Walking into a restaurant in downtown Shanghai on Monday, I was greeted with a gun to the head.
It wasn’t as much of a shock as you might expect. In a routine likely familiar to anyone who has spent time in China over the past few weeks, the waiter holding it was just checking my temperature. After ascertaining I was a healthy 36.4 degrees Celsius, he gracefully ushered me in.
Scanning the nearly empty restaurant with a practiced eye, I picked out a seat that would put at least 5 meters between me and the only other two occupied tables in the room. I kept my mask on until my food arrived, then started shoveling my meal into my mouth as quickly as possible, only pausing when a peal of laughter from one of the other tables shook me out of my daze. I swiveled and stared, thinking to myself: “Why are you talking with your masks off? What if your spittle lands on someone?”
The thought was barely formed when I recoiled at what I’d become. Almost everyone’s nerves have been on edge since late January, when the country’s health authorities belatedly admitted the risk from COVID-19 was far higher than they had originally indicated. Since then, over 1,000 people have died, and more than 60,000 have fallen ill.
But the vast majority of the damage has been concentrated in the central Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, which lies over 800 kilometers from Shanghai. In this city of over 20 million, barely 300 people have gotten sick so far. And yet there I was, treating innocuous lunch-table conversation like a deadly public health hazard.
Mutual suspicion and fear are some of the defining characteristics of epidemics. If you heard that someone’s life was devastated by an earthquake or hurricane, you’d likely sincerely and unblinkingly sympathize with them. But when the damage is caused by an infectious disease, it’s all too easy for our basic human compassion to be overpowered by our even baser impulse to protect ourselves. Suddenly it’s not so hard to imagine the affected community not as sympathetic victims, but as a dangerous threat.
The ongoing epidemic has already sparked a wave of Sinophobia and xenophobia abroad. China, with its massive, highly concentrated population and often wobbly public health system, has for years been stereotyped as a threat to global health, but rarely more so than when The Wall Street Journal is publishing pieces with titles like “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
These same xenophobic reactions are mirrored within China itself. In recent days, despite a high-profile media campaign to remind citizens that “our enemy is the virus, not Wuhanese,” anyone linked to Wuhan or Hubei province has become a target of fear and discrimination. To cite just one example, on Jan. 27, a group of Shanghainese refused to board their flight back from Japan after learning they’d be sharing the plane with 16 Wuhanese passengers.
Wuhanese aren’t the only victims. Their city is one of the country’s central transit hubs, meaning essentially anyone who has traveled in the past few weeks is suspect — a group that includes hundreds of millions of Chinese who went home or on vacation for the Lunar New Year holiday. The resulting panic is only legitimized by local governments’ so-called hardcore epidemic prevention methods — which coincidentally primarily target migrants and other marginalized groups while largely exempting well-off homeowners and local residents from scrutiny.
“I don’t understand why those people are so eager to get back,” one of my local friends ranted to me recently. “We Shanghainese obediently locked ourselves at home for two whole weeks, and now those outsiders are coming and ruining everything!”
“They need to work,” I replied. “They need to survive! They’re not like you, with a nice job that will pay them to work from home.”
Our chat ended awkwardly. Fear is as infectious as any disease, and the current outbreak is only fueling tensions between China’s entrenched and increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie and the migrant workforce that powers its cities.
I belong to the former category. Really, I’m not any different from my friend. If I was, I wouldn’t have been so uneasy at overhearing a nice conversation in a restaurant. I’ve spent the past few weeks seemingly in a constant state of fear: I’m scared on the street; scared in the elevator; scared any time anyone gets too close. In my increasingly neurotic imagination, every passerby is just a giant virus masquerading as a person.
And frankly, I’m tired of it. There’s a line from “The Hot Zone,” a 2019 American miniseries, that has stuck with me. “The Ebola virus spreads when we show each other love, kindness, affection. When we’re most human,” the series’ main character says at one point. The only way to fully protect yourself from infection, the logic goes, is to be coldblooded, absolutely rational, and willing to cut yourself off from all others.
That’s not much of a life though, is it? The threat of COVID-19 is as psychological as it is pathological. I’ll wear my mask, wash my hands 100 times a day, stay cooped up at home, avoid public places, and shun physical contact, but only because I want life to return to normal as soon as possible.
This week, netizens on microblogging site Weibo have been joking that “this Valentine’s Day, every relationship is a long-distance relationship.” Stuck in quarantine — and with most restaurants shuttered anyway — romance for many couples means a candlelit video call. It’s not the end of the world, but no one wants it to last forever.
That’s because a life without companionship is not worth living. Even in the face of a crisis, we should never sacrifice our affection and sense of humanity. Next Valentine’s Day, I want to enjoy a nice meal with my husband without worrying about who we bumped into that day, where we’ve been — or whether the couple at the next table is laughing just a bit too loudly.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Dong Wenjie/VCG)