A Western Covid-19 Eyewitness in Chongqing
This article was also published on Medium.
My name is Randy Green. I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. I am writing these words from the city of Chongqing (pronounced Chong Ching, to rhyme with Wrong Ring) to tell about my experiences and observations during the weeks of lockdown. But, first, let’s set the stage…
The first reports of a new and potentially dangerous virus were not welcome news to the local authorities. The situation wasn’t completely clear but one thing was certain: no one wanted to be responsible for reporting a new virus outbreak that might be a false alarm. Bureaucrats always play it safe. If you want to advance in your career, you don’t make highly visible and enormously embarrassing mistakes.
Ideally, the first step in containing the spread of this new virus would be to immediately quarantine anyone even suspected of being exposed to it. The idea is to close off the area: Let no one in and no one out. If the virus could be restricted to one small area, it could be controlled fairly easily while it was being studied and the next actions determined. But if the infection has more time to spread, it then becomes necessary to control a much larger area — or try to control it.
Imagine an escaped prisoner. Immediately after an escape, the prisoner would still be in the area close to the prison. But, the longer he remained at large, the further away the prisoner could be. Centered around the prison itself, the circle in which he is located grows larger with each passing hour he remains free. This is basic math from high school: (The area of a circle = pi times radius squared). Thus the area of the circle increases rapidly as the radius increases. More time elapsed before a lockdown is declared means a much larger circle to seal off. Very quickly, the area you are trying to quarantine can contain thousands of people — or, in Wuhan, millions of people. What would have been a simple action if done immediately becomes a logistical Gordian Knot if delayed.
Uncontrolled, the possibilities of an “escaped” virus quickly get even worse. Much worse. The nightmare of today’s public health officials is that, with our modern transportation systems, an infection could literally explode around the world from one small epicenter — and it could be done in days, not weeks and months as in earlier times. With a population of 11 million, Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, was a transportation hub for the region, plus the home of an international airport. What better conditions could an escaped virus ask for?
So, why didn’t the local officials act immediately and decisively? We have to remember that, like the alien invasion in the movie, this was a sudden and unexpected situation. At that point, the existence of this new virus had not even been confirmed yet, nor did anyone know the true level of danger to the public. What they did know, however, was that taking steps to limit travel and crowd gatherings in a city of 11 million people at the beginning of the holiday season (when millions of those residents would be leaving for their hometowns soon) would be unimaginably difficult and hugely unpopular. Those officials needed clear, verified evidence before making such an announcement.
The consequences of releasing a new and dangerous virus on the world could be staggering. But, so could the consequence of a false alarm which forced the cancellation of travel plans and holiday gatherings for millions of people. In addition to the fear and panic, the economic reverberations would be severe and long-lasting. Imagine what would happen in the US if American authorities told the public to stop all travel and seasonal activities in the last days before Christmas.
This, then, was the situation for the local authorities in the city of Wuhan in January of 2020. At that time, the nation of almost 1.4 billion people was preparing for China’s biggest holiday, Spring Festival. The holiday would begin officially with the Chinese New Year’s Day but planning and preparations were already building. This was the additional factor that vastly complicated the decision of the local officials.
Each year, millions of Chinese people make a trip to their hometown for Spring Festival. In what has been described as the largest annual human migration in history, this return to their hometown and family is as important to the Chinese as Americans going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. An edict requiring people to cancel their travel plans at the last minute would be immensely unpopular. Then, enforcing it would be vastly complicated. Officials knew they must have a very, very good reason before they could make such a declaration. They were also aware that such an announcement would generate a tsunami of economic and political consequences, all negative. The local officials faced a quandary of epic proportions.
I live in China. I have been here since 2004 but I am still a foreigner, an American. Personally, I have little interest in Chinese politics. Additionally, as an outsider, I have no extensive knowledge of the Chinese political system. Put succinctly, I am not qualified to comment on political events and I have no wish to. In the following remarks about the first days, I only state known facts. Fact: In the early days, local officials did reprimand a young doctor for telling colleagues his concerns about the new virus. The young doctor became a national hero a few weeks later when he died of that same illness while continuing in his duties. Some of those local officials lost their jobs later. Those are facts. The rest is speculation and projection and merely based upon observations from my life.
