Like many others, I was toasting the New Year with wine, food and fireworks, when Chinese health authorities announced they were investigating a novel coronavirus.
By the time I returned to Beijing nearly two weeks later, a massive story was brewing, but no one was prepared for how quickly the outbreak would escalate.
Many Chinese were not aware a new disease was spreading, nor did they realise the severity of the situation until the central city of Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre, was suddenly locked down.
Until then, local officials had messaged normalcy, allowing banquets and political meetings to go on. In retrospect, the government knew more at this point than they let on.
This is to be expected with emerging infections, as experts race to learn more about the disease. But China’s track record of covering up problems, as it did during Sars, gave the public reason to be wary over whether authorities were disclosing the full picture – especially as the numbers ticked steadily upward.
It didn’t help that I was reporting agonising stories about families turned away from already-overwhelmed hospitals, with some losing loved ones to what doctors strongly hinted was the coronavirus. But those people were never tested for the virus and not included in the official count.
And disease modelling experts were estimating thousands more infections than Chinese authorities had reported.
The scale of the outbreak was clearly greater than what the government tally reflected, but to what degree? Was it purposefully being played down, or was this a capacity issue? Those unknowns seeded worry – without knowing what we were up against, it was difficult to protect ourselves.
When on the road chasing stories, my colleagues and I took as many precautions as we could – alcohol wipes, gloves, face masks, hand gels, soap leaves, disinfectant sprays, goggles. I hand-washed my clothes each night, and fell into a daily routine of disinfecting my belongings – wiping down my bag, devices and shoes.
A young doctor working at a designated coronavirus hospital told me he was scared for his country, and worried about what would happen next. Some delivery drivers said they didn’t want to courier takeout orders to medical facilities. For others, their biggest gripes were about empty grocery shelves.
In between interviews, I scoured shops for more face masks and hand gels – we had some, but not enough for what was evidently becoming the long haul. Nearly everything was sold out.
By now, much of the country had closed down – shops shuttered, public transport links axed, and roadblocks going up. Then, commercial flights started getting cancelled and governments installed restrictions for travellers coming through China – including the US, where I’m from.
Things were moving so rapidly, I was never quite sure what to think. Frantic family and friends urging me to leave China made me wonder if I should be more panicked. I wrote back that it was my job to stay, reminding them I was fortunately young and healthy. I was concerned, but I didn’t want them to worry too much.
At one point, I had to shut my phone off as messages alternated between the logistics of sourcing hazmat suits for immediate use and bridesmaid dresses for a friend’s wedding this summer. The coronavirus was spreading rapidly in China, but life was still going on elsewhere. It was too surreal to square in my head.
When ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, 34, died of the virus in early February, I – along with many others – felt devastated. After being punished weeks earlier by police for warning about a new disease, the whistleblower doctor’s death led to an outpouring of anger and grief over how the government had handled the outbreak.
Exhausted from clocking 20-hour days while on the road, Mr Li’s death tipped me over the edge. Someone my age had died from the virus, and the anguished public response from an entire country throbbing in pain was overwhelming.
What helped ease a sense of calm is how quickly scientists seem to be making new discoveries, advancing our knowledge and understanding of the virus. Vaccine trials are beginning.
It has been frustrating to live and to report in China as more curbs come down – special passes to get in and out of housing and office compounds; temperature checks to enter the grocery market; self-quarantine restrictions after travel.
I was reprimanded for having friends over for dinner. So many people I know have left China over virus worries, and these days it’s frowned upon to entertain the remaining few. On a recent date, we had to sit diagonally from each other – one person per table.
But these are the methods the Chinese government have chosen to implement – it’s an outbreak in their home, and they get to call the shots.
As I’m often on the road, it’s been refreshing to stay in one place for a while. Beijing has a unique charm, even when deserted in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic. I’ve tried new recipes, explored near-empty parks, and researched stock picks as the markets tank.
A debate is raging over whether the Chinese acted soon enough, and what impact their response time has had on the virus spreading globally.
While officials do appear to have bungled their initial response, when the machine kicked into gear, things happened very quickly. China seems to have turned a corner – if you believe the propaganda – boosting optimism that the worst is over.
I’m disappointed a public health emergency has become so politicised – first by Beijing, when they railed against countries for evacuating citizens and cutting flights; later by the World Health Organisation, which appeared to delay declaring a global health emergency perhaps to stay in China’s good graces; and now by other governments, even in countries with far more robust healthcare systems than the Chinese.
There’s also an ugly side revealed with a sobering dose of discrimination and racism as the infection cluster has moved from Asia to Europe.
Still, governments grappling with the virus should remember they have the added bonus of learning from the Chinese, and can tweak their own responses.
Take the health risk seriously, even if the restrictions crimp your normal habits. If you’re young and healthy, remember your elderly relatives are less so, and everything you do or don’t do could impact their well-being.
No need to panic, or panic buy. Leave some on the shelf for others, who need supplies as well. Take the downtime to bust through those neglected chores – re-pot the plants, do your taxes.
And be mindful about basic precautions, such as not touching your face and washing your hands regularly. The rest of the world knows far more about the virus and thus is much better prepared to defend against it than China was to start.
As infections have spread outside China into neighbourhoods where I have family, friends and colleagues, we’re all in the same boat – learning to live with a new normal and trying to find a bit of humour in what’s really a rather humourless situation.
Armed with my antibacterial wipes and gels, I’m trying to take solace that it won’t be forever – it’s just for now.