Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Countries

Watching the world burn from afar…for the second time.

My coronavirus panic started as China’s Lunar New Year approached in late January. The week-long holiday was, traditionally, the world’s largest travel season, with migrants returning to their hometowns. But celebrations were halted, metropolises locked down. The city of Wuhan, alongside other epicenters of the outbreak, were under quarantine—authorities shut down public transportations and closed highways to prevent the virus from spreading elsewhere.

As the U.S. announced entry restrictions on travelers from China, airline companies canceled routes between the two countries. My Chinese friends and I watched infection numbers surge in Hubei province; we reached out to our families every day, checking in to see if they were healthy and safe. I made numerous donations to fundraisers, hoping doctors and nurses would have access to protective gear.

Panicked, I ordered the last available surgical masks I could find on Amazon Prime, shipping them to my family in Beijing. Back in January, “it’s just like the flu” was still a mainstream opinion in America. To my friends in the U.S., my trepidation seemed irrational and somewhat unfounded. 

The problem, we realized, wasn’t how deadly the virus was—but rather, when infected patients had to line up outside fever clinics, medical facilities no longer had the capacity for treatment. We had friends in Wuhan who couldn’t get adequate food; we heard anecdotes of people dying in their homes because they didn’t have access to hospital beds; we followed health workers on the front line, some of whom would eventually give up their lives. My grandmother did not leave her Beijing apartment for months, knowing how vulnerable her age group was. We knew it was nothing like influenza.

But to most in the West, China was a faraway country that only existed on maps and in news headlines. The experiences of Chinese people in Wuhan and elsewhere—their tears and corpses, wounds and trauma—were so distant, that there was not a remote possibility that the same could happen to people across the Pacific Ocean.

The virus was foreign. Stories of Chinese people eating bats went viral, though neither did any evidence confirm the link, nor are bats a common delicacy in China. The association of the coronavirus with Chinese people led to violence and aggression against East Asians in the West—many of these stories happened to my own friends. President Donald Trump insisted on using the words “Chinese virus,” in an effort to provoke the Chinese government, but that backfired on Asian communities in America.

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said in his Oval Office address on March 11. “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States.” His measures focused on closing borders with Europe, though COVID-19 was already spreading within communities in America.

My two worlds, separated by borders and ideologies, are now more interconnected than ever.”

Media highlighted China’s initial coverups of the epidemic and its punishment of medical workers who alerted the public. Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist who leaked information about the virus before the eventual outbreak, was detained and questioned by police. He later tested positive for the virus and passed away. Yet as the coverage focused on Beijing’s political screw-ups—most were, admittedly, valid criticisms—many fell into the fallacy that with a transparent, democratic system, outbreaks would be easily contained.

But the foreign, authoritarian virus didn’t turn out to be more sympathetic to democracies. As China recovered from the outbreak, with few new symptomatic domestic infections every day, the U.S. didn’t learn lessons from China’s early-stage butchering. From late January to mid-March, the U.S. public, repeatedly assured by the Trump administration, did little to prepare for an impending pandemic.

The day before Trump’s Oval Office address, I decided to leave the U.S. early for China. What would otherwise have been a 13-hour direct flight became a long, exhausting journey—I flew from Boston to Toronto, and then to Beijing, where I waited at the airport for hours for inspections, before I was released for a 14-day mandatory home quarantine.

As the number of cases rose exponentially on Johns Hopkins’ coronavirus tracker, I watched another outbreak unfold from afar—only this time with a sense of déja vu. I ordered surgical masks, now back in supply, and was ready to ship them to America. I looked for fundraisers and charities, this time in the US. I worry about my friends and family on the other side of the globe, who are now in quarantine.

In an unexpected way, my two worlds, separated by borders and ideologies, are now more interconnected than ever. Or perhaps, it’s precisely the imagined frontiers of an isolated foreign world that led us to this day.