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Walking in Shenzhen: ‘Relative Ghost Towns Everywhere’

Our contributor faces his own mortality as he finds himself self-uarantined in a locked-down Chinese city.

Editor’s note: Cody Fewston has contributed a number of articles on the Hong Kong protests over the last year. He wrote to us this week to say he and his small family are now in Shenzhen, China, living in one of the many communities currently under government lockdown due to the coronavirus. The following is a dispatch, received Tuesday.

As I write this from Shenzhen, China, the coronavirus COVID-19 has infected 73,429 and killed 1,873. It has a possible incubation period of 24 days, according to China’s National Health Commission. My four-year-old son, my Chinese wife, and I have been self-quarantined for the last 25 days, since late January when our residential compound of five-star executive suites was one of the first in the high-tech city to go into lockdown. We’ve been refused short-term guests, with only long-term residents allowed inside, along with any staff who hadn’t recently traveled for the Lunar New Year celebrations. 

China’s official government mandate to lock down all residential compounds and to ban all public gatherings went into effect last weekend, meaning shops and restaurants are closed or restricted to deliveries. A few open pharmacies restrict access by blocking entrances with boxes or tables, while the government mandates that pharmacists report any customer ordering medicine that treats fever, coughing, or nausea. In early February, one family in our residential compound ordered fever and pain medication to stock and prepare personal supplies. An hour later, the local police arrived at the door with management to do health checks.

The COVID-19 outbreak has killed more people in the first six weeks than in eight months of SARS (2002-2003). A second smaller outbreak of SARS was the result of a safety breach at a lab in 2004.** Now, most Chinese on social media believe current rumors and reports that COVID-19 also originated and leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which tested SARS and Ebola on bats and pigs. 

There are relative ghost towns everywhere you walk. The sheer silence is what strikes you. Where you expect to hear noise, life, there is nothing but a feeling of emptiness. Empty roads. Empty restaurants. Empty shops. Empty parks. Empty playgrounds. Empty skies. I’ve nicknamed the coronavirus the “World Killer,” because whether we, as a human race, like it or not, this is one of the many ways our created society ends. 

Quarantines come first to slow the spread of a virus, which leads to travel bans. (As Americans, my family and I are blocked from entering most countries simply for having been in China, and upon entering Hong Kong or the United States, we’d be forced into government centers for immediate quarantine for an additional 14 days, regardless of whether we’re healthy.) Next come the lockdowns, as we’re witnessing all across mainland China. Then more travel bans and more restrictions. Flight cancelations. 

Daily news reports breed anxiety, disorder, paranoia, and panic, leaving supermarket shelves empty, as we’re seeing in Hong Kong and Singapore. All the while, the number of infected and dead continue to rise. Shenzhen and likely most cities outside Hubei province have remained calm with no panic buying and supermarkets stocked aplenty. From what I’ve seen, Chinese in China, outside of Hubei, have reacted far better than people in Hong Kong. Even the idea of a pandemic is dangerous and feels taboo. Yet this is the interconnected world we have created for ourselves.

In China, everyone wears masks and receives temperature checks, which is akin to passing through borders during wartime; we’ve received no fewer than four temperature checks simply for going to the local supermarket to buy food. At first the routine health checks are an odd novelty, but as the days and weeks drag by, the routine becomes accepted, a normal part of daily life. 

Like most people, we keep to ourselves and have supplies delivered to our residential compound, which accepts the packages for us to retrieve later. Some might call these behaviors abuses of personal freedom, even crimes against humanity, while others might refer to them as necessary measures to protect civilization. If you aren’t in China now, so close to the deadly COVID-19 (a novel coronavirus most scientists still know little about), you’d probably agree with the former argument. But here in mainland China my family and I don’t have that luxury. We feel, for now, protected and safe, for whatever that’s worth. Regardless, we have decided to stay together.

Out there, in our minds, the world is crumbling. People are dying, people are panicking, people are attacking suspicious Asians in countries with relatively small numbers of infections. Here, we force ourselves into dignified composure; we must do so not only for our personal integrity but also for our sanity and well-being. We will ourselves to stay healthy, or fear being forced apart from one another and into a hospital, where we are sure to get infected and quarantined.

We wear masks. The WHO says masks are useless against COVID-19, but let me argue that if someone is infected and sick from the coronavirus and coughing and not wearing a mask and they are next to you in an elevator and you also don’t have a mask because you are healthy, as the WHO suggests, the chances of contracting the deadly COVID-19 are much, much higher than if both adults are wearing masks. Let the WHO officials travel around Wuhan and Hubei province and let’s see how quickly they guard themselves with masks.

That’s where we get to the real problem and the real fear. The real reason the WHO, among other agencies, is advising people not to wear masks is because of the extremely high demand for them against nonexistent supplies, which ultimately impacts the medical industry. The shutting down of supply chains, either because of a lack of supplies or because of travel bans (like no U.S. mail being sent to China), is our greatest concern now, far more dangerous than the COVID-19. 

Our greatest worries lie in keeping the supply chains open and moving and the economic wheels of commerce spinning. But as provinces and cities grow smaller because of forced lockdowns, as restaurants and shops close and public access is limited, as we rely on one to two days’ worth of food and supplies in any given supermarket, we consider our exit strategies. We want to go back to the USA, the land of my son’s ancestors. 

Will we make it? For now, we’re taking things one day at a time. I’d like to leave you on a more positive note, but when faced with your own mortality and stark-naked truths of vulnerability, you wish only for your child’s and partner’s health and survival. 

On a deeper, more honest level, I’d like to finish by telling you that I’m someone of importance, someone worth listening to in these grave times—but I’m not. I’m a failed novelist, one who has worked daily at his craft for over 20 years to no success. In earnest, nothing else matters now other than my family. I’ve written everything I need to write to you anyway. 

As the old Chinese saying goes, we’re waiting for the Dragon to lift his head. 

Editor’s Note: the story has been amended to reflect the two different SARS events. A second one, 2004, was later confirmed by the Chinese government to be the result of a safety breach at a lab which was testing the virus.

CG Fewston is an American novelist, a former visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, and visiting fellow at City University in Hong Kong. His most recent novel is Little Hometown, America, published in 2020.