Fear and Loathing in China - Part IV - A New Hope
It is hard to tell if people smile anymore. It takes more effort to read people behind their masks and it takes more effort to hear their muffled words. Eyes alone are not nearly as expressive as I thought they were. But a month is a long time, and the eyes at least reveal that.
It has been a month since our business was closed down, and at least as long since I've seen my wife and son who are still stuck at the family village in the mountains. It has been a month of smelling my own breath through my mask and using so much hand sanitizer that my hands have become rough. It has been a month of my computer and I getting to know each other more than either of us really wanted. It has been a month of seeing children longingly stare out apartment windows, and me wondering if we’ve already long been living in a dystopian world and have just been too stubborn to notice. It has been a month of temperature scans and mandatory tracking apps. It has been a month of worrying that one day toilet paper might become the new currency of trade. And it has been a month of incredible sacrifices by everyone in this country to do their part to try to keep this virus from becoming endemic.
The majority of international reporting on the coronavirus outbreak has now entered its second month. For those of us here in China, it has been a month filled with fear and uncertainty. It has also been a month filled with cringeworthy media headlines. It feels like we’ve now entered a third outbreak. The first was the virus, the second was the fear that followed, and now the third is a plague of cynicism that has swept across the world. Along with the cynicism has come a shameful deficit in empathy.
COVID-19 has given us a lens into a much more prevalent problem. We all have so much access to information now that we can back up any opinion with ‘facts.’ The headlines play right into it, appearing to be more interested in making fodder for the cynical than offering relevant news. We’ve become desensitized and overly sensitized at the same time. We take in only the information we want to hear and reject what we don’t. We build our own echo-chambers, feeding what we know and ignoring the rest. The result is that fact, fiction, theory and vitriol all get equal footing. Misinformation and confirmation biases muddy the waters of truth to the point of no longer seeing clearly.
If Yoda were here he might change his mantra to, “Fear leads cynicism. Cynicism leads to Googling. Googling leads to everyone thinking they know what the hell they’re talking about.”
It is the same cynicism that keeps people at home on election day. It’s the same cynicism that has people trusting conspiracy theories over science. And it’s the same cynicism that divides us all in opposition. We can’t even simply enjoy a new Star Wars movie without cynicism creeping in to rip it to shreds.
Over the last few days in China there have been signs that this terrible ordeal might be on the mend. Buses are running again, public spaces are letting people in, villages are deconstructing their makeshift roadblocks and some businesses are opening up. This, at least, offers some base for optimism. But it has been a very long and disappointing month.
Knowing whether or not this effort was worth it will take some time. But let’s hope that when the cloud of this contagion has finally lifted it takes some of the fear and cynicism along with it.
Coughs ring out like gunshots in a post-war zone. Everyone is on edge and your instinct is to be suspicious of anyone that gets near you. A visit to the grocery store feels like a scene from Mission Impossible. Get in. Keep a safe distance. Get the goods. Don’t touch more than you have to. And whatever you do, don’t sneeze.
Everyone knows they shouldn’t be afraid, but the fear isn’t only on the surface anymore. It’s burrowed down deep. Like Batman, we have become our fear. We have owned this panic as our own. Coronavirus Man, however, is a superhero no one wants.
I’ve had a cold through all of this. I hold in my coughs like one might have buried their wealth during the cultural revolution. If I were to let one go, I fear the scornful accusations of those around me. Like I’d get put away with all the others.
Even a visit to the drug store for a bottle of cough syrup prompted a temperature check, registering my cell phone number and proof of identification. I nearly hyperventilated through my mask just from the interrogation by the cashier. I sat at home that night too afraid to even open the bottle. I awaited a visit from disease control, half-expecting to be hauled away to a quarantine zone.
I am so thankful for the fact that my son is only three years old. He has no grasp of what is going on. He’s not afraid of coronavirus or people from Wuhan. He’s only afraid of spinach and bedtime, and maybe the sharks from Finding Nemo. But what about all the other kids out there, tens of millions of them, stuck in their homes all day for the last two weeks. They’ve been told that the outside world is too dangerous, that they must wear masks over their face if they don’t want to get sick. Some going as far as to put plastic bags over the heads of their children or covering them in cut out 20-liter plastic water containers.
These kids are not scientists—for the most part, neither are their parents. They aren’t thinking about viral loads and transmission rates. They aren’t thinking about the comparative scale of swine flu from 2009. They aren’t thinking about how death rates for this virus outside of Hubei are presently less than that of seasonal influenza. For them, it is the outside world that is a big, scary, contaminated cloud that they and their families have to protect themselves against.
We have made an entire generation into germaphobes. Every apartment in China is now cleaner than it’s ever been. Partly out of boredom and partly out of this germ-free lifestyle everyone has subscribed to. Government statements have gone as far as to warn against using too much disinfecting alcohol in your home for fear of starting fires. That is how far people are going to shelter themselves. And the paranoia will linger long after China pulls through this.
Business too will feel the lasting impact. The losses that this virus (especially the response to the virus) has reaped upon our little restaurant is far more than we could have ever prepared for. But we are still among the lucky ones. We will recover and we will dig ourselves out of this hole. Tens of thousands of other businesses out there won’t be so fortunate.
When the virus does finally die off, the economic and sociological consequences will remain. The question now is, for how long?
If the typical stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, then the stages of coronavirus grief in China are fear, anger, depression, acceptance and then just a little more anger thrown on top for good measure.
