Where the Pandas Are: Dealing with the nCoV Outbreak

Note: the first half of this post was written in February 2020 before the global spread of the virus.

I so hate for the second part to this series to be about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, and yet here we are. This is me, writing about it. Because I currently live and work… in China.

Specifically, I live in this Tier 2 City called Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. Chengdu, fortunately enough, has a 33% recovery rate and even so, there are only 125 confirmed cases within the city limits. When you consider that at least 16.33 million people live here on the regular, then the statistics relating to nCoV don’t seem too daunting.

It’s still a terrifying prospect, but it’s not as bad as social media makes it out to be. Or maybe my Facebook friends are just racist idiots jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon persecuting anyone who looks Chinese. Is it my job to chastise them for their carelessness and ignorance? They’re all young adults – they should know better by now. Also, I’m their Facebook friend, not their mother.

ANYWAY, I wanted to talk about how living in the midst of this pandemic has affected my day-to-day life because, aside from the city limiting interpersonal contact and closing down non-essential businesses that affect my work hours and Starbucks intake, my life hasn’t changed all that much.

Let me explain.

(Not So) Breaking News: LiberaTarts Is A Hermit

When presented with the chance to either travel to literally anywhere in China or even abroad to a neighboring Asian country for the Chinese Spring Festival last January, my introverted self chose to stay in Chengdu.

My coworkers boasted that they’d be flying to This Country and That Country for the nine-or-so consecutive days that we had off from the office, which is all fun and good for them buuuuut… having just moved to China late last year and having finally felt like I’ve settled down in my new apartment, my new hometown, and my new workload after three or four months of sheer craziness, I felt like a staycation was my best bet if I wanted to recharge my social batteries.

Literally everything in China, it felt like, was put on hold because of Spring Festival:

  • everyone at my compnay had mandatory paid leave
  • Chinese language classes were put on hold, and
  • stores were running under limited opening hours

And so I stocked up on cupboard essentials, bought enough bottled water to last one person about two weeks, and holed myself up in my apartment to wait out the Spring Festival stillness that invaded the usually bustling city seemingly overnight.

I spent my time reading and re-reading the books I didn’t have the spare time for in the past.

building a personal library, one pocket-sized novel at a time

I also caught up on those pesky movies I said I was going to watch months and months ago.

And I dug up old playlists from my high school / Sixth Form days and had lots of cringe-filled jam sessions.

The perks of living alone, y’all.

So I really was minding my own business, recharging my social batteries and catching up with popular culture, when suddenly someone from Head Office called using my phone number and not WeChat. The fact that they didn’t use WeChat – the most relied on app in China, where you can talk to friends and also pay your bills – should have been my first clue on how serious things are about to get.

LiberaTarts Goes on a Government Sanctioned Self-Quarantine

Note: this is the second half of the post, written in April 2020.

exact re-enactment of how I answered that phone call

The person on the line, all gung-ho and ready to reassure, called because of a rumour text chain saying people aren’t allowed to leave their apartments for 14 days as a means to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

She explained how she has been trying to contact the local police station in my district to confirm this information, but since most of everyone has gone home for Spring Festival, no one has gotten back to her yet with actionable information.

Bless her soul, I could hear in her voice that she was panicking – she really did want to offer reassurance about the virus, how she can help ensure I have enough food to last two weeks in isolation, and how I shouldn’t panic about this new virus because I’m young, healthy, and precautions are being put into place.

A tad shamefaced, I didn’t tell her how I’ve been in a self-imposed bubble because of Spring Festival and how my only source of news regarding current events was checking the work group chat every few days or so and watching everyone gossip.

I wasn’t panicked about nCov.

I didn’t even know it was that serious until she called me.

