Getting messages left and right from concerned friends and family asking whether I’m alright and whether the situation as bad as it sounds. There have been a number of scary images and numbers thrown around the Internet over the past couple of weeks and their concern is definitely warranted.
I’m not a virologist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not sick, I’ve never been to Wuhan (although I’ve always wanted to, seemed like a lovely place), I’m not in any secretive committee that decides how to react to these things, I’m just an Australian guy who’s been living in China for the past nearly 5 years in both Chinese and foreign communities.
Aside from the scary images we see in both Chinese and Western media, there are a few really interesting things I have noticed over the past couple of weeks that I would like to delve into. I believe in understanding a situation like that which is developing across China at the moment, the numbers of recorded infected, dead and recovered are not really indicators of anything. In fact, they are actually counterintuitive as it gives people tunnel vision to the scale of the problem and response.
Learn From the Mistakes of the Past
SARS rocked China over 2002–2003, officially killing nearly 800 people, infecting 10x as many and really exposing a number of critical inadequacies in how infectious diseases are managed. To the Chinese people I have come into contact with recently, the SARS outbreak is still fresh in their memories and the current virus is bringing back flashbacks.
From the news I have seen so far, it seems that the official stance is to not repeat the mistakes made during 2002–2003. The play seems to be: act fast, take any means necessary, be completely thorough and maintain absolute transparency.
After SARS was brought under control, the government was criticised for being slow, sloppy and secretive. Accused of trying to limit the spread of information to save face — admittedly to reduce fear — when city lockdowns, travel bans and school/workplace holidays were extended, they were allegedly too late.
This time is so different.
Within days of reported cases of disease spreading:
— large groupings of people were banned, cinemas were shut, inter-city buses stopped, museums, amusement parks and many restaurants are shut.
— All large outdoor celebrations for Chinese New Year were cancelled and the holiday extended a few days to reduce the number of people travelling at one time.
— Temperature checks on all major roads leading out of cities.
— City lockdown of ground-zero.
— 2 major hospitals were built in 10 days to be filled with medical personnel from across the country.
— Face-mask, disinfectant and other supplies manufacturers were sent back to work and now operating 24/7 under government control.
— An official tracker of infection spreading has been put together and maintained with real time updates, and constant Coronavirus news programs have covered all TV channels and social media.
Living here we are constantly exposed to this story, everyone is talking about it and doing exactly as the government recommends: stay inside, frequently wash your hands and wear a face mask if you go outside.
No one wants to make the same mistakes that were made nearly 20 years ago.
News Savviness is a Learned Skill
As any major world event unfolds, it’s really easy to get mixed up in the scariest stories from the people who are apparently “at the scene”. Thanks to social media and the Internet, we are also able to share and access those stories faster and easier than ever before in human history.
I have always understood that people generally believe young people are the ones constantly on social media, absorbing the information on there as fact and steering clear of official news, maybe because it’s biased or maybe the format is just not as interesting.
Something that has really surprised me in watching the Coronavirus take hold of the conversations and minds of the people around me is in where people get their information and what they believe and share around. It seems the exact opposite of what I thought is true (in my experience), young people are the ones sceptical of unverified sources and not actively spreading them.
They know that information bubbles exist and that news is regurgitated and fed to them rather than just presented in full detail.
Older people tend to rely more on the information coming from the people they trust, then share that information with people that trust them. Whilst they do watch the news, they also believe in the screenshots of conversations between people they don’t know but that were shared to them by their friends and relatives. For example: I was sent a number of screenshots of a WeChat conversation which started with someone claiming their “friend’s cousin’s boyfriend had seen bodies lying on the ground in the middle of Wuhan.”
We now know that is not true. But at the time, it was quite a scary thought.
Optimistic Realism is the Best Mindset
Currently, much of the country is either slowly returning to work or working from home. This extra holiday time is because of government policy requiring compulsory home self-isolation for anywhere between 7–14 days to allow the symptoms of the virus to present themselves and limit further infecting more people.
During this time, it’s really eye-opening to see how some people are focused purely on the negatives, seeing everything as a sign of impending doom and ignoring silver linings. Whereas others disregard the warnings and turn away from the hysteria completely.
As with anything in life, seeking a healthy middle ground is the best option.
People who ignore the threat not only risk contracting this virus themselves, but they are also constantly frustrated that it is the topic of every single conversation.
People who stay up at night with worry, forget that they have an abundance of time on their hands. Without the pressure to leave the house and see people or do things, most people around the country are finding themselves spending a lot of time with their families or by themselves.
As mindset dictates everything we do, say and feel, it too dictates how we cope with what is happening in our lives as a result of this virus.
Last month I wrote a piece about how trying to control things outside of our control is so exhausting; this is just another one of those times. We can’t control how this situation develops, how other people react and what they talk about.
All we can do is maintain good personal hygiene, be aware of the problem and focus on enjoying all this time on our hands.