That was what the officials in Wuhan were dealing with in the earliest days of the outbreak — and, at that point, they still weren’t certain that it wasn’t a false alarm or that, if true, how dangerous this new virus was. Predictably, they did what bureaucrats do; they waited until they had a clearer picture of the situation so their next step would become obvious. And, in doing so, they lost the opportunity to contain the corona virus to a small, easily controlled area. But, in their defense, they simply didn’t know and they hesitated to act until they were certain. As in every bureaucracy since the early sociologists created the term, they disciplined the underlings who brought this unwelcome news to their attention. In Wuhan, the most memorable person disciplined was a young doctor who was reprimanded for what the officials thought was an irresponsible announcement to other doctors in his digital circle about an unconfirmed new virus.
The next step, also typical, was that, after further developments proved the young doctor was right, those same officials attempted to cover up their missteps. The cover-up phase allowed the virus even more time to spread. Was there an attempt to cover up their error? Undoubtedly. Did the cover-up continue even after the full ramifications of this new virus became known? That part is not so certain. The rest of the world has a luxury that was not available to the Chinese officials. Because of the experiences inside China, the rest of the world had a clearer picture of what they were going to be facing. They had advance notice and time to prepare; the Chinese officials were operating blind.
But, back in January, the local Chinese officials in Hubei just didn’t know. Like the screenplay, the full details simply were not available. Dealing with a pandemic was not something they were visualizing in the early days. Was there a cover-up? Yes, undoubtedly. But there were also heroes and heroines. I personally know some of the medical staff from my city who were mobilized and sent to Wuhan, right into the center of the worst action. This was when, due to lack of knowledge about the virus at that time, this might have been a death sentence. They went in, anyway. In my mind, those men and women are the bravest of the brave.
But let’s not forget all the unknown individuals throughout China who kept doing their jobs and, in doing so, sustained the infrastructure that allowed millions of home-bound citizens to survive. This list would include bus and taxi drivers, hospital workers, grocery store clerks, delivery men bringing food and supplies directly to our homes, policemen and private security guards — even the people who picked up and sorted the trash and kept the water running. Then there were the teachers who hastily converted their classroom experience to online classes. They kept the kids from losing weeks and months of education.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Here is my own story, after living through this experience.
Let me begin by describing the situation as it developed in my city of Chongqing. This megacity of 30 million people is 500 miles/800 KM west of Wuhan. In earlier times, that distance would mean we were safely removed from the disaster as it played out. Indeed, back when people traveled by horseback or sailing ship, that distance meant it might be weeks before they even learned of such events. Today, we know about them quickly from multiple sources — internet media, radio, newspaper, television, and podcasts. Don’t forget the dreaded “lip radio”, i.e., the stranger sitting next to you on the bus or in line at the supermarket — chief source of the scandalous, conspiratorial, wildly exaggerated, and inflammatory stories.
Only rarely are we on-site, where we personally see and even participate in an event while the rest of the world waits to learn about it from those usual sources. Sadly, 500 miles/800 KM was not far enough from the Wuhan epicenter to ensure that I wouldn’t be affected. Thanks to modern transportation systems, what Douglas Adams facetiously termed “Someone Else’s Problem” very quickly become my problem — me and about 30 million other people who live in Chongqing.
Thus, in the winter and spring season of 2019/2020, I found myself very personally involved in the Covid-19 pandemic, originally known as the corona virus outbreak before it was declared to be a pandemic. That is the reason for this report. I was there and I was scared.
In those first critical days after the tentative identification of a new strain of virus, one that was related to the SARS virus of 2003, several steps were taken — and not taken — which proved decisive. Already people had begun the holiday activities which, for millions of people, meant leaving Wuhan to travel to their hometown. For many of them, the extended holiday break is the only opportunity of the year for them to make this trip. Reservations had been made and tickets purchased. If their trip is canceled, it will be another full year before they can go home again. In addition, more millions will take this opportunity to travel to tourist destinations in China and throughout the world. That was the reality for those officials in Wuhan in the days immediately before the Chinese New Year. It would be an understatement to say that doing anything that would affect the travel plans of millions would be hugely disruptive and enormously expensive.
Plus… consider the cascade of effects this would generate. It would cause a gigantic economic loss for all the travel and tourist industries — hotels, restaurants, airlines, casinos, guides, and many more. Many companies depend upon a busy holiday season as their biggest source of revenue for the year. Any public official who announces that the public should cancel all their holiday plans, stay home and avoid social events, and prepare for a new, serious virus outbreak must have solid evidence to justify their decision. They had better be damn certain of the facts. You don’t just casually say to millions of people, “Cancel your plans, stay in your home, and visit with family and friends online.”
