Sam E Lewis
One year on from the first time I read about the Coronavirus
Sat at my desk at work one cold 6th January morning in Hangzhou, China, I took out my phone to read the headlines of The Times newspaper. About halfway down the Home page I stopped to read an article titled‘Chinese city admits mystery ‘pneumonia’ virus outbreak’. Turning to my colleagues to read some of the story, one who’d lived in the country for some years laughed, ‘only in China’. Thankfully, I thought, the Chinese authorities would be on it.
17 days later, on 23nd January Hubei, the province containing Wuhan, was stunningly shut-down in what was considered an excessive but timely response. The Lunar New Year, scheduled for Saturday 25th January was fast approaching, a time when hundreds of millions from cities across China head back to their laojia or old home in order to gather with family and celebrate as we in the West might over Christmas. Many predicted that because the lockdown had come into force before the New Year, the virus wouldn’t spread. The problem was, the school term had finished on Friday 17th January, and in Wuhan, this was closely followed by an event allowed by the local authorities on 18th January where 40,000 families gathered for an annual banquet where they shared home cooked food. I remember distinctly that the city I was in, Hangzhou, was almost deserted from 20th January onwards, as if families had already packed up to head back to the countryside to visit relatives. If the same phenomenon had been the case in Wuhan, then 22nd January was at least two days too late.
Fast forward a week and I was lying in bed with my then girlfriend scrolling through the news of what was fast becoming a very scary story. Hangzhou was feared to be locked down soon, and the streets of every major city were empty. The few people on the mostly deserted metro were all wearing face masks, and there was a terrible, almost apocalyptic sense of stillness in the air. She turned to me every few minutes to show me new pictures and videos which had been sent to a WeChat group she was in – groups we were told by the CCP were spreading misinformation. One I remember showed someone clad in medical kit from head to toe, saying if you wanted to see family for Lunar New Year in 2021, you had to take this virus seriously. By the estimation of the woman in the video, over 90,000 people had the virus at this point in late January. This at the time when the Chinese authorities claimed the country only had a few thousand cases. Even now the official figures coming out of China state there have only been just over 87,000 in the whole country over the course of the pandemic. Most recent estimates suggest that even with China’s success in containing the virus, over 500,000people in Wuhan alone may have antibodies, confirming what many have suspected all along, that China hasn’t told the entire truth about the virus’ initial extent.
At the time, being slightly sceptical of what I saw on social media to begin with, I brushed off my Korean girlfriend’s growing concern – I only mention her nationality because her response versus mine was an accurate forecast of how seriously our respective nations initially took the virus. We tried to get out every day, walking everywhere in order to avoid enclosed spaces. We even went to what had become a deserted West Lake, usually thronging with tourists, on a most relaxing, crisp, beautiful January morning.
It’s clear to me now that as soon as Wuhan was locked down, the Chinese population took the virus seriously. Indeed, looking back, I realise I was the one that trusted the Chinese Government’s announcements too much, and in turn the WHO’s announcements too. Westerners in general took what the Chinese Government said at face value (think Donald Trump in January praising President Xi Jinping, or the initially lackadaisical approach of our own Government). Whereas Chinese people instinctively wore masks almost straight away, I didn't because there was such vastly different information about their efficacy.
It doesn’t surprise me China was able to contain on this virus. Not only is the population fairly obedient, but in Chinese cities, most people live within apartment buildings in neighbourhoods that have only three entry and exit points. As such, movement can be tightly controlled. Before I left the country to head back to the UK (for visa purposes more so than because of the virus), whenever I went in and out of my neighbourhood a temperature gun was pointed at my head. Once when I’d run down the stairs, I even had to wait for my temperature to go down before they allowed me out to visit the shops.
Wuhan opened up once again in early April, and so did most of the other cities in China. The suffering of the Chinese people during these few months should not be underestimated and we should admire their courage in following the harsh lockdowns that were initially considered human rights violations by the typically understated New York Times. Unlike the UK, for example, during February and March, there were few exceptions to the rules - people weren’t even allowed out to exercise.
However, we mustn’t forget who caused this suffering to begin with, both in China, and around the world. It was not the Chinese people, who not for the first time in their history have borne a terrible brunt because their leaders have been too scared of losing face. No, it was those that lulled the West into a false sense of security. It was those that have since, done everything they can to obfuscate the truth about the origins of the pandemic. It was those that screamed racism when anyone referred to the virus as the Wuhan flu despite the fact the State controlled Chinese media continue to call a different virus that had decimated their pork industry in recent years African Swine Fever. We mustn’t let them get away with it.