Yudi Chang | 26 March 2020
The past one and a half months have been the strangest and the most surreal. As a Chinese citizen from Hubei, I first observed the earliest outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province; then, I watched this virus go global and become a pandemic, and now it is raging here in Sweden, where I currently live.
Seldom have I experienced something like this in my life. My feelings are so complicated that I cannot adequately express them in my writing, but I am trying here nevertheless.
Quarantine of Hubei
Hubei is in the center of China. The Yangtze River flows through this region, leaving hundreds of lakes, small rivers, and fertile lands on the Jianghan Plain, making it among the most densely populated provinces in China. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the region experienced rapid socio-economic development. For ordinary Chinese citizens, the province is still an “average level” region less known to the world. Born in Yichang, a city 400km away from Wuhan, I am a typical Hubei resident. It is my home.
I have been in Sweden as a visiting PhD student since September 2019. I really tried very hard to explain to Swedish colleagues where in China I came from. In early and mid-January, things started to change when I read news from China, saying there are cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause” in a “seafood market” in Wuhan. I recognized it as a non-traditional security threat and categorized the “pneumonia” as a potential risk without knowing what it exactly was. Based on my initial observations about the risk this “pneumonia” posed, I retweeted the news to my friends and family in Hubei. There were no serious responses to my concerns. A few days later, came the Wuhan and Hubei quarantines.
Days passed, and I became overwhelmed with fear and depression over the epidemic after the quarantine: thousands of new confirmed cases, hundreds of new deaths every single day, and numerous desperate voices seeking help online. The peak days came in mid-February and lasted for more than one week. Living through those days was like passing through an unknown dark tunnel alone. You could hardly know what would happen next. Helplessly, I searched every source on the novel coronavirus, contacted family members, friends, former teachers, and all others I know in Hubei to make sure they were safe, again and again. Being anxious, I even launched discussions with my PhD friends both in China and Sweden on the measures to contain the virus.
I gradually found relief, reading about the responses of the Chinese state. After deploying forty thousand medical personnel, two ICU field hospitals, and sixteen modular hospitals in Wuhan, China started to suppress the outbreak. The “one province, one city” intervention helped lift other Hubei cities out of the epidemic. The situation in other provinces was even better. I expected the epidemic to end when it ended in Hubei. This expectation proved to be wrong.
Europe, the second battleground
Experiencing containment in China, the virus seemed to change track. The unanticipated outbreak in South Korea, Iran, Italy, and Spain marked the transition into a pandemic. Especially the Northern Italy outbreak grew at a heartbreaking speed and sent the entire continent of Europe into the pandemic center. As a Hubei citizen, I had to witness the tragic development again (but perhaps from a closer physical distance this time) in Europe. Scenes from Italy were just as horrible as those from Wuhan. The new confirmed case numbers and the death toll in Italy are currently much worse than Hubei at its peak. Other countries are struggling, too. Spain may be on its way to becoming the next Italy. Even Sweden is fighting a hard battle with its limited public health resources.
The outbreak in Europe has left me with unimagined feelings. It is like onboard a ship that you know will crash onto an iceberg without early alarm. You could just watch it happen hopelessly. I thought an European observer back in 1914 might have these similar mixed feeling when witnessing the outbreak of WWI. Furthermore, a sense of anxiety resulted suddenly after the EU put restrictions on its borders. A Hubei citizen away from the first wave of epidemic in China finally fell into the pandemic in Nordic Europe. I had to store living supplies, purchase face masks and disinfectants, just like in China. Then I started to practice social distancing at my house.
What is still interesting for me nowadays is the unique cross-cultural experiences. I observed the differences between China and Sweden in social and cultural contexts that affect national and individual actions under similar conditions. For example, the value of collectivism in Chinese cultural tradition is stronger than in western society. When asked to change action and comply with the directives of the governments for public health, Chinese citizens responded firmly. This is not about political regime but general public ethics as citizen. The Chinese patriotism and nationalism are quite powerful in organizing large-scale collective actions to support Hubei. Additionally, the regional cultures of Hubei and other provinces called up many online events to strengthen social solidarity with Hubei people. These may make the Chinese approach hard to replicate. But Europe has its own features. Previously I am merely counted as outside observer of Europe. Now I believe I can really develop an empathy with Europeans on group memories in hard times, like those in WWI and WWII when the whole continent is in deep disaster. I felt a kind of “Blitz Spirit” like optimism when I see European people cheer up each other in their own ways. There are 103-year-old British WWII singer Dame Vera Lynn releasing her newest remix of the famous “We’ll meet again” to tell people to “keep singing and smiling”. There are German neighbors singing “Bella Ciao”to comfort Italians. Liverpool F.C.'s anthem “You will never walk alone” was played at the same time by 183 radio stations around Europe. Even at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, I also developed a sense of community that I believed is the reason I stayed here.
To my relief, the EU and European countries are taking measures to contain the virus instead of promoting “herd immunity.” More still needs to be done as we watch the alarming death rates in Italy and steadily rising cases all over the world. This fight is not one for governments alone. Every individual needs to take responsibility. The novel coronavirus will test not only the efficiency of governments to handle the pandemic but the capacity of humans to heed directions and take social responsibility.
Yudi Chang is a visiting researcher at the School of Global Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate in international political economy at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China.