Home American Locked-Down: An American Caught In China During The COVID-19-Crisis Speaks Out

Locked-Down: An American Caught In China During The COVID-19-Crisis Speaks Out

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Authored by Evan Villarrubia via Kunstler.com,

“I feel stupid! And contagious!”


— Nirvana

The panic and lockdown state we are just exiting in Dali (southwestern China) has been by far the most intense historical episode I’ve ever experienced. I’ve gone through several deep emotional phase changes throughout this time. If I’d written this email a few weeks ago, it would have been frantic and full of rage. Today I’m calm and have time, and I’m desperate to unload the experience, in the hope that it will be informative to you who are just beginning your journey. I’ll start with broad strokes and get into analysis later, so you can stop reading whenever you’re maxed out.

The most intense historical experience I’d had before this was probably Hurricane Andrew when I was in elementary school. I got out of New Orleans the day before Katrina and watched the fallout on TV from my college dorm room, although I’m not sure even that would’ve been more of a head-fuck. With a hurricane, you freak out mildly for about a week as people don’t know exactly where it will land, then you freak out hard for a day or two, then it’s whoooooooosh for 12-24 hours, and then you come outside, and everything is a goddamn mess, and you hear reports of who died and what’s broken, and school is canceled and the power is out, but at that point, you know the worst is past. Now things will get better. The difference with the virus is that the freak-out sets in gradually, but continuously builds, day by day things getting worse and scarier, yet nobody knowing a damn thing, and tensions rise and people start pointing fingers at each other. The worst is that you don’t know if it will be over in a week, a month, or… after a while … ever.

The first mention I heard of the virus was at jiu-jitsu practice in January shortly after we returned from the US. I’d brought my 4-year old son, who had a cough, and this *very sensitive* girl who comes sometimes freaked out about his coughing, saying she’d spent the entire night before reading about this new, awful disease in Wuhan. I man-splained to her that winter is flu season, and old people die of the flu sometimes, and kids get sick and cough sometimes, so please turn off the emotional geyser because we’re trying to train here! Very quickly, however, mentions of Wuhan and a “new virus” were everywhere. People were starting to show early signs of panic by January 25, when we held my 4-year-old’s birthday party, coincidentally on the day of Chinese New Year. Some friends with kids living in Shanghai had flown into Dali for the holiday, and I had invited them to the party weeks before. My wife tried to convince me to uninvite them the night before, but in the morning I convinced her that it was going to be ok. Most of our good friends with kids came over, except the family of my one friend whose wife had insisted he stop attending jiu-jitsu for fear of the virus (thereby earning my enmity, like a lot of people I considered fear-mongers, although that enmity disappeared as late-onset empathy has grown) and the party was fun, but fear of the virus hung in the air like a hangover fart. With few exceptions, we saw none of those people again for more than a month.

We had heard about the general lockdown in Wuhan before Chinese New Year, with people driving all night to get away before they were shut in. This was surreal the way foreign wars are surreal. You know it’s crazy to be there, but thank god that’s not going to happen where I live! But then slowly but surely, like the little virus panic that could, our own lockdown steadily chugged into place. My primary emotion at the outset was disbelief, maybe denial, and the first blossoming of anger at people who I thought were overreacting. In hindsight it’s clear that everybody reacts to a general panic based on their emotional defaults. I abhor authority and have learned to distrust any mass movement being led by the Chinese government (for all you super-patriots, I don’t trust the American government either). Every fiber of my being told me this was not a big deal, and apparently every fiber of a lot of people’s beings told them “run for your lives!” Things progressed quickly after CNY. First Dali Old Town (roughly our version of the French Quarter) was shut for tourism, a very big deal because tourism is our area’s number one industry, and CNY is a big earnings season. Then more and more businesses started closing in and out of Old Town. Then we started hearing about villages being sealed. First it was Yinqiao, a township 15 km to the north of us where a lot of our friends live, and then it was villages to the south of us, and then, sure enough, it was our village. A lot of villages have only one or a few main roads leading to the highway, making them easy to seal with a few sentries. Our village is like a big hunk of Swiss cheese with streets and alleys leading to major roads to the east and west. Even at the height of the panic, it was always possible to slip in and out of our village, although once out, it was nearly impossible to get in anywhere. A few days after CNY the local police station started blaring an announcement on the loudspeaker on repeat, clearly at max volume on their cheap system, because I couldn’t make out a word of it from my house. I walked down to listen to it, and was immediately approached by some masked cops who asked what the hell I was doing there. Tensions were already high. The announcement was about five minutes of CPC newspeak about doing the utmost to stop the epidemic, and how the politburo was working to help us, blah blah blah. The same message was repeated every day from 9:30-12 and 2:30-5, forcing me to work with earplugs after a while. The only concrete piece of information was that people should wear masks in public places. No information was given on what kind of mask or where to procure them.

