How COVID-19 holds a mirror to our societies’ problems
I heard about “pneumonia of unknown cause” in December 2019. A few of the Chinese media reported about it, but many people, including me, didn’t take it seriously. It was 2019 after all. Our science and technology should be powerful enough to protect us from this little infectious disease, we thought.
Later there were voices, known as whistle-blowing doctors nowadays, warning that this “pneumonia of unknown cause” was like SARS. SARS?! Seriously? It was like when Lord Voldemort’s name was mentioned before his return in the Harry Potter story.
I was at primary school during the SARS outbreak in 2002-03. Even as a child, I knew it was a horrible disease, taking so many lives. But many people still believed that, if anything, “pneumonia of unknown cause” was just a much milder form of SARS. There’s nothing to worry about, they thought, and maybe it would disappear in the summer just like SARS. Some people, however, worried that the same tragedy could happen again if we didn’t pay sufficient attention to this disease.
A few members of the media reviewed lessons learned from SARS and suggested that the government take immediate and transparent action in response to “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
Since the Lunar New Year was a few days later, on 25 January 2020, there was a lot of debate. Some, mainly the younger generation, advocated that we should reduce the Lunar New Year travel rush, avoid festival shopping in markets and malls and stop visiting relatives and friends to prevent “pneumonia of unknown cause” getting out of control.
However, others argued that we shouldn’t overreact and blamed others for spreading panic and destroying the Lunar New Year spirit. This was before we knew more details about the virus on both molecular and genetic levels.
Then on 23 January 2020, two days before the Lunar New Year, Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people, was suddenly locked down by the government. Later, medical experts, government officials and media strongly urged that people wear face masks and avoid travel and meeting in big groups. At this point, everyone realised “pneumonia of unknown cause” was a serious disease.
I became very worried about my family and friends back in China, where people had started panic shopping face masks and “super drugs” that were believed to cure the disease.
Rumours and conspiracies were everywhere. A famous one was that “pneumonia of unknown cause” was a secret weapon developed by the US government in order to kill all Chinese people. It sounds hilarious today. But with little known about the disease at that stage, it was hard to prove wrong.
Meanwhile, Western media mainly criticised the lockdown of Wuhan city as a violation of human rights.
Interestingly, when I visited the famous British “plague village” Eyam in the Peak District a few months ago with the Gates Scholars’ Council, everyone was full of praise for Eyam’s decision to self-quarantine about 300 years ago in the face of the Great Plague. As the BBC reported: “The entire village made the remarkable decision to quarantine itself in a heroic attempt to halt the spread of the Great Plague.”
A global emergency
On 30 January 2020, with more countries detecting cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause”, the WHO declared a global health emergency. On 11 February 2020, “pneumonia of unknown cause” finally had its official name, COVID-19. Even so, throughout February, it felt like many people in the UK still regarded it as a distant thing and they kept going to parties and on vacation. There were similar debates to the ones that had happened in China.
On the one hand, Chinese international students were overwhelmed by the endless bad and uncertain news from China and other affected places worldwide. They were very anxious about their family and friends back home but could only contact them by video call.
Many of my Chinese friends tried to persuade their international colleagues and friends to take COVID-19 seriously by wearing face masks and reducing social activities and travelling. Many of their international colleagues and friends, on the other hand, laughed at them and refused to wear face masks. They even blamed their Chinese friends for spreading panic.
Misfortunes never come in ones. Anti-Asian racism crimes soared in the UK. Criminals started to attack not only Chinese people, but also those who were from other Asian countries but looked Chinese.
By 28 February, COVID-19 infections were spiking in Europe. Italy imposed a national quarantine on 9 March. Later, Spain announced a national quarantine on 14 March. Many more countries started their lockdown afterwards. The Western media no longer commented on lockdowns being against human rights...
I thought the UK government would soon take action. But boom! On 13 March, the news reported the notorious ‘herd immunity’ strategy proposed by the UK government. The PM warned that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones’. The news soon reached China. My mum read it and freaked out. She kept messaging me and urging me to fly back to China immediately.
