now, stalled first by the holidays and now by the virus lockdown.) Alongside of my compound is a canal that leads to a planned forest that serves as a buffer between my neighourhood and the busy airport expressway.

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I love this snippet of beauty in urban space, but I especially love the little tract of forest. I have asked advice from these trees many times over the years of living here. In fact, part of it is still the original burial grounds for the rural dwellers who used to farm this land but were displaced by urbanization, many of whom still live in my compound with their descendants. I wonder sometimes if it’s the trees or the spirits that live here who advise me. Either way, after visiting this place, I always feel more grounded.

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Recently, both British and Canadian governments (and surely other governments) have formally urged their citizens to return home if they don’t have an “essential” reason to be in China. According to my British friend, there are 30,000 British citizens in this country. I can only imagine there is a similar number of Canadians (though no one can ever tell me how many). Yet with flights cancelled and many more airlines cancelling flights in and out of China daily, how are we supposed to get out? Imagine the tens of thousands of people wanting to heed their governments’ suggestion only to discover there’s no option! That gives new meaning to the word “grounded.”

WechatIMG14I stared up at the trees and asked them what to do. Should I hustle to get us out of here through other means? A flight to another country? Waiting on some beach somewhere in Southeast Asia with the kids and then a flight to Canada? Or, should I just wait it out?

My sunglasses were all fogged-up from the mask. I took them off. Then I took off my mask too. I had only seen two other people walking along the canal (both of whom took wide detours to avoid walking too close to me) and the forest was completely empty. Why was I still wearing my mask anyway? The cool air on my face felt like the brush of consolation. I closed my eyes and let the light snow in the air melt on my cheeks. I smiled for the first time all day.

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The truth is, even if they shut down this city as strictly as they have Wuhan, nothing will change in our lives. We will still be at home. We will still be isolated. We couldn’t have left two weeks ago because last-minute flights were cost prohibitive for musician-freelancer single moms then too. They’re getting even more expensive now. And if that wave of sickness really does hit Beijing and there’s an authoritarian frenzy of chaos that follows, all we can do is ride it out, indoors, self-quarantined from the chaos (and virus) like everyone else. There’s no way around it; I don’t see any other option but through.

I took a deep breath.

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I walked back home then but first ducked into the foreign food store across from my apartment compound gate. The first thing to greet me was a huge display of virus-related goods: disinfectant wipes, disposable gloves, spray bottles for sanitizing clothing after returning home, hand soap, etc. Supplies were front and center. Supply and demand!

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Walking around the store, I noticed, as well, that the shelves were much emptier than the last time I’d been in, especially staple foods and the soap section. Again, this worried me. I picked up a huge bag of rice and four boxes of milk as well as a few other essentials. At the check-out counter, I noticed they had a new supply of face masks and so I purchased two more. Somewhere I read that you’re supposed to replace them every four hours if you’re outside a lot. I’ve been wearing the same mask all week, but I assume I’m fine considering I’ve only been out of the house twice for less than an hour each time…

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When I came back to my empty house, washed my hands, put my gloves in a pail of water mixed with laundry soap, and then put away the groceries methodically, I knew it had been the right decision to go for that walk. The panic had been quelled, it seemed.

So… this is what I’ve got to do now: re-structure my normally productive and circus-style life rhythms into a slower, gentler pace. Work will be limited. Freedom is now effectively gone. Social interactions will have to happen electronically. It’s a time for reflection; fewer big goals will be accomplished, but perhaps smaller daily goals like teaching the kids, studying, practicing guitar, home workouts, and de-cluttering will define the next couple of months.

There are worse things. If I can start viewing it like a forced retreat, I might not go crazy. Being part of this historical moment in time will yield amazing stories for the future, that’s for sure. And stories are all we really have, right?

No matter what, I’ll keep you updated…

as I learn ways to feel grounded by being grounded.

~es

Corona Update #3 from Beijing
Corona Update from Beijing

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