There is no way around it. My life in Beijing has been disrupted by the coronavirus-- or perhaps, more realistically, by the various responses to it. These responses have ranged from valid, from government closures of schools to sanitation and monitoring of public transport, to too panicked, with cashiers at the grocery store taking my temperature at the checkout line. While Beijing is not officially quarantined, certain inter and intra-city travel restrictions have been placed upon it that resemble a partial quarantine. Socially, it is largely under quarantine. People have been pressuring each other to stay inside: Spouses to spouses, parents to children, employers to their employees. Some of my colleagues, both local and international, have not left their apartments in days now because of the intense social pressure to stay inside. People have also been pressuring people to leave; some of my friends are constantly answering hysterical calls from concerned family members in other countries, asking us if we’re okay, demanding that we fly home. Never mind that airports are more likely places to catch the virus than our homes-- get home NOW before I drag you home! Travelers are being asked to isolate themselves for two weeks following any travel as a precaution not just from traveling but also from being at the airport.
Since I am an educator and foreigner, the largest disruption in my life from the virus is work. On top of that, I am transitioning from one job to another, meaning that what was already a delicate process with balancing work permits and budgeting money has been entirely upended by the anxiety of the virus, and all paperwork has come to a standstill. On the one hand, this kind of preventative measure is something that I don’t think I would ever see in the US, which in my observation takes a more individualized approach to public health and has different public health needs, and so I applaud this method of attempting to contain the virus. On the other hand, I am essentially jobless for a month, in a barren purgatory of digital hysteria, empty streets and subway cars, and limited access to the work I had poured myself into for so long.
I have time, time, and time.
How am I filling my cavernous time, this disaster vacation?
I am reminded, in these responses to the outbreak of the coronavirus, of Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” in which she wrote of the impact that assigning literary or ethical qualities has on people living with illness. Sontag wrote specifically about cancer and tuberculosis, arguing that patients of these illnesses are reduced to the meanings imposed on them, pushing aside reality in favor of moral judgement. Sontag, a cancer patient herself, stated that while she was living with the illness, it didn’t stop her from living her life. She had sex, she was social, she was still a mother and a lover and a whole person. She was not a hushed whisper of sterility and pity. I have read "Illness as Metaphor" a few times in order to contextualize my own struggles with chronic illness, and it has helped me reassert my vitality in the wake of societal assumptions about disability.
In the context of epidemic, however, Sontag's arguments must be slightly recontextualized. Transmittable illnesses, particularly those caused by viruses, have a different social meaning, often heavily political. Because they are so potentially disruptive, epidemics and pandemics often reveal weak spots in our economic and political structures, and the Wuhan coronavirus has very specific political stakes attached to it: For many, the outbreak is a reminder of SARS and serves as a test of how an increasingly powerful China deals or doesn't deal with its internal happenings, especially in the wake of discontent in HK and a trade war with the US. For some, it is an anxious distraction from US impeachment, election cycles, Brexit, or whatever local crises might be happening in their immediate community. As with other deadly viral outbreaks in the past, like Ebola virus, SARS, and to a lesser extent, MERS, obsessing over somewhere else's perceived chaos serves to reaffirm the idea that where you are is fundamentally safe and functional, especially if you are part of a demographic whose worldview is actively normalized as something to aspire to.
And if it's happening directly to you or you believe it will, regardless of the actual circumstances of the illness-- say you've seen a lot of zombie movies in your day-- then an epidemic reveals a fundamental distrust in what you know to be normal. I am thinking of self-flagellators during bouts of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, weeping blood from their backs as they strive to believe in something other than the destruction around them. I am imagining the tapestries that covered the walls of the living now covering wagons full of casualties. Somewhere in my memories of studying for history classes float absurd death tolls and anecdotes of villages where half the population died.
But it’s important to remember that the coronavirus is not bubonic plague (plague is bacterial, not viral, so it requires a different epidemiological approach). It’s not even the flu. Look at the numbers, low fatality rates, promising recovery rates, and specific affected demographics. More people have passed away from the flu than they have from the Wuhan coronavirus, though I want to refrain as much as possible from turning real lives and deaths into abstract talking points-- an affirmation in and of itself of how fortunate I am here in Beijing as opposed to being in the epicenter of all this. That being said, the coronavirus is more symbolic than it is fatal, and perhaps the silver lining in more people being scared about it than afflicted by it is that such intense focus may result in being able to develop a vaccine much faster and stop the spread from being truly pandemic. However, I suspect that the symbolic meaning of the virus has been taken to plague proportions, and has overtaken the reality of the virus itself. In contrast, the plague usually lived up to the symbolism attached to it.
But, since now the symbolic meaning of the virus has become my reality and eaten into my vibrant work life like a moth at a tapestry, how am I filling my time? I've given in and am playing along a little bit-- I, too, have barricaded myself at night and put on the plague doctor mask. But unlike my housebound colleagues, I haven't been alone, or even much at home.
I have been Decameroning.
The frame story of the Decameron, a 14th century work by Boccaccio that went on to inspire Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales, revolves around a group of young nobles who escape to a deserted Italian villa during a bout of the plague and, out of the boredom and anxiety of their lives being disrupted, potentially fatally so, begin telling each other stories. While I am far from noble and haven’t escaped to a villa, the impulse to not be alone during this time has been strong, and the disruption of my normal life has resulted in a need to create and preserve meaning. So I have been Decameroning, cultivating meaning and sociality in the midst of a viral outbreak disguised as a symbolic plague that has halted, temporarily, the natural course of the things that make my life a living thing.
In a certain stone alleyway in the old part of the city, there is a heavy wooden door with a strong latch that has, in the hazy, dark evening, come undone for me and a few other people. Two gracious bar owners and friends of mine, one of whom lives where he works, put on the projector, pour drinks, dim the lights. Sitting around, a small number of us play games or watch TV. We order food in, usually Chuanr, and pass the evening hours. I do not wear my mask here, among the four of you or eight of you. I remind you to wash your hands, you pour me whiskey on the rocks and make yourself tea. Cards change hands. I am asked to mess up a puzzle cube and then am taught that it doesn't matter how badly I mess it up since the cube abides by certain algorithms. We pass along jokes we brought with us like trinkets in luggage. A man on the projector makes katsudon for a boxer who lost his big match but gained a family. Someone in the corner edits photos of empty streets or subway cars, two youths make out when everyone else has left for a cigarette break. Someone writes a poem or pulls out a sketchbook and doodles centipedes. A pet dog perches beside a group of us playing Catan. I take a nap using jackets as blankets. We talk about religion, philosophy, trauma, travel. We make or answer calls to loved ones, we check plane ticket prices and weigh the pros and cons of leaving the city. We check up on any friends who might be sick and have quarantined themselves off, we assess our own health like Catholics in confessional alcoves. The dim lighting and the haze outside, the emptiness of the world around us, is filled by our passing the time, our acute awareness of the money we've lost by not working, the old SARS quarantine hospital going up in the outskirts of the city, the first death and the fourth recovery in our latest tallies of the intercity spread. The tension of our lack of normalcy has created a temporary new normal, a frame narrative that will be dismantled like a finished puzzle going back into its box once enough time has passed that empty time will cease to be relevant. But this frame narrative, in this moment, reminds me of my own life and death. And when I leave the bar and the door latches behind me, when I have kissed a lover goodnight and set off into the cold, I put my plague doctor mask back on. And like everyone else there the night before, I wake up in the morning alive and alone, but a little less so.