The surgical mask symbolizes everything that has enraged me during this panic. When I first noticed people wearing them, I thought to myself “what a pussy!” I’ve seen grown men alone in sealed cars wearing masks on many many occasions. Now that the panic has mostly ended in Dali, and I see a mask, I still think: “what a pussy!” But you had to have them to go out in public. A friend gave us two bags of some very poor quality masks that I ended up being very thankful for. It felt like women wearing burkas out of respect in an Arab country. At no point have I believed that these are effective at anything, but my beliefs are irrelevant when everybody else views them as magical talismans in the midst of a satanic panic. I was very much reminded of the scapulars my friend’s *very Catholic* mom always had bags full of and insisted insisted we wore when I was a kid, so we were guaranteed to go to heaven if we died. When I realized this trend wasn’t going away, I asked my friend to make me a full-head bandit mask to go to the store and market with, because wearing a little blue mask made me feel like too much of a bitch.

Tensions continued to rise, and the lockdown grew gradually tighter. At some point word went out everywhere that anybody who had left for CNY could not come back. We were registered by the village government and put in good standing. One disturbing incident was that my entire family got sick shortly after CNY, coughing and sneezing and everything, and I was terribly afraid for any of us to leave the house, mostly from fear that a neighbor would hear us coughing and rat us out, although I did have a shadow of a concern that maybe we had gotten COVID from the Shanghai group.

At first village sentries were getting off duty at around 7pm, and lots of roads were left unblocked. At some point blue disaster relief tents began appearing, and sentries were on guard 24 hours a day, and lots of unguarded roads got guards. At the height of the panic, people in many villages and in Old Town were given “permits” to come and go, with permission for only one person per family to make one outing every two days. This was enforced wildly differently depending on the mood of local authorities. We never even got permits. We always had access to our local food market, which never stopped operating, only disallowed killing of chickens and fish (you could still buy these, but you had to kill them yourself at home). After the permits were issued, the new trend was tracking entries and exits, so village sentries at every blockade point and pharmacies and markets and stores were all issued logbooks and QR codes to scan to track where people had been. I first encountered the demand when I went to a pharmacy in Old Town to buy some earache medicine for my 4-year-old. They asked me to scan the code, but at that moment the image of a woman being dragged screaming into a metal box on the back of a truck in Wuhan that a friend had shared popped into my head, and I said, fuck it, I’ll sign the log, which I did under a fake name and number. I pretend-scanned every time after that, because store owners had zero incentive to check to see if you really did it. Three weeks had passed before we hit crescendo of the panic, with people not being allowed to visit each other in other villages. I was getting angrier and more despondent by the day, feeling increasingly powerless and shut in. My only solace was running the gauntlet with my new bike trailer to smuggle playmates into our house for our kids… and drinking. I was driven particularly crazy by knowing that in terms of epidemiology, it would make sense to seal everything hermetically at first and then gradually loosen, but we started loosey-goosey and got gradually tighter. I finally realized that everything had to do with mass psychology, and levels of anxiety, which I’ll get into later.

