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'Should we leave?' Life in China under the coronavirus lockdown
IT HAS been two weeks since Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China, was placed under quarantine, and my husband and I have confined ourselves to our apartment building in Shanghai, more than 800 km away, for the same number of days, as requested by the authorities.
As the lockdown wears on, we have stopped changing out of our pajamas, and the days seem to meld into each other. Every morning, I reach for my phone on the side table as soon as my eyes open, and I pore over the latest news, the number of new deaths, new confirmed infections, new measures to stem the novel coronavirus' progress, new speculation. But everything feels far away from my 23rd-floor apartment. Within these windows and walls, we live in our own little world.
We have become like hydroponic plants in a cushy greenhouse, growing fat on delivered nutrients. Each day, couriers zip over on their electric scooters with takeout, groceries, water. I feel silly as I strap on my mask each time I venture beyond my apartment door to pick up deliveries from the building lobby, riding down the elevator that smells sharply of disinfectant. I press the elevator buttons with the edge of my key. These precautions feel like role play, but still I dutifully wash my hands every time I walk through the door, humming the alphabet song under my breath.
"Should we leave?" My husband has posed the question to me several times now, always casually, in a level voice, carefully disguising his feelings. We are both American citizens, so we can leave anytime we choose.
Neither of us wants to be the alarmist in the relationship, not when we are young and healthy and so far removed from harm's way.
"No. It's not so dangerous for us." "True." "Frankly, it's travelling that is scary right now. Getting packed together with a bunch of strangers for 13 hours seems like a terrible idea right now." "Mmm-hmm." "Besides, Shanghai is in good shape. Grocery stores are stocked, we are getting everything delivered without any issues, the hospitals are not crowded." "Right." "We're good. We're safe."
I know it is not entirely logical for me to be so keen to stay. Our family and friends are all worried about us, urging us to return to the United States while we still can, to put an ocean between us and this sprawling epidemic. But I keep thinking, are we entitled cowards for even considering fleeing while people in Hubei province (Wuhan is its capital) are dealing with overcrowded hospitals, supply shortages, evictions and abuse; while medical professionals are on the front line risking their lives? Is a few weeks of confinement in the comfort of our home really a good reason to run away?
Even if the situation in Shanghai becomes less comfortable, we are not helpless. We have a couple of boxes of masks, jugs of drinking water, potatoes and cabbages, instant noodles, cereal and a couple of frozen steaks. If you think this sounds like half-baked city-mouse logic, you are correct. I have no idea how to handle the situation if it takes a turn for the worse.
When I really think about it, it makes no sense for me to be so laid back about this virulent new disease, especially since I have very little trust in the Chinese government.
Maybe I am not so calm after all. When I peel back the veneer of guilt, there is anxiety, simmering darkly. Like everyone else in China, I have few concrete ideas about what is really happening, and I am at the mercy of the Chinese government and how it chooses to proceed. But we plebes are not privy to the whole truth, even though the truth is part and parcel of the trust the government demands.
There were a few brief days of rigorously reported stories in the local media at the start of the outbreak, but then the state propaganda machine swooped back in to limit what the public is allowed to know, in the name of promoting positivity and maintaining order. This is nothing new. Everyone in China knows better than to take what Communist Party mouthpieces tell us at face value, but when 1.4 billion lives are at stake, is it still possible to live with the half-truths?
In this moment, I feel the same primal fear of dying stirring in the rest of China, and it paralyses us. I managed to convince myself for a while that everything would be fine, but it was only a matter of time before something came along to shatter this illusion.
Yesterday, I saw on social media that someone noticed that the ratio in the official figures for the total dead to the total diagnosed cases has remained exactly 2.1 per cent every day since Jan 30. "This magical virus is very good at math!" I felt my face crumple as I stared at the numbers. I had forgotten that every piece of news must be examined for how it is being used to strengthen the regime's rule. Even in these times of life and death, I could not be exempted from this exhausting exercise, which the party is perpetually playing for keeps.
It smarted like a wound, and the pain gave me clarity. I so badly want to believe in the Chinese government when millions of lives are on the line. I want to have some faith that its decisions are made with the intention to save the greatest number of lives. I want to believe that it has imposed the world's largest quarantine - effectively sacrificing a province of 58 million people - because it is for the greater good. I want to believe that each drastic measure will pay off, and not just turn out to be glorified PR stunts.
I am scared of being scared. I do not want to face how bad things can get, how quickly our cosy little homestay could fall apart if the infrastructure ceases to run smoothly. A pampered sitting duck is still a sitting duck, and I no longer have any illusions about everything turning out fine. NYTIMES
- The writer is a writer and illustrator in Shanghai