China had mostly recovered from COVID-19 by then and there was no anti-Asian racism crime back home. I realised that I couldn’t find any reason to convince my mum that it was better to stay in the UK, though I was still hesitant, given that I have so many good friends in Cambridge and tons of experiments to do in the lab.
Then on 15 March, my college sent an email that strongly encouraged all students to leave Cambridge if possible. Soon I heard my institute was very likely to shut down. It seemed to make no sense to stay in Cambridge anymore. So I emailed my supervisor and she said she would understand if I chose to leave.
The journey home
Finally, decision made, it was time to go home! I started to search for flights from the UK to China, but all the direct flights were sold out. I then looked up transit countries that were both low in COVID-19 cases and allowed Chinese passport holders to transit in their airports. I ended up paying twice the normal price for stopovers in Amsterdam and Singapore.
The flight departed from London on 17 March and took 34 hours and 25 minutes to land in my hometown, Lanzhou. It was the longest trip I had ever taken to fly back home, but I still felt lucky to be able to get one of the few remaining tickets. All of my ambitious plans for 2020 had totally changed.
I had less than two days to pack up, wrap up my work and say goodbye to as many people as I could. Even though I pretended to be calm, I was frightened about not being able to see my friends again, not knowing what might happen, and about facing such a long trip and quarantine. A friend suggested bringing some instant noodles on my way back as she heard the quarantine conditions in China were horrible.
On 18 March, the plane landed in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Changi Airport is definitely the prettiest airport I have ever seen and what made it even better was that from Singapore onwards, everyone was wearing face masks and you could easily find hand sanitiser at airport shops.
At 4am on 19 March, after a long trip, the plane finally landed in China at Shanghai Pudong Airport. Passengers were asked to stay in their seats before the fully equipped airport staff came to measure our body temperatures and check our travel histories. Luckily, nobody had obvious COVID-19 symptoms on the plane so we were allowed to get off about an hour and a half later.
At passport control, airport staff worked around the clock to record our travel and health histories. Later we were allocated into several groups based on our future travel plans and destinations.
Each group was accompanied to the next checkpoint to make sure nobody walked around on their own. It was no easy task, given so many international passengers were arriving in China through Shanghai Pudong Airport every day. But the whole process was amazingly organised and efficient and I managed to catch the next flight to Lanzhou at 7.30am.
All international passengers were seated at the back of the plane and accompanied by flight staff. After all the local passengers had left the plane, we were allowed to get off. Without even stepping into the Lanzhou Airport building, all international passengers were transferred by coach to the quarantine centre near the airport. Many were Chinese international students from Europe and the US, just like me. Nobody had expected to be back in China.
Many of them had similar stories to mine. Some had kept their masks on throughout the whole journey and had not eaten or had anything to drink because of fears of being infected. Many said that, due to the numerous checking procedures in China, they finally felt safe because China was taking the virus seriously.
Soon after, I arrived at my temporary single room for my first COVID-19 nasal swab test. The room was spacious and well-equipped. We were not allowed to leave it. The fully protected nurses were the only people we could talk to, either in person or mostly through WeChat.
Food and essentials were left on the chair outside of our rooms so that we could collect them without coming into direct contact with anyone. The food was actually delicious and nutritionally balanced so there was no need to take instant noodles at all.
I got my test result the next day and it was negative.
On 20 March I checked out of the airport quarantine centre. The COVID-19 test was free and the hotel cost about £20 (US$25) altogether for one night’s stay including food. Those who got a positive result in their first test were taken to hospital. I was then taken to the specific quarantine hotel in my district for 14 days of standard quarantine.
My new room was more comfortable than the previous one. I saw six paper towels, a face mask and a 75% ethanol spray on my desk – quite a luxury since all of these were out of stock in Europe. The quality and quantity of food continued to be excellent, so I had to install an exercise app to do a regular workout.