About four weeks into the panic, after I’d resigned myself to my fate and had given up hope that it would ever end, little positive signs started appearing. The province announced that Dali was a medium-risk zone, and that any zone reduced to low-risk would have to remove all sentries and allow life to return to normal. A few days later the announcement came that we were officially a low-risk zone. Owing to inertia, the local villages dragged their feet, all to varying degrees, but within five days all the blockages were removed. Sentries and blue tents disappeared. We went freely to friends’ houses, and them to ours. On first seeing some friends for the first time in a month, it felt like we’d just been through the Blitz. I could barely believe it would last, but things have continued to loosen up. Now restaurants and cafes are open, although with hardly any patrons, even now, a full two months after the panic started. I can’t know how serious the threat really was, and to what extent the measures taken helped prevent the epidemic from reaching us, but I am sure of one thing: everybody feels like we’ve been through an ordeal, and everybody, even me, is associating the feeling of deep relief with the fact that we’ve been declared a “white” zone, with no confirmed cases in the entire province. If China’s goal was more about convincing people emotionally that the right thing was done, then they accomplished it.

END OF BROAD STROKES.

Now I’m going into some specific anecdotes and lessons learned from the ordeal. Kudos for making it this far. Continue at your own peril, although I assume most of you in the US ought to be long on time these days!

Emotional phase shifts

Before I go on, I have to make careful note of my own emotional states during the ordeal. As I said, I was immediately skeptical, and that mostly comes from my innate disdain for authority. Nobody could convince me that this was anything more than a bad flu. Some might call this state “denial,” but considering I’m still not convinced about the magnitude of the threat, let’s call it “disbelief.” This gradually evolved into rage, especially at the controls we faced from local yokels who clearly had no idea what they were doing. I played this Rage Against the Machine song at full volume many many times, singing along especially enthusiastically with “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” In hindsight I realize that these people were just doing the best they could, but this is what I wrote when I started drafting this email before our village was unsealed:

My greatest challenge during this virus panic has been managing my reactions to the overreactions around me. I know, rationally, that most people don’t question the thoughts that bubble out of their unconscious, and they’re mostly poorly educated, and they’re scared, and none of that is their fault. But I still want to throttle them.

I don’t want to throttle them anymore, thankfully. I’m a lover of humanity again, probably more than before, but it was hard to keep the Incredible Hulk from coming out during the ordeal. The phases of grief kept cycling until I finally arrived at acceptance. I really felt: “this is what life will be like forever, so let’s make the best of it!” Once the restrictions were lifted, I felt relief, a giant weight having been lifted from my psyche, followed by realization of how exhausted the tension had made me. And now I feel cautiously optimistic, seeing as things are actually loosening up, and it’”s spring in Dali, with flowers and new leaves and shorts wearing. Do note that my optimism is very cautious, however, something I’ll talk about in the last section.

Ridiculousness

This is the section I’ve been most looking forward to writing. The reactions of the general public to this panic have been the source of both all my rage and all my cathartic laughter. The title of this email comes from a Chinese social media article that completely reversed my opinion of Chinese humor. It’s worth opening just for the pictures. One line reads: “When the Chinese people began to MacGyver themselves to pandemic safety, the virus flinched.” (Thanks to J. D. for helping me “trans-create” the original). I certainly missed the most concentrated ridiculousness in the big cities, but we had our share! Before the villages sealed, I noticed a woman a few doors down from me spraying her entire gate down thoroughly with disinfectant, the way the ancients spread lamb’s blood on their doorjamb to tell the pestilence “you shall not pass!” I heard of other villages having people with pesticide sprayers walking around spraying every concrete surface with bleach water, and then sure enough, it started happening in my village. I’ll never forget the smell of bleach permeating the entire village.

