It’s a surreal experience, seeing the rest of the world enter a state of lockdown and self-quarantine, just as China begins to dial back its own government-imposed measures. As the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak, China was the first country to effectively shut itself down, closing schools, shopping malls and workplaces everywhere in an effort to reduce the virus’s spread. As a Westerner, I had no idea what to expect, no real experience of self-quarantine or isolation. Before this, I’d never even worn a mask outside.


Everybody Hurts

Being situated in Chengdu, Sichuan province, we were one of the least affected by the outbreak, as the city’s exposure to the virus was minimal, and barely spread from there. As a precautionary measure, myself and my colleagues were confined to our homes as the schools closed, while online teaching was quickly rolled out. Returning from winter holiday in the UK, I flew back into Chengdu directly, via the worst flight I have ever experienced. Accidentally dropping a chunk of in-flight Tikka Massala into my mask, I spent the whole time with tears in my eyes and curry up my nose.

Upon returning to Chengdu, I was put under 14 day self-quarantine in my apartment complex – leaving only to collect food deliveries from the front gate. No curry though, I’d had quite enough of that.

The lonely, dull days passed slowly (averaging about three movies a day, several seasons of different TV shows, a LEGO Batmobile and a lot of online classes), and outside, time passed too. As the infection rate of the virus’s spread slowed, gradually Chengdu began to return to life.

The End of the World as we Know It?

At first, there were shortages of meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, but there was no sign of any real panic buying – supplies of toilet paper were as bountiful as ever – and there was never any trouble in finding anything to eat or drink. The only problem I encountered was the feeling of isolation, loneliness and boredom. I longed to get outside again – especially as winter turned into spring and the days got brighter and warmer.

But these things pass, and so too, did the harshest aspects of lockdown, and now, while things are still far from ‘normal’, the streets are once again alive with the hustle-bustle of daily life in Chengdu. Traffic jams at rush hour; busy, loud supermarkets; restaurants packed with cheerful patrons; beer flowing at a number of the local bars.

While the Metro system is far quieter than it once was, it now runs back on schedule. The motorways have returned to a healthy (although not for the environment) ebb and flow of steady traffic, and taxis and DiDis run as they ever did (with some drivers taking the added precaution of taping off their side of the car, covering it with plastic). Even the local shopping district seems to have returned to relative normality, as the people emerge from shelter and fall back into their old habits and hobbies. All at a safe distance, mind.

One can expect to have their temperature taken before being allowed into the supermarket, bar or shopping mall (or in Chengdu’s case, shopping district) and everyone outside wears a mask. The schools remain shut, but teachers here face a full schedule of online classes, or make instructional videos to be shared online. The Meituan delivery guy has to wait outside the apartment complex, but our cleaner is allowed in.

In small groups, we congregate at the local bars that have been allowed to re-open (dictated by government guidelines on party numbers and distancing between tables), enjoying a familiar social atmosphere, unimpeded by recent events and fears. But that doesn’t mean that they’re gone, or that the threat has passed entirely…

…But I Feel Fine

It’s still unclear when – if ever – things will get back to as they once were. There’s no set date for our return to the classroom, and masks and temperature checks are still mandatory. There are even rumours of the airports closing down business for international travel. But for the people living here in Chengdu, there is a sense that the worst of the Coronavirus is behind us – that the brunt of it has been weathered.

In that respect, it is difficult to see many people from my home in the UK and the West ignore the advice of health professionals – heading out for a night on the town or venturing into busy shopping malls to spread and pick up germs from all over the place. Without ‘social distancing’ and self-quarantine, there’s the feeling that the situation here could have been a whole lot worse.

Whether China and the rest of the world will ever be what it once was remains to be seen. That much depends on how the rest of the world weathers the oncoming storm. It’s a painful situation, to see things getting better here, but facing uncertainty and worry as to how things will fare at home. I remain cautiously optimistic – but only if we can stop fighting over toilet paper and pasta first. Do you want Mad Max? This is exactly how we get Mad Max.


About the Author:

Joel Harley
Joel Harley is an ESL teacher and professional writer currently living and working in Chengdu, China. He enjoys good food, good drink and bad movies. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and find his movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
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