I mark the 22nd of January 2020 as the start of COVID. I remember the exact place I was when I received a BBC notification about a small viral outbreak in Wuhan, China. I know many of you reading from the UK won’t have felt the effects for a while longer, but for me this was the start. For my worrying mum and dad this was the start of their video call covid pandemic.
I was walking down a street in Kawaguchiko at the base of Mount Fuji on the aforementioned date. Not a moment later after reading the notification my mum called and warned me of the exact same news article. After-all I was due to fly back to my then home in Changsha, China (located just an 1h20m train ride from Wuhan) just 4 days later, so no doubt she was concerned.
In the final year of my undergrad degree I did a medical geography course where we learned about SARS, globalisation and the hyper spread of viruses in todays modern world. So it felt very fresh in my mind. I, unlike many instantly thought this could be a BIG problem. Oh and how right I was. 539 days later and this pandemic is just not ending. Like seriously not bloody ending. I have now experienced COVID in China, Zambia and South Africa and I am fed up of it, as is everyone I’m sure. I am writing this blog post 2 days before the UK is due to stop COVID prevention rules and regulations. This comes at a time when cases yesterday just exceeded 50,000 a day, this has not been the case since January. No doubt the rise in cases is due to Euro football hooligans, summer heat and the need for a beer at the pub. No matter how many jabs governments administer this just isn’t ending. Just now UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for COVID…he is double vaccinated!
Anyway lets shoot back 539 days to me in Japan. It was like something changed in less than a day. That day I was getting a train to Tokyo, the largest metropolis in the world. In Kawaguchiko masks were only seen as an iPhone emoji but Tokyo, something had changed. I know that in many large cities mask wearing is a thing, for both protection of others from common colds and for pollution associated reasons. But in Tokyo during the morning no one was wearing them, by the afternoon many more were putting on white and blue surgical masks. Knowing the potential harm this could cause and also noting that I would be returning to the epicentre country in just a few days I went to a pharmacy and bought a few packets of masks, for me my boyfriend and his cousin who was staying with us in China. What a good decision this turned out to be. Just a week later masks were impossible to find in China, they were rarer than a Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory golden ticket.
I flew back, masked up on the 26th of January and first landed in Tianjin near Beijing, before taking a connecting flight to Changsha. It was instant confusion when I landed in Tianjin. You could tell things had changed. We were immediately surrounded by airport staff waving pieces of paper in our faces and shouting urgently in Chinese. Now my Chinese is a little basic and this was an A4 piece of paper filled to the brim with Chinese characters. I managed to recognise 名字, name and 生日, birthday. Then I was truly stuck. Now these forms have become such a common part of life, especially when travelling. But the strict questions about coughs, colds, temperatures and specific travel info was a little intimidating at the time.
It strikes me as strange now as to why a person entering China (the source of the outbreak) a mere day or so after the publication on Western media of the then epidemic would have to fill out such information. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it was possible to have been to Wuhan and then having immediately travelled to Japan and returned within days. But I am now so suspicious. After the theories, the stories, the knowledge that the Chinese government knew about the outbreak way before its international publication, it only makes me think that this information check for a flight from Japan was odd.
It was the beginning of seeing anonymous humans in full white PPE body suits. Temperature checking, thermal sensors and more questions greeted me upon arrival in Changsha. One thing that struck me as odd when departing to Changsha, was that security took my hand sanitiser from me. I had placed it in a clear plastic bag and it was only a 30ml bottle. I am now assuming it was sometimes desire to own hand sanitiser as by then I am sure it was as impossible to find in China as surgical masks or freedom of speech. China is busy. Like all the time. To see an all but deserted airport was the most eerily spooky things, especially when Chinese Lunar Holiday was still underway.
I made it back to the apartment and that was where we stayed for a long long time. Everything just seemed to escalate within days the fear set in the worry, the changes to daily life were woefully apparent.
Very quickly an alarming We Chat (Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp) application appeared which became addictive to check. A screenshot of the application can be seen below. That’s a map of my city Changsha. That blue circle is me. That red pin on top of the blue circle was a COVID case. I was freaking out. It was actually a case in the building opposite ours but still. Two days before this screenshot was taken there weren’t any red pins in my location only down the road, but that morning I had seen two white PPE clothed people walking from the building. It was like something from the Terminator, but now so very normal. Low and behold 2 days later the COVID case appeared. We just didn’t know at the time what this was. There was no information. It was scary that there were cases right here! There were rumours going round on Chinese media, foreign media. What was this virus, were people just dropping dead. It is one of the things I find so strange now to look back at that, this was a scary thing, this was an unknown, this was unique. Now it is our lives, and probably will be for quite some time to come.
We were lucky enough to not be physically locked in our building but this was not the case for many in China. You will have all heard the stories of Wuhan resident lockdowns, or physical lock-ins would be a better phrase. Luckily we were able to go to the supermarket, but we had to sign in and out of the building. But others we knew were soon treated like prisoners in their own homes. Let me tell you about the students.