During the height of the registration craze, one village government in our cluster of villages went for the gold medal in vigilance. We live in the southernmost of a dense cluster of administrative villages that all manage village-level affairs separately, but with enormous amounts of alleys and little streets joining the villages. The village immediately to our north blocked the eastern and western entrances with sentries, despite none of the other villages doing so, meaning that it was still very easy to get in and out. One day I took that village road down to the store, because it’s closer, and was accosted by a very angry old woman. I explained that I lived in the same village cluster, and she said, “that’s a different village! Walk on your own village’s roads! These are extraordinary times!” I heard that exact phrase about extraordinary times a dozen or so times during the panic, every time when I was being prevented from doing something reasonable by a vigilante, official or self-appointed. In the very last days of the lockdown, our administrative village threw up makeshift barricades in three alleyways that led to one major road, which was mildly annoying because it blocked my dog-walking route, but still in no way kept us from getting in and out!

The funniest incident for us in Dali, however, was the scandal where our local city government impounded a shipment of masks meant for the government of hard-beset Chongqing, distributing them not to hospitals, but to the real estate companies who have been building massive villa complexes in the area for subsequent distribution to villa owners, with some ending up being scalped second-hand on the Chinese version of eBay. There was nationwide and international news coverage, and lots of heads rolled, and trust was further eroded. And most ridiculously, our lockdown got much tighter and stupider immediately afterward, and everybody was sure it was the city government trying to save face at our expense.

The saga of Mr. Yang

This story epitomizes the ridiculousness. I must back up to a few years ago, when, walking home at around 10 pm, I was accosted by a staggering drunk middle-aged man, fat and balding, reeking of baijiu, whom I’d seen around but never talked to. He told me I owed 300 kuai for parking in the village, and insinuated I should just hand him cash in that moment. I asked if the rule applied to everyone, and he said yes, and I asked if it was the village government, and he said yes, and I said, OK, on the day everybody else pays their 300 kuai, I’ll be there too. He muttered something to himself and walked away. He never talked to me face-to-face again, and nobody ever brought up paying for parking. In the last year or so, he seemed to have developed a disliking to me, cursing me for being a laowai every time he encounters me, especially when I’m driving. I figured he was just another village idiot, of which we have a few (one has shown me his penis on multiple occasions), and decided he wasn’t worth fighting with. Then at the outset of the panic, before I realized how stressed out everybody was already becoming (remember: I was in disbelief), out walking my dogs on our regular route, I walked past him. He was an early-adopter of mask-wearing, so on top of accumulated grievances with him I also felt he was a bitch. He pointed at my dogs and said, “you can’t let dogs run around willy-nilly right now! Next time I see these dogs, I’m going to kill them!” I saw red. I cursed at him in English, anger having blocked my access to the Chinese language, and made the international gesture for “suck my dick.” He rolled off without saying more, and I experienced homicidal fantasies for days, centering on the rear naked choke technique I’m very good at. I can’t remember the last time I was that angry at someone not in my family. Days later I noticed him patrolling with several other masked men around the perimeter of our village, when he pointed at my dogs again and muttered something in Bai (the local language that I can’t speak). As I stewed, I realized he must have thought my dogs were virus vectors, and that he was probably involved with the village government, and that it was very very bad to be in an open fight with someone like that.

A few more days later, returning to the village from skateboarding, walking very wide of where he was on guard duty at the rear of the village, he frantically gestured for me to come over. Against every fiber of my being, I forced myself to walk over and try to find a resolution. First he pointed madly at my face and his masked face, at my face and his face, over and over. When I asked him to use his words, he said “you need to wear a mask!” I said: but that guy behind you isn’t wearing a mask, and he said: “he’ll be fined for that!” The unmasked man laughed. I forced myself to be polite, despite visions of squeezing him lifeless still flashing before my eyes, and found out that he was indeed in the village government. I asked if we had any beef, and he said, in the tone you’d use to address your best friend, “no, but you need to wear a mask!” I gritted my teeth and promised to wear my mask, and he was elated.

Several days later, as I was going out to skateboard, I saw a lot of smoke above our village and people gathering. It was a brush fire! I ran home and grabbed our two buckets and zipped back, and yes, I was doing this largely in part to ingratiate myself with the village, but also because it seemed wrong to ignore something like a spreading fire. By the time I got back, there were at least 15 men with hoses and basins already working on putting it out, more than enough for the task and the only two sources of running water nearby, but they did appreciate the buckets. The man, surnamed Yang, like 90% of the village, was there barking directives in an angry tone, but clearly in charge, and garnering respect. I was glad to have been seen by him and everyone else helping. The fire was out in about 30 minutes. and I met a few more of my neighbors.

