Wednesday 18th March, 2020
The building guards have wised up to the fallibility of my paper door barrier and have stuck it so it really is impossible to get out (without it being extremely obvious you’ve done so, anyway). Fleetingly, I felt sad about it, which strongly suggests part of my enjoyment of being “quarantined” was the option to leave if I really wanted to, like some sort of self-check-in rehab or health retreat.
I had my privilege thoroughly checked by a video call back home today, too. The company my stepdad is financially advising is now almost certain to go bust. Years of hard work, not to mention cash, for the business owners will go down the drain. That small, sad realisation, when scaled up, put a face on the gargantuan significance of the current global situation.
It’s not a zombie apocalypse, but it is an economic and societal bombshell. How many millions of small businesses will fail and have no government funds to fall back on? How many people who live check to check won’t be able to buy food or daily necessities?
What on earth will the world look like after months of choked-off cash flow effectively eliminates all but the biggest slush fund holders? Friends in London who work for SMEs reliant on cash flow might lose their jobs.
I thought the world had gone pretty much batsh*t ever since the Trump election, but at least systems were still holding together and, though idealism had taken a bludgeoning, life functioned more or less as normal. Now, the exposed fragility of literally everything is terrifying.
A ping on my phone from the UK Consular WeChat account tells me the FCO has now advised against travel of any kind. An arse-covering, blanket move in the guise of extra-cautious advice. Great. “Well, we told you not to go anywhere. We can’t repatriate and treat you now. Sorry, we’ve got more urgent things to do.”
The more stories I read about China’s free coronavirus healthcare, militantly efficient quarantine measures and rigirously enforced public health regulations, the more I feel like an estranged child, watching the UK flounder from a distance.
The Chinese government certinaly comes out looking like a world leader, at least in disease control if not other aspects of quality of life.
Fascinating times we live in. Despite all the chaos, that’s something I’m grateful for.
Thursday 19th March, 2020
I accidentally ordered today’s essentials (fruit, veg and red wine) separately, necessitating two trips for the already overworked building staff and earning me an instant-messaging equivalent of a rap on the knuckles from the building manager.
Now I feel bad about ordering anything. I wonder if I’ll run out of water. I don’t drink the tap water here after reading that it’s likely to have a high heavy metal content. I guess I’ll just have to drink the wine instead. At least I’ve learned to open the bottle without breaking the cork.
People are marooned all over the world. I called Claire, a friend from a Hangzhou fitness group that feels like it existed a lifetime ago, this morning to find she’s “stuck” in a hotel in Japan, while Matt, an admissions officer at Wellington, was quarantined for two weeks in a fever clinic.
He had the unbelievable situation of getting seriously ill from something that wasn’t coronavirus, so was turned away from hospital after hospital, practically unable to breath before one empathetic doctor finally took him in and diagnosed a dangerous case of acute tonsillitis. Makes you wonder whether there’ll be a collateral death toll of those who die from Anything-But-COVID-19, because they didn’t want to go to the infection hotbed of a hospital.
Reactions to the virus really are different in every country. China’s blanket military style control of people is harsh but effective. The UK government is moving slowly like the aging behemoth it is, and people are panicking.
According to Claire, Japan hasn’t enforced home quarantine, but has abolished working hours and limited travel, trusting citizens to be responsible with their decisions. People are discussing government cash handouts in the US, which sounds like a suspiciously good idea for its simplicity.
The trash collecting lady greeted me with a phone camera today. “We have to film you to prove you’re staying inside,” her muffled voice apologised. Maybe I’ll try and chat to her some more tomorrow
Spotted a crumb of cork floating in the wine bottle. Dammit.
Friday 20th March, 2020
The translation company I work for are definitely sending me more work than they used to, so I think they’ve caught on that I’m at home and am more responsive to time-sensitive requests than usual.
This morning I’ve been translating airline apologies to passengers planning to travel to Italy, and assurances that fear not! Airports are well and truly disinfected between every flight! It all sounds reassuring, until you realise that the actual contagion risks are the humans strapped in around you rather than germs picked up from the seat handle.
My chemical goggle buddy from the flight messaged me to tell me someone sat 5 rows down from us tested positive, and we might get called into more serious government controlled quarantine. These essentially sound like maximum security prisons designed for living biohazards, and although it would make interesting blog content, there are limits to what yours truly will do, and they do not include dissolving my own potentially contaminated waste rather than flush it down the loo (as reported in this article). That was the first moment I’ve been scared, quickly looking up the likelihood of infection on an airplane. Fortunately, it was pretty low.
Again today I’ve felt the heavy hand of my own good fortune. In a bizarre and one could say justly deserved reversal, China now appears to be the safest country on the planet regarding the virus, something that definitely wasn’t on my mind when I decided to return.
Local infections are down to zero, while in the US, UK and seemingly everywhere else, thousands of cases are being confirmed, stock markets are going nuts, schools and universities are cancelling exams and NHS frontline staff feel like “cannon fodder” due to a lack of protective equipment (though that’s a quote from the China Daily, so up for debate).
Europe and the US appear to have had weeks of warning, but it’s clear that they are still less prepared. Another feather in the hat of capitalist authoritarianism as a genuine rival to capitalist democracy. Although I’d still rather live in the latter.
By some ridiculous fluke, I chose the most intelligent date to fly home, arriving a couple of days before the UK was put on a ‘high-risk’ list and far stricter measures were put in place for fresh arrivals. Stories abound now of English teachers treated woefully by Chinese bosses, having returned to China on expensive flights under threat of losing their paycheck, only to be stranded in a government hotel room that they then have to pay for themselves. “My boss told me if I couldn’t afford it, then I could quit,” one exasperated fellow Brit told me. He paid 8000rmb (£960) for a flight back during his Mum going through chemotherapy because of pressure from his employer.
But the flipside of callous workplace overlords is the vibrant, community-serving soul of the vast majority of Chinese people I know. Like my building staff, who once again warmed my heart today: the trash collecting volunteers, who are all at least 60, were endlessly patient and smiling while I fumbled with my mask and asked questions about recycling. I heard them praising my Mandarin as I closed the door.
A new guard spent 40 minutes locating a misplaced package that my kindly neighbour told him about, since I can’t leave the house and didn’t have his WeChat. “No problem, no problem,” he waved away my grovelling thanks. “I’m sorry it’s been stuck there so long.”
It’s probably unethical to think nostalgically of times like this, but I somehow suspect I will.