Second World Problems: Witnessing Wuhan from Afar

[Content warning: this column contains distressing content related to COVID-19]

At this stage, there’s not much we can know for sure about the COVID-19 outbreak – how
it’ll play out, how deadly it is, what it means to the people in Wuhan, in China, and in the
rest of the world. As the situation gets worse, the panic I’ve been feeling for the past month has strangely ebbed. I think it’s probably because I forgot the password to my Telegram account, so I haven’t been getting any more updates from my mates back home. It’s funny how one minute you feel like you’re bang in the epicentre of it, and the next it’s feels literally miles away.

I mean, Glasgow is not risk-free, but the risk here is certainly low: low enough that I now
feel like I was out of my mind to disseminate panic via Insta-story. What exactly is the point of translating feverish rumours and sharing distressing content without warning? The newspapers haven’t been lagging behind. They’ve been dishing out reasonable, fact-
checked advice to the British public. What they’re sharing is actually relevant to their
audience: all I’ve done is undermine their efforts. I guess straddling different cultural
spheres and social media at the same time has finally blurred my sense of human
geography. Different worlds have blurred into one.

And these are very different worlds. It has slowly dawned on me that, whilst the internet
fed me a constant stream of panic and desperate anger, for most people physically around me the COVID-19 outbreak was no more real than the wildfires in Australia. It is deeply concerning, but it probably doesn’t hold much immediacy. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with that.

If anything, I feel like a fraud talking about the outbreak when I’m so far removed from
danger. There are people who are far more distressed by this than I am, whose family and friends are more immediately threatened. I know people whose families are from Wuhan, people in Wuhan who are volunteering as I type, people who have been arrested for nothing, people who are unable to return and continue their studies. My own family has not been able to leave the flat for nearly a month – just like millions, if not billions, of others in China. Compared to them, I have no right to panic.

Sure, there’s guilt. I feel like an absolute coward not going back, but all that would do is put greater burden onto a healthcare system that is already under much strain. Yet even saying that out loud just sounds like whiny self-justification. Plus, guilt is the least of anyone’s concerns right now; the xenophobia here isn’t worth mentioning compared to the treatment of people from Hubei in China at the moment.

I can’t speak for all the Chinese students here in Glasgow, but I am sure that – for at least a fair amount of us – it has been a strange month. As people back home readjust to their new life in confinement, those of us here are supposed to carry on as normal. Really, there’s not much we can do. We can’t send medical supplies because none of that ends up where it’s needed. We can’t go home – unless you’re a medic, what would the use be? We don’t even have a good grasp of the severity of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the climbing number of recoveries and the low 2% fatality rate. On the other hand, every other week you hear of entire families that have died from the disease – director Chang Kai and his family being one of the notable examples. Even young people like the whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang seemed to succumb to the disease without much warning. Patients with obvious symptoms could not get a diagnosis because hospitals weren’t authorised to carry out tests. To make matters worse, diagnosed patients could not be admitted because hospitals have run out of beds. Knowing this takes away the comfort of the relatively low official figures. It makes it seem like the result of a massive cover-up.

There is other distressing news that many have seen but not been able to confirm. For
example, the Association of Funeral Directors in Wuhan sent out a request for body bags at the start of February. The request was quickly retracted. It has been difficult to fact-check this piece of information, as with most other news coming from China. Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi claimed to have seen bodies left in hospital hallways because staff and funeral services were too overwhelmed to get to them in time. Chen has since reportedly disappeared. Entire neighbourhoods have been in lockdown, leaving many people with no access to food. Local councils are working overtime to send food to residents, but whether that is sustainable remains to be seen.

I think it should be clear by now that it’s not just the disease people are afraid of, but the
social breakdown and the subsequent collapse of public services. The devil really is in the details. No number of official reports can set off your alarms like a personal account does. The amount of harrowing cries for help you get to read on Chinese social media can haunt you for days and there’s not much I actually achieve by writing about it here other than causing distress. Really, all this is is an extension of my panic Insta-stories, but it is not my aim to cause unnecessary anxiety. Rather, I am hoping it gives you somewhere to begin to understand where your local Orientals’ panic might have come from. WHO’s director- general recently claimed that COVID-19 should be seen as “public enemy number one,” but it is not being treated as such. If this rambling can cause someone to take this seriously, then it has served its purpose.

[Ka Leung – she/her]

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