China has been criticized by some for not acting sooner to stop the spread of the virus at the outset and, indeed, for suppressing the news of a new virus. However, we should remember that, in those early days, the situation was very unclear. This was an entirely new and unknown virus — even the characteristics were not immediately confirmed — and the risks of a new illness spreading had to be balanced with the consequences of guessing wrong and causing an expensive, very upsetting change for millions of people.
Indeed, the Wuhan officials’ initial reaction was rather like the first level manager in the screenplay: This isn’t real… It can’t be real… I don’t want it to be real… I hope it isn’t real. Then, the next step in the line of reasoning was: I must be absolutely certain before I report this up the chain of command. Above all, I don’t want to look like a panic-stricken fool who acted impulsively. Furthermore, as Simon and Garfunkel put it so succinctly in the lyrics of The Boxer, “… still man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest.” This is especially true when dealing with something as huge as the possibility of a virus capable of causing a pandemic.
My personal story.
I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. I was in China throughout this period; I still am. I am writing these words from the city of Chongqing where we lived with a mandatory lockdown for weeks. I hesitate to use the word “lockdown” because the voluntary compliance by the public was virtually 100%, which is heartening. We are looking forward to an end of all restrictions soon, perhaps even before April. In the meantime, my son is taking classes online and my wife is staying at home from her work.
In the early days, we often felt blind and uninformed. My wife, in particular, was fearful to the point of panic. Her biggest concern was for our young son but she was also aware that, if anything happened to me, the father, she would have a major challenge to take care of the boy by herself. Hence, she was a perfect example of a person believing every goofy rumor about prevention — because she desperately wanted to believe them. When I return with groceries from the supermarket down the block, she met me at the door with spray bottles of medicinal alcohol. I remember yelling, “Not in my eyes! Not in my eyes! Not on the food! Not on the food!” Then, after reading online stories that incense killed the virus, our whole house smelled like a forest fire for a couple of days. When we are fearful, we tend to believe anything or anyone that promises a quick and easy solution. And, when something appears to be working — surgical mask, alcohol, or incense — it is easy to develop an unquestioning faith in it and, subsequently, a great reluctance to stop using it.
Thus, my wife and my seven-year-old son have been my 24/7 roommates since the end of January and our small apartment seems tiny indeed as we do our best to not irritate each other despite constant, unavoidable contact. We could go downstairs to enjoy the play area around our apartment building but we were not free to leave our gated complex of three buildings. The exception was that one person every other day could leave to go shopping for food and other necessities. I accepted and agreed with these social distancing measures, and they are working. The long-term economic consequences will be, I fear, dreadful but we must deal with the disease first. (I suspect that we will also see a mini-Baby Boom, a whole lot of weight gained, and more than a few divorces after all this time spent together at home.)
Yes, this has not been a great start for the new decade but I choose to see the positive and uplifting side of this situation, and I hope for an ending of the pandemic soon. In China and, especially, in our city, the official reports are definitely showing a steady decrease in the number of infected people. For the rest of the world, it seems that the virus is still spreading and I fear that only drastic measures like China’s mandatory lockdown restrictions which mandated social distancing will be effective.
Personally, I am very, very fortunate. Not only has the disease spared me and my family and virtually our entire city, we have also had no shortages of food or basic utilities. In my tiny kitchen, I have flour and other ingredients and an oven — so the solution is obvious. My son and I could make some biscuits and maybe some cookies. One week, we made orange and lemon marmalade. These things keep us busy but they also keep us grounded in the basics of life. And, best of all, they make us appreciate what we have but rarely think of.
I have found that after an intensely emotional experience — like fearing for your life or your immediate family — we often wake up the next morning feeling like a zombie. I just went through such an intense emotional experience but it was real and it lasted for weeks. Life, as I look out my window, now has a surrealistic tinge and I know that I will be forever changed by this experience. I can look out my window at a lovely spring afternoon while hearing reports of death, sacrifice, and uncertainty. It feels weird. The two cannot both be true, yet they are. It seems that we must adapt to the coexistence of two very different views outside our windows. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, panic and self-restraint, pettiness and nobility are all part of our new world. Emotionally and economically, we may never go back. Probably, that will be impossible anyway, given the changed conditions and the turmoil and uncertainty we are currently experiencing.
