This is my translation of a social media narrative posted by someone living through the COVID-2019 outbreak in China. The original author is “Qian Wan” (a pseudonym.)
I originally translated this thinking it could become part of a group project, but logistical difficulties prevented them from using it, so I’m publishing it here. Anything I’m unsure of is marked like this.
This is an account of daily life in a rural county seat in Jiangxi Province, China, under the shadow of the COVID-2019 outbreak. No cases have been confirmed, but the popular sentiment is one of anxiety. It is in such moments that we most want to maintain empathy, for in the face of this crisis all people are feeling a shock to their spirits. No single element can exist separately from the whole.
Ultimately, the village entrance was closed to visitors.
On February 1st, in Jiangxi Province, the county seat where my hometown lies finally entered a state of high alert. It had been twelve days since Zhong Nanshan – the epidemiologist and Chinese Academy of Engineering member who led the fight against SARS in 2003 – said that the novel coronavirus had demonstrated human-to-human transmission. It had been nine days since Wuhan, a city of eleven million, was declared to be on lockdown.
An image of the checkpoint, with a banner that reads: “Those arriving in this village are asked to turn back along their original route.”
Driving quickly, we arrived to find that the blockade line had been set up in front of my maternal grandmother’s house. I got off the scooter and took the initiative, advancing forward to ask the inspectors, distinguished by red armbands, how to register to enter the village. Looking at the chair and table, which had likely been taken from the village’s elementary school, I saw a document densely covered with names and numerals – but couldn’t make anything out. The material had probably been used during questioning. To one side was a gray thermometer gun, which would measure a person’s body heat when pressed to one ear.
The man sitting there didn’t want to pay attention to us, and wouldn’t say a word, but the one who was standing waved a hand at me to indicate that we could go in. This was as I expected. Even in a time of crisis, the countryside was a place where social relations could not be completely ignored. Though they didn’t know me personally, a few sentences letting them know that I was related to the village’s foremost family1 were enough to let me pass.
My grandmother was waiting for me in the courtyard, one hand propped on her cane.
The company I work for had given everyone an early start to the national holiday, so on January 21st my mother and I took the high-speed train home.
By that point, I had already heard news about the “pneumonia,” but it was yet to be confirmed, and there was no vigilance. I brought two face masks with me from Shanghai, and gave one to my mother. Once she saw that in the station waiting room the number of people wearing was much greater than in previous days, she wore hers for a while, but after boarding the train she stuffed it in her coat pocket, saying she wasn’t used to wearing one. I wore my own disposable mask from the moment we left home, during the whole journey of four or five hours: on the high-speed train, on the slower train, and on the electric scooter from the county train station. Only later, while browsing the web, did I realize I’d worn the mask backwards, with the white side outward. More susceptible to bacteria when used incorrectly.
At that time, my relatives at home were still not aware of the earth-shattering news of the epidemic. As I set foot on the threshold of the house, and saw my family before me, I took off the mask, suddenly not wanting them to think that fussy urbanites were making a big deal out of a little illness.
On January 23rd, the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve, I got a call from my cousin who works in a neighboring town’s government. On previous New Years, she’d mostly talked about how to meet target indicators for poverty reduction, but this year she was anxious and sincere. I could almost see her eyebrows knitted together as she said, “You’d do best to stay home. I’m not kidding.”
We exchanged news, from which I learned it had been discovered that a doctor from a neighboring village had secretly traveled home from Hubei. Even the doctor’s family hadn’t known. As a suspected infection case, the doctor had been quarantined for observation. “If the case is confirmed, I’ll get no rest at all during the New Year’s celebrations.”
The next day2, I made a trip to the supermarket in town to buy some drinks for our New Year’s Eve feast. The tradition is to start New Year’s Eve by feasting at my paternal grandmother’s house with that side of the family before paying a call to my mother’s side. Originally, we all lived in the same county, and the two families were within walking distance, but ever since my maternal grandmother insisted on moving to the countryside, they’ve been 8 kilometers apart.