Toward the end of the lockdown, we were invited to dinner at our neighbors across the street, the people we’re closest to in the village. After getting drunk on their baijiu for the first time ever (I’ll talk about social capital in a second) I broached the subject of Mr. Yang. The daughter’s husband implied that he has something like Tourette’s syndrome and says awful blunt things all the time, but the villagers think he’s hilarious because he constantly tells everybody he’ll fine them. He said that other than his low EQ and being a drunk, he’s an OK guy. When I said our tensions got high because of my dogs, the father of the family said: “why didn’t you just walk your dogs somewhere else then!?” Village wisdom!

The good things

There were a few upsides to the panic. For one, I got extremely close to my kids, being shut in with them all the damn time. My 4-year-old and I developed a passion for paper airplanes. My infinite gratitude goes out to “The Paper Airplane Guy” and “Foldable Flight” on YouTube. Our house is now never not littered with dozens of models of airplanes. I even find myself often folding planes with a drink to relax after a work day. I also got an incredible amount of translating work done, finishing my massive book project (coming in at 549 pages, single spaced, 10.5 point font) ahead of schedule, along with my US-based work, putting us in great financial shape for the new baby and the next year. I was one of the few people making money this whole time, in fact, but I’ll get into the economic stuff in the last section. The most fun part of the panic was that I got decent at skateboarding. I’d bought a skateboard right when we got back from the US, intending to learn it as my 4-year-old learns his scooter, but once I lost all other exercise outlets, an hour out in the mostly empty streets on my “cruiser” became my daily routine. Now I’m pretty decent even at high speeds ripping down Dali hills. Just yesterday I went out to practice on roads now abysmally full of Chinese drivers, and I found myself wistful for the lockdown.

Jiu-jitsu & booze

I’ve gotten into jiu-jitsu with the fervor of a born-again Christian in the last year. It is the best sport I have ever practiced, and I plan on doing it until my body falls apart. Right after the panic started but before I had caught up emotionally, our group went to our gym, located inside a hotel, for routine training. Halfway through the session, the hotel owner, a very nice woman who is terribly generous with us, appeared at the gym door wearing a mask, startled that we were even there. She said we could finish for the day, but she’d received an order from the government to shut down, with no idea when she could reopen. Undaunted, we planned to meet in my friend A’s house to train, but then his landlord, part of his village government, said no visitors. Our friend whose house is in Yinqiao, 15 km to the north, has a small dojo in it. A ride past on his bike during the day and was told by the sentries to fuck off. So we went at 7:30 one night, after the sentries were off duty, and were let in by the American and Spaniard kung fu guys, who’d planned to just spend the CNY holiday in Dali but got stuck. We managed about five sessions there that way, drinking a little with the other foreigners afterward because we had no other social outlets, before I got a message from the Spaniard that he’d been visited by the village chief and told not to let anybody else in. A few days later the village chief showed up again with some cops and just kicked them out, forcing them to stay in a hotel in Old Town. This is when the depressive part of the lockdown started for me. I have great trouble motivating myself to exercise by myself in the house, yet without vigorous exercise my crazy moodiness comes out. And this is why it’s both a blessing and a curse to be a large-scale brewing and distilling hobbyist during a lockdown, with 5 beers on tap and hundreds of bottles of gin, rum, absinthe, pastis, and all kinds of other liquors sitting around. There were days that I’d start drinking at noon, have to stop working from insobriety at 3 or 4, and watch movies with the kids until everybody went to bed. Besides the drinking I was eating way more than usual from boredom. Thanks to my wife and our giant stash of food, our eating standards didn’t decline at all. My wife came out of the lockdown being in fact 8 months pregnant, and me looking 3 months pregnant. Then a week and a half ago we finally got to practice jiu-jitsu at A’s house, on his roof under the Himalayan sun, which symbolized ultimate defeat over the lockdown for me. A few days later we got our proper gym back. Now I’m rededicated to the healthy life and look only 2 months pregnant!

