Northern China. Empty roads, a lunar panorama, a ghost city. A woman, behind the window of her apartment in a ten-floor building in the centre of Xi’an, the capital of the province of Shaanxi on the border with Hubei, the province at the heart of the outbreak, says: “Finally I can think”. She says that she now has the time to do it. She continues: “I am not lacking in anything that I had in my life before”. Somebody has managed not to succumb to despair yet. It is the only calm testimony we gathered among the others dictated by fear of contagion from Covid-19. A voice that comes from the obligatory domestic quarantine that all citizens of the People’s Republic are facing because of Coronavirus, which has begun to take its lethal course through their streets and turned them into a desert. In the sad chorus of shared anguish Amanda Wang — which is how the 40 year-old entrepreneur likes to present herself to foreigners — utters words that we have not heard before:
Everybody is experiencing stress because of this situation, it’s wrong.
China is Embroiled in a Medical, Social and Psychological Emergency
At war. China is officially engaged on all fronts not only with a medical but also a social and psychological emergency. They are a people in a surgical face mask with a thermometer in their hand to stop their body temperature from rising. Being in quarantine every day makes every day the same even if the date on the calendar is different. In self-isolation there are men and monitors. The dragon is locked up in the house and has closed in on itself, like the residents of provinces and cities, illuminated by the LEDs of millions of screens displaying data on the number of deaths that is constantly rising. According to Wang there is a subtle line that must not be crossed if you do not want to drown in the viral phobias on social media, in the grey visions like the streets where there are so few people that they can be counted in lines at the medical check points scattered across a city normally crowded with its tens of millions of inhabitants.
“Since everything started you get tired later and wake up later”. Everything is new compared to the old habits: “The pace of things has slowed down, you can take everything easy”. Wang, who used to like going out to eat and does not like cooking, is somebody who seeks out the light that can exist in desperate situations. She takes photos when she is allowed to take her dog for a walk by the administrators of her building who are responsible for checking and verifying her route in order to monitor any point from which the virus could spread. A surveillance network and curfew managed by the branches of the Communist Party, a hierarchical structure that is present in every residential compound and operates as a service center. After the order issued by the central authorities in Beijing, “only one person in every nuclear family can go shopping every two days but the important thing is to register your movements”, she told InsideOver.
SARS Outbreak Different Than Coronavirus: ‘There Was Not the Widespread Fear’
Wang recalls SARS and says its seriousness “was not as obvious as this time”. There were days on which “nobody got on the bus” in a city where not everybody has a car. There was less media attention, there was less information and there were fewer channels on which the news items multiplied in real time. That is probably why she remembers the crisis having a shorter duration but which lasted from November, 2002 to May, 2003, but “there was not the widespread fear, people were less frightened, people followed the safety rules that were less strict than the recent ones simply because they were following the rules imposed from outside without any conviction. But now people perceive the seriousness of the reaction of the authorities, they have sensitized the population who have much greater awareness”.
Now it is difficult to give a name to what is happening. “I will mention one consideration that often escapes attention in the West. One of the positive sides of a political and social system like China under Communist leadership is that there is efficiency in the decision-making and coordination chain. Once measures have been decided they are rapidly implemented on a vast scale. Efficiency increases when they are correct”. But Wang continues: “Obviously the opposite applies as well. If the decisions prove inadequate, the consequences will have the same danger, speed and magnitude”. She cites the example of Hubei, the province at the heart of the outbreak that borders her region, “where everything was managed badly from the beginning and the consequences were visible”.
There is no sadness, no fear, no psychosis on the list of feelings that she says she experiences. But she knows that “the lives of many people are changing” whilst she shifts the questions towards the paradoxical side of the current state of affairs. “This out of the ordinary situation offers us new starting points. In day to day life, in Chinese society, the pressure to be successful at work is very high”. It is two sides of the same coin: the opportunity for a solution.
As in ancient Greek, Wang explains that Chinese for “crisis” is weiji (危机) the symbol comprised of two ideogrammes. The first is 危 and means danger, the second is 机 and means opportunity. She counts the minutes that pass in silence, free moments never possessed before: it is the first time that the citizens of the factory of the world are still and that the categorical imperative of production and profit has been overcome by something more important which requires collective solidarity.
Now in China for the first time “we have the chance to develop a different more balanced conception of life, she says.” The entrepreneur sees hopes for the future arising out of the tragedy of the epidemic that the world’s second economy is facing. “We Chinese are all experiencing an unprecedented situation: without the pressure at work, we have the possibility to face the day at a slower pace. Life. Rich and poor: we are all temporarily exempted from chasing around after ourselves. For the first time. It is an unusual situation that has cancelled economic competition and perhaps the Chinese, as a people, can learn something from all this”.
This interview was conducted thanks to the assistance and translation of Jonathan Marano, an Italian manager resident in China.
Translation by Dale Owens