A South African’s Covid-19 experience in China

The coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the world forced the Chinese to make drastic changes to their daily lives. A South African who was there to see it unfold shares her experience.

The last normal day. 23 January. It was the night that the ballet, The Nutcracker, was playing at a little theatre in Nanjing’s city centre. It was also the first time, in two years of living in China, that I decided to wear a mask. 

Two days prior, the coronavirus death toll reported out of Hubei province, Wuhan, had leapt from three to 17 and infections sat at 550. Such numbers would have many a newsroom perk its ears: natural disaster, landslide, earthquake, volcano, flood. Loss of life. Virus.

On the day of our Nutcracker excursion, in the old Nanking, a three-hour journey by speed train from Wuhan, and site of the Japanese massacre of World War II, infections were at 25. No deaths. A group of us travelled by subway to the city centre. The city was quiet, not strangely so, as many would have departed for the Lunar Year holiday, the greatest human migration in the world, reportedly consisting of more than three billion journeys.

That night the Russian ballet company pranced and pirouetted to a masked audience. In the next row a little boy sat on the edge of his seat throughout the performance, his eyes transfixed, his face veiled in surgical fabric. The bohemian pleasures of art, beauty, romance and freedom faded to silence along with the lingering notes of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. The last remembrance of life as we knew it.

When we left the theatre, news circulated that Wuhan was in lockdown. “Please stay indoors, aeroplanes will be spraying the city streets with disinfectant in the early hours,” a government notice read. 

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The last time I had come across such a sentence was in the book Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. Look at Venice now. A day later, Nanjing was effectively in lockdown, too. As was Shanghai and Beijing. Chinese New Year celebrations were cancelled.

So began the grandest test of citizenship. Communities were put under health surveillance. Security guards, old men who once passed the time at gateposts smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze, were now armed with temperature guns. Visitors were first frowned upon, then barred from entering. At my apartment block, the guards, usually a suspicious bunch, showed a little kindness in allowing this South African in the Far East visits from a fellow Durbanite and an Englishman, recognising that as foreigners we had no family to bunker down with during what has become known as “this special time”. For many, an exit and entry card was required to leave the building.

Big brother watching 

The government of President Xi Jinping, dubbed the Smiling Tiger by some, kindly requested landlords to wait a little while on the rent. Some companies couldn’t pay their staff; they weren’t allowed in the building. Didis (the Uber equivalent in China) were inspected daily for disinfection and plastic screens were taped between the driver and passengers. Subways and buses halted altogether or ran at peak hours (in the mornings and evenings) for those few still working. As a resident of China, you were expected to do your duty. To comply. To wear a mask. To wash your hands. Out of respect for your neighbour, you will obey.

Shop windows were shuttered, the cumin-scented plumes of the Xinjiang lamb shao kao (braai) down the road replaced by disinfectant fumes. Restaurants and bars soon followed. Only supermarkets were left running. Delivery men, the most essential service, ran themselves ragged, feeding the beast that is the Mother Nation. Mega malls on every block served no more purpose than a pyramid in a desert, reduced to empty idols of consumerism. Being out on the street for a tri-daily walk was like being teleported to post-Pompeii. Somehow 10 million people (the latest published population of Nanjing) once thronging and bustling, had vanished in a matter of days.

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Then there were the surveillance apps. It’s no secret that China is an avid champion of these dark arts. Your movements can be tracked, you can see how far away the nearest infected person is (mine was 2.3km away). A colleague told of his neighbour, who within one hour of arriving home with his family one night, was whisked away to quarantine by police. One hour. The surveillance app had revealed that he had come into contact with an infected person on his travels. The old grasser method, only in a more technological guise, is very much key to the prevention and control measures in place. So is public acquiescence.