My life is a little different because I am a little different. Now, the world will go forward with an enlarged vocabulary of Orwellian newspeak terms: social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, shelter in place, and lockdown. Visions of the worst-case scenario persist. Maybe in the coming months, many of us will know someone who died as a result of this new strain of virus. For those of us who survive, let’s hope that we emerge at the other end as a better, more sensitive, more appreciative, and more loving person.
We should remember, also, the Spanish flu of 1918–19 had a terrible resurgence in the autumn after a relatively peaceful summer. Perhaps, as Winston Churchill once said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” We must be prepared — emotionally, socially, and medically — for Covid-19 to return as a monster epidemic later in the year as the weather in the northern hemisphere begins to cool. If this happens, we will have only ourselves to blame if we fail to be adequately organized.
Even though we are still in the earliest stages of this new lifestyle, I am already reading of people who are not adapting well. As officials accept that it is impossible to contain this new virus, mandatory lockdowns and orders to “shelter in place” are being used in an attempt to control the expansion. Reports of stress-induced insomnia, rebellion against any limits to mobility and gathering, anxiety, boredom, restlessness, uncertainty, panic buying, acute irritability, and catatonic procrastination have appeared. Conversely, others report a feeling of guilt and pressure because, given the opportunities presented by vastly increased free time and their “shelter in place” environment, they feel they should hyper-productive or be emulating Shakespeare and churning out epic works of lasting beauty and insight — yet, they are not. Well, let me remind you that the person making you crazy… is you. Maybe the biggest problem — if you are not personally sick or caring for someone who is sick — is the way you are accepting and adapting to the new normal. As the historian Arnold Toynbee said, people are like nations. As they mature, they tend to become more conservative, risk-averse, and resistant to change — or, really, to anything they don’t understand. What we don’t want to hear, we try to ignore. Let the future historians (and our own children and grandchildren) look back on this period and say that we rose magnificently to the occasion.
Make the terrible losses of today become the impetus for personal greatness. In every situation, there are some good aspects and some opportunities. Look for them and utilize them. As Gordon MacQuarrie wrote, “I used every day for what it was best suited. Can anyone do better?” MacQuarrie was writing of a simpler place and time but his words are timeless. Let us heed the wisdom in them.
Let me conclude this report with excerpts from a couple of recent letters to my family and friends in the US — but, really, they could be addressed to anyone in the world who is reading this:
Hello again from Chongqing. Hope that everyone reading this is doing well. We are fine here and hoping for a return to normal conditions in the coming weeks — or, at least, a return to the “new normal”. I believe that we are living through a life-changing event and that things will never completely return to the old days. Already, those “old days” seem so innocent and simple… and probably lost forever.
Briefly, I urge you to prepare for it, rather than hope to avoid it. This strain is so new that there is no natural immunity for it, such as many people develop after repeated exposure to the familiar winter flu. Once unleashed, it is really difficult to contain, like putting the genie back in its bottle or restuffing Pandora’s box. With luck, the effects will be mild and brief for most people but they will be unavoidable for most people around the world — and, for the unfortunate few, perhaps devastating.
The only effective solution to stopping the spread seems to be isolating yourself, either voluntarily or by government mandate since there is no proven vaccine yet. (Maybe one will be available by next year if we are lucky.) Yes, that means no political rallies, no sports events, no travel to popular tourist destinations, and no going out to the bars, restaurants, offices, factories, parties, weddings, and churches. Yes, that means, whenever feasible, not going outside your home to work. I have been staying almost entirely at home since the end of January, about eight weeks now. This was strongly recommended by local authorities then mandated a couple of weeks later. Until this week, we have been under a system where we could not leave our apartment complex of three buildings with a nice play area for walks and for the kids to run and go wild, all surrounded by a wall with only one entrance/exit which was manned by a security guard. Not too bad; much better than many people have. Each apartment — not each person — got a “passport” which had to be presented and noted when you wanted to leave the complex area. One person from each apartment was allowed to leave for food shopping every other day. Fortunately, all the supermarkets were faithfully open, but almost everything else was closed. In our city, the buses and taxis continued to run but with reduced schedules and, the rare times I rode the bus, there were only a few people aboard.
