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January 31, 2020

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Isolation and empty streets: Staying cooped up under coronavirus threat

If I’m telling the truth, the idea of locking myself up at home and not seeing anyone for days on end isn’t something that frightens me. In fact, it sounds great. But I didn’t expect it to be under these circumstances, and I hope it’s all over sooner rather than later.

We’ve all known about the coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province, for a few weeks now, but somehow no one was very alarmed until last week. Now it’s fair to say that most people across China are under some form of self-imposed house arrest and the streets of Shanghai, usually packed with tourists this time of year, are empty echoes of a seemingly distant past.

Every day I receive a text message — in Chinese — from my telecom service provider. A few days ago, the message reminded me to reduce visits to friends and family (it’s common to visit loved ones and wish them luck for the new year), wear a mask outside, wash my hands regularly, ventilate my home well and seek medical assistance if I come down with a fever.

Over the past few days that text message has started coming from the Shanghai health commission.

Now I’m also told to remove all clothing when returning home from the outside and to air out that clothing in the sun and wind.

In the morning, I should fold my bedding up after airing it to sterilize. My house should be disinfected regularly.

So today I took it upon myself — despite superstitions around not washing away the new year’s good luck by cleaning your home too soon after entering a new lunar cycle — to tidy up my apartment and disinfect as many surfaces as possible.

Hating the sound of the vacuum cleaner, my two cats quickly took up their second-favorite positions looking down on the now empty streets below.

They’re used to staying cooped up at home every day, so for them this is nothing new.

They’re also covered in their winter fur, so the cold breeze briskly passing through my usually warm apartment doesn’t phase them either.

Venturing outside

Despite the government’s firm suggestions to stay indoors and reduce contact with other people as much as humanly possible, there are some occasions when leaving home is unavoidable.

The first is primal: We need to eat.

While many are turning to ordering their fresh fruit and vegetables online and having them delivered, I prefer to see what I’m buying with my own eyes first.

I was a bit surprised to find supplies somewhat lacking when I visited two supermarkets and a local fruit-and-vegetable market.

One supermarket featured bare shelves where just last week all the shiny colors of the rainbow could be seen.

Fresh meat in all three places was seriously lacking — only one supermarket had any meat at all, and even then most shelves were bare.

It’s essential to keep up one’s face-mask stocks, and whenever outside to wear either an N95 mask — which I find way too restrictive and uncomfortable — or a surgical mask in order to significantly reduce the chances of becoming infected.

But masks are in short supply despite the city’s 17 mask factories pumping out millions on a daily basis.

Shanghai has a population of 24 million but people are scared.

What happens tomorrow?

The situation in China remains precarious.

Everyone is hoping the government can stem the spread of this virus through tough measures such as locking down cities and restricting movement. Some of those measures include the unprecedented move of extending the lunar new year holiday, closing all popular public spaces like museums, cinemas and tourist hot spots, and insisting people work from home.

But even under the current best-case scenario, this situation could go on for months.

Some airlines have already started canceling all flights in and out of Chinese mainland, not just Hubei. Also, foreign governments are chartering special flights to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the viral outbreak.

I don’t even want to think about the worst-case scenario yet, but I do have hope.

If any government can successfully implement what one expert called “draconian” measures to stop the virus from spreading, it’s the strong central government of China.

I’ll take each day as it comes, and hope my cats don’t get used to me being around home every day.


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