Mass psychology & social capital

My biggest lesson from this crisis has been the importance of properly dealing with mass psychology. Even though compared to something like Ebola or a war, the threat to our lives was minuscule, the thinking patterns of people around us immediately receded far down their brain stems. It took a lot of willpower to accept that people were acting from fear, and that means irrationally. I can extrapolate what level of thinking would be prevalent during something actually dangerous like a war. God willing, I never forget this lesson: never poke an angry bear; go around him! Americans today say they can’t imagine what drove us to round up Japanese into prison camps in WW2, but let me be clear: having seen what I just saw, I have no doubt that I’m getting rounded up, to wide social approval, with all the other round-eyes if shots are fired between the US and China.

I’m the only foreigner in my village, and there aren’t a lot of “outsider” Chinese here either, which I imagine is why I didn’t feel any overt resentment during the panic. Lots of other places, however, especially around Yinqiao, are “overrun” by “outsiders,” mostly well-off Chinese escaping big cities for a more rural life. There have been widespread reports of locals fucking with outsiders throughout the crisis, with people driving cars with non-local plates being frequently targeted. Interestingly, Han Chinese, who tend to be aloof and condescending to the local Bai, seem to have been targeted more than foreigners, many of whom are gregarious and warm. One French friend living in Yinqiao, who has actively maintained friendships with a lot of his neighbors, reports he was never hindered from coming and going during the lockdown, but an entire family of Beijingers in his village were told they were welcome to leave, but they would not be readmitted.

That leads me to my next point, about social capital. Our social strategy in Dali has centered on “outsiders,” foreign and Chinese, people more like us. We have a broad social network, but it’s scattered geographically around Dali, and we were largely cut off from them during the crisis. We actively chose to eschew the local social system because we convinced ourselves it would be a hassle being invited to everything and having to reciprocate. So despite having lived here for six years, we are not at all incorporated into the village’s social fabric. I don’t know the vast majority of people’s names (despite the fact that you’re right 90% of the time saying “Mr. Yang”). I now realize just how crazy and dangerous this is. It’s especially nuts that I didn’t know that “I’ll fine ya” Mr. Yang was in the village government! Large gatherings are still technically forbidden, but as soon as something approaching normalcy returns, I”m going to throw a big shindig and invite all the neighbors, and learn as many names as I can, and try to figure out the local government hierarchy!

The nature of local government

Although I knew this before, the adage that my friend Louis heard from his dad has been cast into sharp relief: “never try to separate a functionary from his function.” Village government officials are tasked with very menial jobs and not paid well, and so only bossy people without prospects for real advancement in the world (or otherwise people who plan to profit from the office, like one village chief who got canned for scalping masks during the lockdown) are attracted to the job. My big lesson here has been to figure out what their area of jurisdiction is, and what they care about, and to either avoid their area or pander to them if I must wander through their area. They should be directly confronted only in cases of dire need. If you know what they care about, it becomes extremely easy to avoid their controls so long as you appear to be doing what they want. Some of my friends, mostly Chinese ones, got into screaming matches with local officials during the crisis for irrational measures, which God knows I wanted to do, but thankfully I walked myself off that ledge every time. Leave them their functions! It’s all they have!

Blame

I’m getting sick of hearing all the blame being thrown out in every direction for this virus. I’ve heard urban yuppie types complain about the barbarous habit of eating wildlife, introverted types who were happy reading books the entire crisis complain about the gall of some people for coming out to socialize, Americans freaking out at China for not controlling the virus, Chinese freaking out at the rest of the world for not imposing Chinese-style authoritarian measures in their countries and putting the rest of the world at danger, and so on and so on. None of it is helpful. I’m sure that reams of paper got spent producing Chinese government reports after SARS, and some of them probably said in font so big you could read it from the cheap seats: do not cover up information in the event of potential epidemic. And yet information silo’ing is the beating heart of the political system here. Their political system could no more help acting the way it did than ours can help acting the way it does. Shit happens sometimes, people. Instead of flipping out about why the world isn’t configured according to your preferences, adjust to the current reality, and focus on what’s within your control! On one last ranting note, get ready for everybody to use the virus panic to “prove” what they’ve believed all along. We need strong nationalistic leaders like Xi Jinping! We need socialism! We need more investment in this and that and everything else that now suddenly seems so important! *Disclaimer: in my case, what I have believed all along is objectively true.