In Chongqing, the number of people infected by the virus was never very high because the local authorities took action early and because of the virtually 100% voluntary compliance by the public. Very heartening to see people giving up their mobility for the common good, although personal fear was a big motivator also. One has to wonder what would have happened if we had not taken such drastic measures. Truthfully, I have not been too concerned about this illness; statistically, people in good health are usually only mildly affected. Usually, I said. A special problem with this virus, however, is that people can be infected and contagious even before they are showing symptoms. That is the reason why social isolation seems to be the only effective means of protecting yourself.
Actually, the situation in Chongqing has been improving daily for the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, when I went out for shopping, the security guard at the gate didn’t even look at the “passport” in my hand; he just waved me through. I have heard stories that conditions were improving and restrictions were being lifted but this was the first I have personally seen. It remains to be seen if this is the beginning of the end, at least locally. At this time, we are hoping that schools can reopen around the first of April. If so, that will mark the official and practical end to the winter of our discontent.
More positively, the limits to our mobility are almost entirely dropped… locally. No more showing a “passport” when we leave our apartment complex or being limited to one trip every two days. The only requirement which remains is that everyone must have their temperature taken (digitally, no contact) before they are allowed back inside the gated entrance. Currently, this is true before you can board a bus or be admitted to many stores and restaurants. I will probably never again see the day when I can walk through an airport or train station — microbe incubators in the best of times — without expecting to be required to be physically checked before being allowed to enter. Nor will I feel comfortable in large crowds of strangers.
Our supermarkets have remained faithfully open — required by the authorities — throughout the lockdown but almost everything else is still closed. Each day, however, I am seeing other small businesses open. However, many of them are reopening with a new business model: the customer comes to the front door and stands there, telling a clerk what they want. The customer does not go inside the store. The clerk brings the item to the front door and accepts payment — preferably by clean, safe digital payment because of fears that paper money may carry the virus. The banks will only allow a small number of people inside the bank lobby. The rest of the customers must wait outdoors until someone leaves; then one more person may enter.
I wonder how long this will continue after the crisis is over. Already, it looks strange to see a person without a mask. One permanent change I will insist on in the future is that strangers will not be allowed to get too close to my son and definitely not touch him. As a really cute seven-year-old foreign kid who can speak Chinese, he is adorable and all the girls (from 3 to 93) just love him. Fine, although I am a little jealous. But no more touching!
My niece just graduated from a local university and is looking for a job in CQ. A very poor time to start a career. She thinks she will probably go on to grad school and hope for better conditions in three years. If not, she will look for work, but the prospects are not great; she will have a lot of competition. Boy, her generation really got the dirty end of the stick! Really poor timing, guys.
China seems to be about to emerge from the crisis but I am really worried about the rest of the world. So, I urge all of you to prepare while you still have the time and mobility and resources available. Here, for a period of several weeks, it was almost impossible to find surgical masks. Likewise, latex gloves and germicidal hand cleansers were unobtainable. Stock up on medicines, bottled water, and foods that do not require refrigeration or preparation in case basic utilities are lost.
Most of all, try to mentally prepare yourself. My wife is a good example. She is a pure city girl. (Her idea of a small town is her hometown of 800,000.) It is almost impossible for her to conceive of not being able to simply walk out the door and go shopping locally whenever she wishes and to find anything she wants or needs. She cannot imagine being without electricity, gas, and clean running water — or cable TV, cell phones, and internet access. The concept of stockpiling just isn’t part of her worldview. She grew up in a world where you “store things in the stores” and buy them only when needed. Daily food shopping is a common practice locally — was, anyway. But she is learning. Experience, however, can be a harsh teacher. Outside of China, in the near future, people may not have the luxury of time for adopting new ways of thinking in advance. If you wait until the stores are closed and people are being required to stay in their homes, it’s too late.
Okay. Gotta go now. The boy is taking online classes. Those online classes were put together on an emergency basis but have been surprisingly effective, error-free, reliable, and fun. The kids keep learning; the parents stay sane. Fortunately, one of the things that have not been affected is our internet access. Download speed has been slowed; when you have 30 million people all staying at home, the digital resources get stretched pretty thin at times. Also, at the end of this mess, I anticipate a mini-Baby Boom, a whole lotta dieting-by-necessity, and more than a few divorces. The long-term economic consequences will also be pretty horrific, I fear, but, if we are lucky, we won’t have the deaths of millions of people to deal with.
Please, everyone, take care of yourself and the people around you.