Students of Hunan Normal University, where my friends boyfriend attended, was locked in the building for months, unable to breach its jail like gates. It broke my heart. I saw depression in so many people, myself included. But being locked in the building only able to walk to other students rooms, that’s it, nothing else. This was a Chinese prison for foreigners, foreigners who had done nothing wrong but be students during a pandemic. All the Chinese students had gone home, after all it was Chinese New Year, so foreigners occupied the buildings. When restrictions lessened they were still not released. A blatant attempt of authority figures to punish foreigners for being foreign. Claiming it was due to the desire to reduce infections, whilst normal citizens and myself included (an English teacher) were allowed to roam free around the city. We are talking between the months of January and April these restrictions were in place. I used to ride my bike to my friends gate and pass snacks and supplies through bars in the wall, like he was a criminal being held against his will, craving something other than rice and boiled lettuce, rabbit food as he called it.
The treatment of foreigners during the outbreak began to decline rapidly in April and May once COVID had spread around the world. Communist Party lies seemed to be spreading, the rumours that foreigners (particularly Black people) were the ones spreading COVID hurtled into fruition across China. Can you believe that? Can you believe people believed that? Well I guess thats the powers of repressed Communist state media.
News stories were bad. Discrimination. Racism. It was atrocious to see and read about. Guangzhou seemed to be channelling racist America in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The city of Guangzhou is home to the largest population of African migrants in Asia. And they were the targets of China’s latest blame game. No Black entry signs could be found on recently re-opened restaurants, landlords evicted African tenants, forcing them to sleep on the streets. It was a bad place to be a foreigner.
My experience as a white female were nothing in comparison to the disgraceful mistreatment of Black people, across China, but I must also share my personal experience with the change of attitude many Chinese had begun to hold towards foreigners.
China had changed. From as early as March 2020 I was no longer a foreigner that people requested to take photos with (not that I ever enjoyed this aspect of living in China, it always felt like I was an animal in a zoo). Instead I became the person that people whispered about, shouted things at pushed their kids away from. I was walking with a Chinese friend, when cases had declined and restrictions reduced, and someone shouted something at me in Chinese. I was told by my friend that they were saying something about me being from the place where the virus cases were. At this point I hadn’t been to Europe in over a year. To best describe my feelings in this time I will share with you a screenshot of post I shared on Instagram near the end of March.
“WOULD APPRECIATE IF YOU COULD PLEASE READ 💭🙏🙌 In China it is feeling like we have nearly fought the coronavirus fight, life is beginning to return to normal and after months of huge lifestyle changes it feels uplifting. But now knowing what it’s been like I have to watch my family and friends go through the same thing, which is for numerous political, economic and social reasons potentially going to be worse than here in China.
People have both shocked me in their selfishness in this time and also made me feel loved and supported.
I have read news stories about the racial abuse of Chinese people in Italy, I’ve seen pictures of Chinese people being beaten, I’ve even watched a cute but sad video of Chinese school kids in England telling people they were getting teased at school for being coronavirus Chinese kids. BUT now I see the same thing happening here in China. I, a foreigner in China am now perceived to be somewhat of a virus. People are looking at me more than usual, assigning my blonde hair and blue eyes with European nationality.
I have 2 incidents I can discuss:
Upon trying to enter a garden (one of the first day trips out I’ve been able to do) I was denied entry despite showing all the proper documentation, whilst my Chinese friend was allowed to enter. Looking at both of us there was no way they could have known if either one of us had been abroad in the last couple of months.
The second incident perhaps upset me more, today I’ve just seen a mother push her child away from me out of harms way as she lifted her head and saw who I was. This was so striking to me, I am a teacher and now children are being shown that they should fear me because I am a virus.
BUT MY REAL MESSAGE HERE IS… Why the hell do we spend our time being mean to people and judging them when we have all gone through and are going through the same thing. This virus knows no borders, it knows no race, it knows no gender. It is only with kindness, compassion and selflessness that we as global people can tackle this crisis. So please, just be kind. Comment #justbekind to show your support of this and to show that you read till the end. Stay safe 😘”
To be humble is a highly attractive characteristic. I wish the Chinese government would have shown some during this time. I am not blaming the Chinese people, they are great people, they are hard working and kind people. But they were told through years of oppression to despise and mistrust the outside world, and in this case foreigners in their homeland. To miss trust us, to deny us entry, to evict us from our homes. 539 days on and the world has lost 4.8 million people just from COVID. It has crippled economies and caused political breakdowns and deep-seated mistrust in organisations and governments alike. To me this lack of ability to apologise or at the very least to just be humble is so harmful, it has caused mistrust between China as a nation and foreigners. It has caused mistrust between governments and within countries.
I was alone during a lot of the virus, unable to see my good Chinese friend, my boyfriend had returned to Zambia and was unable to come back, my best friend trapped also in Russia, it was for me the worst place to be. One of the loneliest and depressing times of my life. Made worse by the looks I got on the street and the refusal of entry to simple outdoor spaces. No consideration that perhaps foreigners could have been vulnerable being away from home at such a time in our lives that many have never encountered. I am so grateful to my Chinese friend Kathy for keeping me happy in China when we were finally able to socialise. But for many this place became a prison, and now that many have travelled out of its borders, China is a gated area that many are desperate to return to, to finished their degrees or go back to their jobs and lives. At yet China’s borders are still closed. This virus is still happening. 539 days on. I knew it wouldn’t be over quickly, but news that doubly vaccinated members of the UK government are still testing positive for the virus is blowing my mind. Just when will this end!