Thinking back to yesterday, when I saw there was no soap in my grandmother’s bathroom, I picked up several bottles while doing my shopping. On the way back, I passed a pharmacy, and entered to ask, “Do you have any masks left?” A clerk in a white gown, who wasn’t wearing a mask, walked over from the cash registers and said, “There are three gauze masks left. Want them?”
Taking one off the shelf to have a look, I saw they were 3 RMB each. Light red lettering on the thin plastic wrapper explained that the mask was made from 24 layers of gauze. However, I could clearly see the mesh inside it, and thought that if spittle flew out while talking, the mask definitely wouldn’t block it. Seeing my hesitation, the clerk added, “The other masks sold out a few days ago. People were scrambling to buy them.”
It seemed not everyone had been as hesitant as my relatives.
While paying, I also bought a few bottles of alcohol spray. On my way home, I ran into my aunt as she was returning from the food market, and gave her one of the bottles. She gave the transparent bottle a curious look, but took it, and said she’d use it.
Meanwhile, as Wuhan went into lockdown, the news which could be found daily on the Internet was enough to make the situation seem hopeless. Some predicted that the epidemic would be ten times bigger than SARS.
My strongest memory from the SARS epidemic was of my grandmother’s living room, not larger than ten square meters, with a stove burning to make vinegar fumes (for warding off disease.) On the TV screen, Hu Jintao was making a speech. The stench of vinegar penetrated my nose; my grandmother told me to bear with it a bit longer.
In a WeChat group, my cousin began to share with me the “prohibitions”: no paying visits, not even as part of New Year tradition; no gathering for feasts; no playing mahjong. But my mother and I “circulated” every day. We’d ride in another family member’s car to go visit my grandmother. “It’s safe to ride with someone we know, isn’t it? We won’t meet anyone, anyway.”
When we saw people on the village streets, the majority were not wearing masks. How could it be otherwise? Masks were sold out everywhere.
My cousin said that they planned to hang banners with slogans in the towns and villages, to warn and admonish “circulators” like me. I sent her a picture I’d seen on WeChat of a banner hung high above the entrance to a street in a northwestern city: “Paying New Year visits is harmful. Gathering to feast is deadly.” I asked them to choose more elegant sentences if they hung banners themselves.
An image of a banner at the mouth of a road, which reads: “Do not pay visits, do not assemble in groups, do not gather for feasts. A healthy year is a fortunate year!” A sign below the banner reads: “Entry to the village is forbidden for non-locals.”
Naturally, the customary visits and feasting for the second day of the New Year were canceled. On the fifth day of the New Year, there was a disturbance in the village; I heard my mother, aunt, and uncle discussing it after dinner. Through family ties, the person at the center of the scandal could be considered my maternal grandmother’s nephew. We originally planned not to tell my grandmother — it was inauspicious for such a scandal to occur, and for someone to be detained by the police, in the first month of the New Year — but she found out anyway. I saw her sitting on the sofa, massaging her eyes with a chapped right hand.
The scandal had to do with the epidemic. The police wanted to commandeer an area of the town to serve as a checkpoint, where they could advise people coming home for the holiday to turn back. The nephew, who was drunk that day, stubbornly refused the police their request. In addition to preventing them from establishing their position, he also assaulted the officers. He was quickly carried off.
My cousin was on the vanguard. She had been on-call 24/7 since the day before New Year’s Eve. Several key departments partitioned the area into zones, inside which the responsible department would take stock of residents’ health conditions, and their movements from place to place. Under the strict orders of the Propaganda, Education, and Administration Departments, citizens could not be complacent3. One of the painstaking exhortations was “do not use WeChat to share information about the novel coronavirus which has not been officially confirmed.”
The suspected case was confirmed to be uninfected. My cousin breathed a sigh of relief.