I also connected my computer to the television in my room to make a mini-theatre. Time flew by very fast and I was able to work remotely and do Zoom meetings and video calls with family and friends scattered across the world.
I measured my body temperature twice a day with the provided thermometer and sent the read-out to my nurses via WeChat. Just like everyone in my city, I had two more throat swab COVID-19 tests and both of them were negative. On 3 April, I finally got a certificate saying I had completed my 14-day standard quarantine and could check out of the hotel. The tests were also free and the hotel cost about £30 (US$37) per night, including food.
Post-quarantine life made me feel like all of the suffering of the past 17 days had paid off. Since my province has had no COVID-19 infections for a while, people were able to gradually start getting back to normal life as long as face masks were worn in public. I went to my favourite restaurants, went hiking and to parks. At the beginning, people’s body temperature was measured before entering public areas, but weeks later, with no new infections, this was dropped.
People valued what had been achieved through two months of intensive collaboration across the whole society, but they were cautious that a second wave could occur, triggered by people travelling from overseas.
I began to get used to my new normal life back home, by moving my work, meetings and social life online. I appreciated that the COVID-19 pandemic provided me with the opportunity to spend time with my family. I also revisited some old hobbies such as crafting and gardening. Another important hobby that has become part of my everyday routine: reading the news both in English and Chinese.
I find it interesting how Western countries and China have reacted to and reported this pandemic. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Western countries liked to call it the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus”, since that is where COVID-19 was first recorded. This has increased hostility towards people from Wuhan or China.
Offended by this, the Chinese media has argued that this is not fair since, by that token, we could also call the 1918 pandemic (Spanish Flu) – and the 2009 swine virus – the “American virus” since they were first recorded there.
People also had distinct opinions regarding face masks. In the early days, those who wore face masks were insulted or attacked in Western countries since they looked like disease carriers. In China, however, people were angry with those who didn’t wear face masks since they might spread the disease, even if they didn’t have any symptoms themselves.
After China had recovered from the first wave of COVID-19, it sent supplies and doctors to help other countries. The Western media blamed China for taking advantage of the pandemic and said it was all China’s fault and some called for inquiries and reparations.
The Chinese media, however, reported that other countries appreciated China’s generous help. They also criticised some governments for using China as a scapegoat for their own inadequate response to the virus. They found it ridiculous that people in the West wanted China to pay reparations and asked whether they were still robbers, as they had been in the old days.
The Western media also doubted whether China had really defeated COVID-19 as it claimed. The Chinese media responded that the Western media were just jealous that China had done better than their countries.
As for the origins of COVID-19, the Western media has intensively investigated the conspiracy theory that the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Meanwhile, the Chinese media highlighted conspiracy theories that the virus had come from the recently-closed US army lab in Fort Detrick and asked why the 2019-20 flu season in the US was so severe?
Of course, there were also voices on both sides arguing that, rather than debating conspiracy theories, we should focus our efforts on the pandemic itself.
It was interesting to see these different perspectives based on different cultural backgrounds and politics.
Like many people, I used to be anxious and paranoid whenever I read bad news about COVID-19. But I soon found the pandemic was actually a great learning opportunity. COVID-19 is like a mirror. It reflects a society’s problems. It is painful to see all the hidden problems in our societies uncovered, but it is only through doing so that we can confront them and try to make our societies better.
The experience has also taught me that we should be cautious about being manipulated by the media. Critical thinking is the key. A healthy society needs different voices. This applies to every single country, but also to the international context.
In addition, as a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar mentioned at the 2020 Gates Cambridge Weekend of Research: “Science alone won’t save us.” To win this battle against the pandemic, we need interdisciplinary collaborations and everyone united together.
Last, but not the least, I urge people to take care of themselves and stay positive. As Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts, said: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Jingwen Alice Fan is a PhD student and a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. This blog solely represents the author’s personal experience and should not be interpreted in any political way.