Going forward

If you made it this far, wow. As I said, my current feeling is cautious optimism. Yunnan went white on the China epidemiology map yesterday, meaning no confirmed cases in the province, but this morning a new case was confirmed having flown in from Spain. We felt the regulations go slack for about a week, but now they’ve begun focusing on people returning from abroad. People returning from “high-risk” countries, including the US now, are being quarantined at their expense in government-chosen hotels. Our friend with the dojo returned from France and spent 9 days going about his business before he was whisked into an ambulance and rushed to the quarantine hotel retroactively, to spend 5 days there, thereby meeting the standard for a 14-day quarantine. He was released yesterday. Beijing just announced anybody returning from anywhere is going to be quarantined for 14 days. If everything we’ve heard so far about the virus is true, it will spread everywhere in the world. Nobody has been able to stop it so far. The UK has announced that they’re not doing anything at all to stop it. That policy sounds harsh, but realistic. If this virus is as contagious as it’s purported to be, it’s only a matter of time before it gets everywhere. China is working overtime to stop the virus from being reimported, but as the virus spreads, this task will grow and consume resources like a cancer, and still some cases will inevitably come through anyway. Given the nature of our globalized economy, there’s just no way to stop international flows of people like this indefinitely, short of going all “closed country” like Edo Japan, which would be national suicide. The UK seems to acknowledge that in advance, and is willing to take a hard blow now, also saving the resources a general quarantine would consume, so that when the virus inevitably comes back with a vengeance this winter, they won’t have to shut down their entire economy. China will eventually be forced to recognize this fact too.

What I’m particularly concerned about is the social fallout that will start appearing after a lot of people have gone many months without income. A lot of people don’t have savings and are renters. Here in Dali I’m already seeing “looking for work” signs posted. Tourism shows no sign of rebooting any time soon. I expect a crime spike in the coming months. The positive is that policies are already appearing encouraging massive relaxation of regulations on new “medium, small, and micro enterprises” as the government surely realizes that only grassroots efforts will get money circulating. My Small Is Beautiful fantasy seems poised to sprout to some degree. As for the US, I keep on hearing a statistic about 40% of American households being unable to put together $1000 in an emergency. Then there’s our utter dependence on globalization for survival, as well as China’s and everybody else’s. In terms of economic survival, I get the feeling that the UK’s policy of “ripping off the band-aid” is going to prove sage in the long run.

That said, I’m happy to be in China right now. Ideally I’d own a self-sufficient farm somewhere in the US with lots of chickens and bullets, but short of that, the one thing I’m sure they won’t allow in China is a breakdown in social stability, unless the entire system goes down, in which case the virus will be the least of our concerns. Thankfully I don’t anticipate that just yet. I’m not all gung-ho nationalism across-the-board, but you do have to admit the system’s merits, and the possibility for disaster stemming from America’s “devil may care” attitude about the masses of people who were already sliding out of the middle class. Time shall tell.

And for the record, we’re not fully back to normal. I’ve been re-registered twice in the last week, every time wondering if they might suddenly change policy and put all foreigners in a camp. My 4-year-old’s kindergarten still doesn’t know when it will open, and there are still guards at entrances to the mountain trails turning people back for God knows what reason. The answer they give now, the same answer we’ve gotten this whole time when we ask any question about a return to normalcy, is “we’re waiting on notice.”

I’ll be waiting on notice from you in the US. I love the hell out of all of you, and I hope to hell the virus isn’t nearly as big a deal as they’ve made it out to be. Just remember: it will end eventually!

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