However, it was said that in a neighboring county, a monk had traveled back from Hubei Province, and invited several tables’ worth of guests to dine in the temple before the Lunar New Year. Among the guests were a mother and child from our county. It turned out that the monk was infected with the coronavirus, so all who had attended the meal that day were classified as “having had close contact.”
The mother and child lived in an area at the center of the county seat’s operations. If the virus had indeed spread, it was close at hand. This sent everyone into a state of fear.
My aunt half-believed in Buddhism, and on the second day of the New Year she would normally visit the temple to worship. Before the New Year arrived, she heard that the temple was temporarily closed due to the epidemic. This didn’t get her down, though. This year she prayed through her cell phone, and lit incense “in the cloud.”
I discovered that, every day during the holiday break, after going to bed my mother spent at least two hours on the phone before falling asleep. In addition, when she woke each day, she would look at real-time data on the epidemic, then tell us the number of new cases, or the latest news from Zhejiang and Shanghai.
I overheard the discussions of those around me. “That Hubei monk is evil for inflicting suffering on so many.” “Those guests were foolish to share a meal during such extraordinary times.” “At least so-and-so’s family, who live in Hubei, didn’t come back to celebrate this year. They would have been dangerous.”
Sometimes those remarks made me uncomfortable, but I understood that those who said such things weren’t really afraid of Hubei, nor were they discriminating against outsiders. They wanted to convey the fact that there were some things they couldn’t understand. Why Wuhan? Why Hubei? Why had the infection appeared? Why was its scope so vast, to the point that now everything seemed out of control?
For a decade, there had only been small changes in my hometown.
In the whole county there were only five supermarkets and one Xinhua bookstore. There was no high-speed rail station, no KFC, no McDonald’s, no Starbucks. The largest change in recent years was that two privately-owned movie theaters opened for business. Because of the epidemic, the theaters had been closed indefinitely.
Even as a child, I often thought that my hometown had gotten old all at once. It wasn’t like Shanghai, where on every block, year after year, the storefronts changed like the cells of the city regenerating, and new landmarks and buildings were being constructed all over. When there were changes in this country, they were slower to reach my hometown than anywhere else.
Nevertheless, the state of alert in response to the epidemic had been reached rapidly, within days. Unlike the neglectful Red Cross, the machinery of government had shown within days that it controlled its force with utmost care, and was able to rapidly extend its tentacles to the poorest of regions.
By February 1st, all roads connecting the county seat to the countryside had been blocked by barriers or parked cars. Checkpoints for entering and exiting the city set up stations urging people to turn back. Every district had posted notices with calligraphy done on red paper, which read, “Those who are not residents of this district may not enter.” On February 3rd, the roadblocks were strengthened, and more supervisory personnel were added. My mother and I went out, only to turn and head back home.
All eyes were on Wuhan, but it was not only Wuhan that was on lockdown. My rural hometown was, rapidly yet invisibly, carrying out measures more thorough than those of Shanghai.
The development of this state of affairs into its present condition irreversibly put the whole country in a state of anxiety, from the bottom up. It was a great force shaking the foundations of a delicate pagoda, damaging its roof and destroying its walls. But after a period of time, if the pagoda has not collapsed, it will pass into legend. Only on the verge of collapse did I see people finally begin to frantically crave reading the news, as earnestly as if they were reading a survival guide.
In this little country town, though there are still no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, I cannot rejoice. Each day is hemmed in by fear. Nobody can escape these times.
第一家. Given the comment on social relations, I took this to mean “the foremost family,” i.e. a family with significant standing in the village. Am I correct? Or is this to be taken literally, e.g. “the first family (beyond the barricade)”?↩
隔天. Is this “the next/second/following day”, similar to 第二天? Or does it mean “two days later”, similar to 后天?↩
在对市民的宣传、教育、管理的指令下，也毫不松懈. I’m rather uncertain about this sentence.↩