April 2020 Volume 16

COVID-19 Report from Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Glendon Thompson
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KCOB Survived Lock-down in China

My apartment complex in Hangzhou is snuggled between lush green hills and a lake, high enough to see the morning clouds at eye level.

My first encounter with COVID-19 was when I was refused entry into my apartment complex after visiting Chengdu in Sichuan. The speed which the government acted with the lockdown left many people literally caught in the cold. The control by the State was more evident than I have ever noticed since first travelling to China in 2005.

I got into my complex that night, before the 24-hour full lock-down was imposed. As with a lot of the people, confusion, frustration, and a little anger was my initial response. Looking around at my neighbors, I noticed that they had been notified in Mandarin. My lack of fluent Mandarin forced me to observer my neighbors more than I usually do. The neighbors had accepted the government’s edicts: wear masks, stay indoors, no large gatherings, and restricted travel to danger areas. Almost to a person the people were supportive of the government’s actions even if they considered these actions a little late and a little too restrictive.

My four weeks in quarantine were unstructured and therefore my days ran together. So I remember it as a flow, not a day by day log.

The first week was more a mixture of fear and rumor. The netizens became a little less fearful as more accurate information was released as the government analyzed the spread of the disease. A close Chinese friend of mine kept me abreast of the updates. The doctor who raised the alarm about COVID-19 contracted the disease and died. The people now had a martyr. The central government fired the officials who did not act on the doctor’s alarm, quelling the public relations nightmare. The people seemed to accept the government as not being perfect and followed the safety instructions to the letter. After all it was the Chinese New Year when extended families got together and visited crowded festivities. A fixture in Chinese culture, long before the first emperor of China formalized the traditional New Year and Lantern Festivals in 221 BC. The enormous negative economic and social impact was obvious and may have weighed on the many minds of many decision makers as the virus looked like the common cold or flu. The anger towards the government was brief, China was under attack and the people had a martyr and a government they believed in as a fallible family member.

Week two brought about subtle changes as I saw it. The ever-present mistrust of foreigners began to deepen stoked by conspiracy theories going viral online. I thought only a madman would start a biological war. I pretended to not know any Mandarin and heard the phrase for “go away!” To me the fear of the virus was more damaging than the virus itself. With evidence that the virus started in trade of wildlife, the government banned the trade in wildlife. All the people I spoke to were in agreement with the ban. By the end of the second week the psychological strain on the public was evident punctuated by primal screams from a female neighbor living alone.

By week three China’s largest tech companies in Hangzhou and Shenzhen developed an app which would give you a green healthy QR code if you have not visited a COVID-19 sensitive zone. Your phone is tracked. This green healthy code is required for entry into groceries, hospitals, work and other non-quarantined areas.

At week four the travel restriction became more relaxed, shut down and the conspiracy theories began their viral infection on social media platforms. Chinese netizens also began creating quite funny short videos. The people showed resilience and had private parties celebrating the double millennium-old family festivals.

So far, a few things stand out for me during the COVID-19 crisis: the remarkable construction of the 1,000 bed COVID-19 hospital in 10 days; the unified way the public respectfully responded to the government’s directions; the eerie silence in cities of millions where prior to this were noisy, bustling and crowded. The general mutual support and respectful interaction between the people was heartwarming to see. They were going to get through it together.

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