Pants-Shitting Fear: There was no avoiding that initial wave of anxiety that washed over all of us in China when it became evident that this virus was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Police showing up in surgical masks at your home and business to tell you to stay away from all other people for an indeterminate amount of time is a surprisingly effective laxative.
Blind Rebellious Anger: Google has a way of making everyone an expert. And when you have a boat full of “experts” someone is going to get thrown overboard. The government’s reaction feels like it's gone far beyond the pale of necessary action, especially in perspective of past outbreaks like China’s SARS in 2003, the North American swine flu pandemic from 2009, and even seasonal influenza. Just wash your dirty hands and don’t sneeze in anyone’s face and you’ll be fine. Closing everything down is an over-reaction that threatens to cause more problems than it solves.
Spiraling YouTube Depression: I know I’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel when the only things I can find to watch are videos of podcasts. That is how bored I am and how much I seem unable to do anything at all productive. It’s a miracle I can even muster the motivation to chew my food.
Fuck-It Acceptance: Alright, I’ll put a damn mask on. I still don’t think it does much to protect my health, but I understand that it makes everyone else around me feel safer. And right now, how we all “feel” might be an even bigger crisis than the virus itself. Maybe it’s also time to start waking up before ten a.m. I should probably clean the house up a bit too. And while I’m at it, maybe I should finally wash that shit out of my pants from those initial days. I can’t just become a lazy slob and expect someone to tell me everything is going to be alright. Truth is, even with the most likely of worst-case scenarios, everything is going to be alright. And with the most likely of best-case scenarios, this will all be old news in a few months.
Defensive Anger: Look here outside world! I’m sick of your fucking headlines about how upset you all are for the ten cases of the virus that have soiled your oh-so-pristine countries. Your sensationalized headlines gleaming with racist undertones need to stop. I don’t remember the world banning Americans when the 2009 swine flu killed 150,000 people around the world. How about a little sympathy for the people here instead of this blanket blame? You appear more interested in making this about yourselves while demonizing the “others” who are actually suffering most right now. And that’s not to mention the herculean effort this country is now taking to contain the spread of this virus. How about a little bit of gratitude instead? China has sacrificed its economic concerns for the health and safety of its people, and for those of you around the world. There’s no question that were this to happen in another country no such sacrifice would even be an option on the table.
Okay, maybe I need to add another stage here. I’m obviously a bit riled up in level five and it’s time for a glass of wine. Let’s go ahead and call stage six, Chill-the-Fuck-Out. If the 1.4 billion people here sacrificing freedoms and businesses can manage to attain this level, then how about the rest of you out there follow suit.
Fear and Loathing in China - Part I -
Hmmm. Watch more garbage on my laptop? Refresh that webpage with the scary numbers for the twentieth time today? Browse the headlines again? Maybe a quick 30 pushups will set me straight. Nah, more coffee seems like the best way forward.
Why am I wasting this amazing opportunity to be productive and instead I'm just fidgeting with my computer? My wife and son are stuck up in the mountains of western Yunnan for the New Year and I’m left with no parental responsibilities for the first time in more than three years. My businesses are under mandatory closure and I’m left with no work responsibilities for the first time in sixteen years. For so long I’ve been waiting for free time like this to do all the things I’ve long convinced myself I’m too busy for. At last I’ve got an opportunity to get on those writing projects and maybe take the dog for a long run.
Now is the time to get inspired. Now is the time to get shit done. But first, more coffee, and then maybe another peek at the headlines. Hmmm, I wonder what the best television series was from 2011. Maybe I’ll download that real quick as I’ve already watched everything back to 2012.
With this sudden lack of responsibility thrust upon us all, I just don’t know what to do with myself. Now is when I should finally get to that old to-do list, but I just can’t muster the motivation. Everything going on is so emotionally draining, and the uncertainty of it all is so distressing. Just getting out of bed takes an hour or two longer than usual. But as we all walk into this unknown future, there is a part of me that keeps rethinking one thing over and over again. This could only happen in China.
I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that could abruptly freeze nearly 1.4 billion people in the biggest game ever of Red Light/Green Light. And I don’t think there is another population of people in the world who could handle it with such efficient calmness. I’ve heard some accusingly call it sheepishness, but I’ll take sheepishness over Mad Max any day. And even if this did go all Fury Road, it would only be fought over hand sanitizer.
The streets are quiet and calm, other than the occasional cluster of fireworks. The wet markets are operating efficiently with only slightly higher-than-normal prices. Everyone is lazing about in their homes with their families watching too much television. And kids are playing badminton in the courtyard and tossing around those Styrofoam airplanes that crash into everything. On the outside its exactly like a typical Chinese New Year; quiet, empty and few places open to get any decent food. So why does it still feel like a zombie movie without any of the good parts?
This shit is scary, and that’s understandable. We’re not all virologists. Most of us didn’t know anything about viral transmission, incubation periods, mutations and mortality rates; even though now many of us talk like we are experts. Moreover, there’s so much clutter in the media as sensationalized garbage dominates the web. It’s snake oil salesmanship of a different sort. Only this time it’s paranoid clickbait instead of false medical cures. Now it’s difficult to keep an even-keeled perspective amidst all the fear-mongering and speculation. When some of us can’t even agree upon the spherical shape of the planet, obviously not everyone is looking to the science journals for their news.
Ah, that reminds me. News. Let’s check those headlines again. But maybe I’ll grab a beer first and then dive into season 6 of The Office. The pushups will have to wait.