As the pandemic continues to develop and the state of Colorado grapples with its spread, those of us who are US nationals living in China have acquired a unique perspective. Having been in the country where the outbreak first took hold, we were among the first to face the dramatic effects of a nationwide lockdown.
Now, as China returns to normal, hearing the accounts of family and friends back home seems like a flashback to the bizarre early weeks of the crisis we experienced here.
I am a Colorado native who has been living in Shanghai for almost a year while pursuing a master’s degree at Fudan University. When the first reports emerged of a novel virus outbreak in Wuhan, it appeared distant even from the well-connected transport hub of Shanghai.
As the disease progressed, however, a mood of fear and foreboding came to loom over the city. Businesses, schools, and universities, which had been preparing to resume operations from the country’s lunar New Year holiday, announced their indefinite closure.
Before long, China had come to a standstill. I made the decision to return home to the United States in early February, where I would carry out a two-week period of self-isolation in my family’s home in Denver.
My flight from Shanghai departed in the early morning after a surreal, sleepless, and stormy night. Reports had just surfaced that Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who had attempted to trigger the alarm in the outbreak’s early stages but was instead silenced by local authorities, had succumbed to the very disease he had dedicated his final weeks to fighting.
Despite the best efforts of online censors, Dr. Li had been lionized by Chinese netizens over the weeks preceding his death, and his tragic demise sparked one of the country’s largest public outpourings of dissent and frustration in recent decades.
The flood of messages expressing posthumous support and remorse for the plight of the Wuhan doctor proved too much for internet regulators to control. As I boarded my flight and left Shanghai, I felt as though the disease, and perhaps even the country, had reached a pivotal turning point.
COVID-19 soon spread across the world, and so too did the panic. Borders slammed shut, transportation networks skidded to a halt, and governments around the world scrambled to design and implement an effective response. Political blame games erupted, concerned shoppers hoarded supplies, and thousands of lives were lost. Meanwhile, despite their initial failures, authorities and health workers in China were gradually bringing the outbreak under control.
Upon returning to Shanghai one month later, I was impressed by the expansive and meticulous system that had since been implemented in order to process all individuals arriving from abroad.
My itinerary took me through Japan, which at the time was regarded by Chinese immigration authorities as a key affected country, and accordingly I was required to take additional precautions. A yellow label was affixed to my passport, stipulating that I must undergo a two-week period of self-isolation. After a series of medical and document checks, passengers were sorted by municipal district and told to await official transport to our respective homes.
In the time that had elapsed during my absence, the city had been transformed. Through the window of the coach, I gazed out at businesses and narrow lanes that had been barren and lifeless just weeks before, but which now bustled with masked residents going about their daily errands.
The roads pulsed with the familiar traffic that I had grown accustomed to in this metropolis. My ride into Shanghai from the airport left me with the impression that the city, if not returned to complete normality, had begun to stage a remarkable comeback.
Over the following days I came to develop a routine within my strict administrative confines, which I found to be an indispensible strategy for maintaining sanity and achieving a decent level of productivity. My mornings, which had previously been punctuated by the laughs and shouts of a raucous crowd of students assembling for school near my building, were markedly silent.
The days were spent primarily on my flat’s enclosed balcony, which I had repurposed as a home office in order to maximize intake of fresh air and sun. In the evenings, I cooked dinner with phone-ordered groceries and made video calls to catch up with family and friends.
One of the unseen benefits of this present moment is that it provides us all with an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones whom, in the midst of our normally busy schedules, we have not been able to speak with enough. Calamitous global crises such as the one we are now collectively enduring, tragic though they are, can also serve to reinforce the bonds that link us together and remind us of life’s most precious qualities.
Could it be that in this surreal moment, with half of humanity living in isolation, we are actually closer to one another than before?
At last, however, the wait was over. Walking through my neighborhood on the first day following the end of my isolation period was a rejuvenating yet strange experience. I felt a profound sense of relief at my newfound mobility, as well as a cautious elation at the subdued buzz that was undoubtedly becoming apparent in the streets surrounding my building.
Spring in Shanghai is particularly beautiful this year. Accompanying the usual blossoms, buds and welcome warm breezes is a collective release of energy, stifled by our mutual insulation for so long.
The seasonal changes mirror our own yearning for the better days that will inevitably come. Because the global battle against COVID-19 remains far from over, moments of monotony and despair will not dissipate — so we must collectively endeavor to learn from them.
As our lives gradually return to the normalcy we once took for granted, I will strive to remember the valuable perspectives I attained in quarantine.
Peter Catterall is a Colorado native attending school in Shanghai, China. He grew up in Douglas County.