And like a lynchpin, that phone call broke through Hermits United Membership Fun Zone and suddenly:

  • my aunt from all the way in the US started messaging me asking how I’m doing
  • my brother, whom I’ve lost contact with amidst the craziness of work and his busy college schedule, called on Skype because he saw China on the news
  • my mother, relatively busy herself as a healthcare professional in the Middle East, began micro-managing my life by telling me
    • not to go out (I despair at having to explain I really, really had no plans to do so regardless of the virus situation)
    • to stock up on food (my pantry was as prepared as any hermit’s), and
    • to wash my hands all the time (I work with young kids so using a hand sanitiser is basically programmed into my soul)

I love my family dearly and it warms my heart that despite being scattered around the globe, they still worry about me just as I worry about them. I’m not the best with maintaining communication and I rely too much on glib responses when people ask how I am – hence the million hermit jokes peppered in this post. Nevertheless, I hate to think it took a deadly viral outbreak for me to come to this conclusion.

As it turns out, the person from Head Office was wrong: I didn’t have to stay in my apartment for 14 days for self-quarantine. People were allowed to leave their front doors, and they were even allowed to walk around the little community park area (the way apartments and condos are organised here in China was a new experience for me). Turns out, however, each community (a set of apartment buildings surrounded by a giant gate) has put some rules into effect:

  1. No visits from non-residents of the community.
  2. Residents needs to register for a green access card, which lets you leave and re-enter through the front gates once per day.
  3. The security guards at the gates will check your temperature and green access card before you’re allowed re-entry.
  4. No deliveries – all purchases have to be dropped off at the front gates.

The first three rules were fairly easy for me to follow – I’m a hermit, remember? I hardly have any close friends here in Chengdu that I absolutely have to meet with them every week or whatever. Work, once Spring Festival ended, moved to an online platform and I basically became a Zoom expert overnight.

The fourth rule, however, was a tough cookie to crack! The number of times a delivery person called me, lost as to which gate they should drop off my weekly groceries, was an adventure in and of itself. The conversation usually goes like this:

Delivery person, on the phone: 喂你好! (Continues to speak in Chinese, presumably to explain how they are on their way and ask where is the main gate.)

Me, with minimal Chinese comprehension and also very weak speaking skills: 你好, hello。我不知道中文。Do you speak English? Is this *insert delivery service here*?

Delivery person, clearly taken a back: 对, *delivery service* 是 (Continues in Chinese.)

The conversation eventually dies off in awkward laughter and they usually hang up and somehow show up at the right gate.

In Regards to the Rest of the World…

Now that the situation in China is petering out – more and more people are driving around and roaming the streets, non-essential stores are open again, but schools and some offices are still closed – I find out that the novel coronavirus, now named by the World Health Organisation as COVID-19, has begun to spread internationally.

The first thing I did upon hearing this news and digesting its gravity is to message the elderly members of my family in the Philippines. They are fine, although they’re more Facebook-savvy than I am at this point – what a surprise!

The second thing is to regularly message my younger brother in the UK – oh how the tables have turned, I have become my mother. I tell him to regularly wash his hands, to wear a mask whenever he goes out on food shops, and to call me if he ever needs anything and our mother couldn’t help out. (Time zones do not work in our favour, sometimes.)

As I check on the COVID-19 stats every few days – there’s only so much I could take before real, debilitating panic sets in and I feel powerless as a foreigner in China – I worry about my family in the Philippines, where politics and blame are being tossed around like a hot potato rather than people taking viral precautions seriously.

I worry about my brother and friends in the UK, where the NHS is severely understaffed and no one seems to be self-isolating because of the nice Spring weather. And for the love of all things good, can the local government please forgive any parking fees incurred by these hardworking healthcare professionals??

Don’t get me started on the situation in the US. I have little cousins who live there and the few American friends I have are also in the healthcare industry. The fact that “the most powerful country in the world” has managed to surpass China, a country with 1.39 billion people, on infection and death rates… I dread to think what will happen – what is happening – to those most vulnerable in society.


Over to you, my dear readers: How are you coping with COVID-19? I hope you and your family and friends are doing as well as they can! Got any fun stories to share, to lighten up the mood a little?