A fortnight in, the death rate was steadily rising. The infection rate was rollicking along, doubling each day. Statistics each morning on the various WeChat expat groups was an anxiety-riddled awakening. By early February, the death toll was perched at 563, a leap of nearly 100 from the previous day; confirmed infections at more than 28 000, an astounding 4 000 new cases overnight. The curve was not abating. The disease spreading faster than gossip.

The biggest population under lockdown 

Some colleagues had not left their apartments, save to collect their groceries at the front gate, for more than two weeks. Fear and uncertainty lurked in quiet shadows as world-renowned airlines balked at travel to mainland China, even South Africa’s beleaguered South African Airways. Other colleagues weighed a risky decision between flying to their home countries rather than returning to China from their holidays, the prospect of being stranded in Asia too daunting to contemplate. Job security, too uncertain to gamble on.

Other than a notice to say that representatives based in China would be out of office owing to the prevention and control restrictions, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation remained silent. In truth, what could they do that China had not already done? Some of my compatriots reasoned that it was safer to stay put in China rather than risk the treacherous flight home. If the mighty China, her hospitals bursting with fearful sick and medical staff reportedly helplessly standing by as victims succumbed before them, were stretched to contain the virus, what could be hoped for in South Africa?

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Then news of the whistleblower doctor broke. Li Wenliang, a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, had noticed a new strain in pneumonia cases in December that he likened to the SARS virus of 2003. He had filed a report to the necessary authorities. He was met with censure by local authorities in Wuhan and called a fearmongerer. He returned to work only to die of the novel coronavirus after contracting it from an infected patient.

Chinese journalists seized this brief window of opportunity to speak out against “a system of deception”. Some have since reportedly been said to have disappeared. It was a rare inkling of discontent among the Chinese. A public, slow to anger and powerless in an already draconian political system, demanded transparency and freedom of speech. “We are not asleep,” a netizen posted on Weibo. A week earlier, the local police station involved issued an apology for their treatment of Li. It won’t bring him back.

Effects of the lengthy lockdown 

It has been said that had China reacted even a week earlier, the ferocious spread the world is battling now may have been less severe. The thing about retrospect is that it comes too late. Certainly China has paid the price. With the Motherland now in the twilight of its fight, the effects of more than two months of lockdown are revealing themselves. Employees have not received salaries, some companies have uttered “downsizing”. And this is only what we have been allowed to know. On 9 April, China’s figures read: total cases 82 870, deaths 3 335. The world: total cases almost 1.5 million, deaths: 88 567. 

My late grandfather would say: “If America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” Well, China has sneezed… The scope remains to be seen, the prospect is chilling. To indulge retrospection a little longer, the most decisive action last seen by powerhouses such as Great Britain and the United States was when they were the first to extract their citizens from Wuhan and close their flights to China. Since then, it has been nothing short of bumbling. To the point where even the royal family has not been spared. If this were a game of chess, it would have been checkmate. Who would have thought we’d see the day.

As we South Africans comforted each other during Chinese lockdown, on our social media groups, during dinner for three at one another’s homes as we took turns to cook, we shared the same fear: please, don’t let corona reach Africa. South Africa. Mostly we felt anger at 26 misspent years. Now the chickens were coming home to roost.

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Well, they have. There is much against us. We are acting from a position of dismaying weakness. An economy on its knees, a population consisting of many for whom hygiene is a luxury. There is little as harsh as the glare of an African sun. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who so eloquently said, “we are at midday” in the fight against the virus, has been decisive, a true statesman among global pretenders. South Africa, too, is not sleeping.

In world history, one can trace events that have shaped us to this point. This time it has been a slow death. The world lost its innocence after the Great Wars. Who knows what it will lose – or gain – from this moment in our time on Earth.

My mother, a teacher in rural Eastern Cape, told me of her last normal day during our weekly phone call. She was driving through Mount Fletcher on a Sunday. Boys were preparing for an afternoon football game while a flock of sheep peacefully grazed the pitch, “mowing the lawn in preparation”. This to the pastoral backdrop of the great Drakensberg. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

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