Editor’s Note: Nick Kaufman, a Massachusetts native who was awarded a Fulbright grant to study in China, sent the Globe’s Ideas section a slice-of-life look at how the coronavirus outbreak is playing out on the ground.
A tradition among Chinese shop owners while closing-up for the Lunar New Year is to hang lanterns and small red banners on their storefronts — offering wishes of luck, fortune, and good health in the upcoming year. The Lunar New Year break has ended, but the shop owners have yet to come and reopen their stores. Their red banners are starting to tear and fray.
News coverage of the coronavirus was very subdued in the mainland throughout December and early January. It wasn’t until I took the train from the southern city of Guangzhou across the border into Hong Kong that I became aware of it. I disembarked at the station, grabbed my backpack, and trotted up the stairs only to face a wall of people in lab coats armed with body-heat scanners. As one wary Hong Kong doctor pointed his thermometer gun at my forehead, I remember thinking, “What’s going on here?”
Temperature checks have since become ubiquitous all over China; riding the subway, visiting museums, even entering my university campus in Anhui Province, where I study economic development as a Fulbright researcher.
Anhui borders eastern Hubei Province, where the locked-down city of Wuhan is the epicenter of the outbreak. Initially, the virus seemed very far away. The guards at the gate of my university — fiddling with their newly issued thermometers — told me that they were optimistic that things would blow over in a few days.
A couple of weeks ago, Da Yi, a guard I’ve grown close to, was checking temperatures. I lined up with the other students and dutifully removed my cap. Da Yi spotted me and pulled me out of the line with a stern “Ni Ke!," the Sinicization of my name.
“Your temperature was perfect yesterday!” he said.
I said that it was.
“Do you feel healthy?”
I said that I did.
“Do you think that you have the Wuhan coronavirus?”
I said that I certainly hoped not.
He gave a satisfied grunt and then waved me through, no temperature check required. Lao Xie, the other guard at the gate, grinned and snapped a hearty salute as I strode by.
In the days since, as infections in Anhui Province topped 800, the university delayed the start of the spring semester and has instituted a campus quarantine — no students in or out.
One day, while chatting with the guards, I asked if they thought things were improving. Da Yi, who had slipped off his protective mask to smoke a cigarette, gave a quizzical look and gestured at a banner next to his gate. In times of crisis, the Chinese government often hangs big red banners around cities, providing advice and encouraging slogans. This one had gone up just that morning. In big white characters splashed across a bright red background it commanded: “DO NOT EAT WILD ANIMALS, COMBAT THE VIRUS, PROTECT YOURSELF AND FAMILY.”
I asked if they’d be willing to let me in to the university since I only wanted to run on the track. Lao Xie dolefully shook his head. “It’s not our decision,” he said, “The leaders decide.”
"You should go run down Huangshan Avenue,” Da Yi suggested to me, pointing his cigarette at the avenue leading up to his gate. “There are no cars, look how clear it is. The pollution won’t be bad.”
Indeed, most everyone was staying inside and avoiding crowds. It was tough finding fresh meat and vegetables to cook and I struggled finding an open restaurant. A godsend was a local Anhui chain called Lao Xiang Ji that served up provincial favorites (mostly chicken) over rice. The branch in my neighborhood was the only place open and has served my last five dinners.
Sitting at my table, I realized that the restaurant isn’t counting on customers coming through the door (in fact, city ordinances now prohibit sit-down customers to prevent people congregating). Lao Xiang Ji has stayed open because it’s doing a brisk food delivery business, and with a city on edge, petrified about going outside — and perhaps with a hankering for some chicken over rice — that delivery business is booming. Demand is so high that drivers for the Chinese equivalent of Uber Eats — riding motor-scooters, not cars — have camped out in the restaurant, waiting to zoom off with the next order as soon as it’s ready.
They’ve come to occupy the majority of the dining area, chain-smoking, drinking (drinking and driving laws don’t appear to apply to motor-scooter deliverymen in the middle of a viral outbreak), and converting the tables into poker tables, gambling away their earnings on low-stakes card games of “landlord,” a Chinese favorite.
Initially they took a great interest in me, amused to find a seemingly feckless American in their beleaguered city. Yet soon I had become an expected guest with them raising their glasses at me when I came by and asking if I’m sick of chicken over rice yet.
Several days ago when I came in, two restaurant employees, sporting bright green aprons, were immersed in a little photo shoot; the young woman striking a pose as her co-worker clicked away. They told me they were documenting employees cleaning the restaurant, to prove to the restaurant’s corporate heads that measures were being taken to combat the virus.
The woman spritzed cleaning liquid on a tabletop and, as she ran her rag through it, paused to face the clicking camera, the traces of a beaming smile visible under her mask. Next, she dragged a mop under the table, freezing mid-stroke as the camera captured another shot. Finally, the two set off to pose for more photos of themselves cleaning the bathroom mirrors.
Despite headlines, most young Chinese don’t seem troubled by risks to their personal safety. “I’m 25 and very healthy so I’m not too worried about myself,” a local university student told me. Yet, he was quick to point out that he was concerned for young children. China’s one-child policy was relaxed in 2015 and there’s been a nationwide spike in toddlers under age five. “I believe there are many nervous parents right now,” he said.
Another student, from rural Henan, to Hubei’s north, worried about the elderly. He was back visiting his family’s home village for the Lunar New Year. It’s where he had been raised by his grandparents when his parents, migrant workers, left for jobs on the Chinese coast. “Our village is 85 kilometers east of Zhumadian, the closest city, and even there the hospitals aren’t very good,” he told me by phone, “Besides, they’ve closed the roads to personal vehicles . . . so if older people here start getting sick, then what are we supposed to do? . . . Most of those that have died are old people.”
A few days later, the same student called back. Chinese social media was getting restless — beginning to criticize what they called the botched handling of the outbreak. Chinese Internet censors were hard at work containing burgeoning criticism. President Xi Jinping, conspicuously absent from headlines as the virus emerged, finally made a public appearance at a hospital in Beijing.
The student, at least, was impressed. He pointed about that when other government officials toured affected hospitals, they had often been outfitted in surgical scrubs and the highest-quality masks. But President Xi had ditched his tailored Western suit and tie for a simple dark leisure jacket — a type favored by older Chinese men — covered by a standard doctor’s white coat. The student admired how “common” it looked. He also admired the president’s face mask. Wealthier citizens were investing in sophisticated masks with air-filtration systems. But the president’s mask appeared quite basic.
With the Fulbright program suspended and all grantees asked to depart the county, I boarded a train for Shanghai. The next morning, I took a taxi to Pudong Airport for my flight to Taiwan. The taxi driver was chatty, and he lamented how even in a big city like Shanghai he hadn’t seen many people out. His fares were down. He didn’t consider the virus to be much of an issue, but his son had bought him three packages of masks and he was diligent about putting on a new one every morning.
When we arrived at the airport, I paid and he jumped out to open the trunk.
“I’d help you with your bags,” he said sincerely, and then paused. “But with the current situation, I think it’s better if I don’t get my hands dirty.”
Nick Kaufman was awarded a 2019-2020 Fulbright Student Research Grant in Anhui Province, China. He can be reached at email@example.com.