China Dairy: Life in the time of Corona

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“Don’t panic!” The two-word immortal life lesson from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has come to my rescue when it matters the most. At a time, when the novel coronavirus pandemic and the usual info-demic associated with it, unleashed a reign of fear psychosis in my mind as well as the people around me, my hesitant mind and hapless soul, while staying put in the Chinese capital of Beijing and 1000-odd kilometre away from the epicentre of Wuhan, had no other option but to remember the comforting words from the Douglas Adams cult in order to thwart the ever-dangerous panic-demic.

The Early Days of Ignorance

Believe it or not, it was life as usual for most of us in Beijing until the third week of January. Even though the reports of the sporadic outbreak of a SARS-like mystery virus in the provincial capital of Hubei started trickling through the city’s firewalls in early January, the celebratory countdown for the biggest jamboree in the Chinese calendar, the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival prevailed over our unsuspecting mind. With the entire ‘Middle Kingdom’ and the city in its middle, despite silently detaining and reprimanding Li Wenliang and seven of his fellow doctors for prognostically blowing the whistle of a potential pestilence, gearing up for welcoming the Year of Rat, Chunyun or the biggest human migration for the Spring Festivals was already underway.

Crackdown over Corona

The closure of Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which virtually sold the meat of everything that has four legs but not a chair, everything that flies but not an aeroplane and everything that swims but not a submarine raised the alarm but once the number of deceased or the increasing numbers of infected persons both in China and outside the country started percolating to mainstream media, all hell broke loose on January 23. With the majority of the Beijingers heading homewards to spend the new year with their near and dear ones and leaving the city almost deserted, the Chinese top leadership officially cracked the whip, putting Wuhan and several other cities in Hubei province on complete lockdown. Incidentally, the same day saw a special Indian Republic Day reception, hosted by the Indian Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, and was attended by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui as the Chief Guest along with a slew of top diplomats from many countries, including the US and Russia in attendance. That lavish luncheon with a sumptuous Indian buffet was probably the last public gathering that many of us in the Chinese capital attended before going into the government-guided self-imposed en masse quarantine.

Masks became the national armour against the wrath of a never-seen-before virus strain while the hazmat-clad doctors and their support staff became the vanguards of an ailing nation. Thermal scanning also became one of the first lines of defence for the administration with almost every residential complex, each of Beijing’s 400-odd subway (metro) stations and the handful of operational offices, banks, convenience stores, supermarkets and shopping malls admitting people based on their body temperature

Melancholy and the Indefinite Sadness

Thereafter, it has been an experience that can better be described as unsettlingunnerving, and uncertain. Life has come to a sudden standstill in the most populous nation on earth. The number of infected has been multiplying manifold while death tolls have been rising thick and fast. Wuhan, the burgeoning Chinese metropolis that came into prominence with the headline-grabbing heart-to-heart summit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was back in hogging the global limelight with its heart-wrenching tragedies and its appalling transformation into an apocalyptic necropolis.

I have witnessed and undergone the largest mass quarantine and sanitizing exercise in human history. A mass seclusion and sanitization process kept us safe, sound and secured. If Wuhan and several cities of Hubei were put into a state of large-scale lazaretto, the rest of China, including Beijing, were placed under a self-quarantine phase through a repeatedly extended Spring Festival holidays.

World’s Largest Medical Emergency Mission

Even though the world’s largest student and the working-class population kept under a residential recluse with the schools, colleges and most of the offices being shut down for a longer period, the deserted public places, remaining functional offices and the massive public transport system along with a slew of convenience and grocery stores being kept open to give the capital its much-needed lifeline in a medically menacing time. Masks became the national armour against the wrath of a never-seen-before virus strain while the hazmat-clad doctors and their support staff became the vanguards of an ailing nation. Thermal scanning also became one of the first lines of defence for the administration with almost every residential complex, each of Beijing’s 400-odd subway (metro) stations and the handful of operational offices, banks, convenience stores, supermarkets and shopping malls admitting people based on their body temperature.

Coronavirus outbreak china health beijing wuhan medical emergency
A Chinese policeman interacts with a family. Credit: Yahoo Finance

 The ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), the world’s largest political behemoth with its highest number of members, efficiently mobilized its committed cadres and dedicated volunteers to one of the biggest peacetime countrywide emergency operations ever. The party’s well-oiled publicity and communications machinery quite swiftly played a pivotal role in preventing panic and pandemonium through precautionary pamphlets, posters, and publications both online and on-site in a praiseworthy precision, covering every precinct in their remarkable outreach.

 WeChat and Wistful Us

Meanwhile, WeChat, China’s most popular multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment APP has come to our rescue while being stranded in an extraordinary situation. We have not only remained in touch with our friends, fellow expats, and the Indian Embassy through the WeChat groups and direct messages but kept ourselves updated and well-apprised of the extraordinary circumstances around us. In fact, the Tencent APP helped the Embassy to reach out to the panic-stricken, high and dry Indians in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei before they were evacuated back to Delhi in an emphatically intricate process, apart from sending us regular updates and safety notifications.

On a personal front, being at the right place at the right time (mentally not quite right though), has already made me a sought after on-the-ground reporting face and an accessible free-of-cost talking head for many news channels. However, much to my surprise, while busting many frivolous rumours about the pathogenic pandemic and blabbering about the situation with a brave face, I also saw myself being on-air as a victim with visuals of my parents shedding tears for my well-being and dramatically holding my photographs. Yes, sentiment and emotion sell on Indian television while I have been staying put here (as if I have an option to leave my job and rush back to India) with another motivational pearl of wisdom from the Hitchhikers. “Protect me from knowing what I don’t need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don’t know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decided not to know about. Amen.”

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