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.