"I had no idea what I was getting into when I landed in China to spend the Lunar New Year with my family."

By Emily He
February 14, 2020
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As I write this, I’ve been quarantined in my mother’s home in Kunming, China for the past 19 days. In all, I’ve left her actual apartment six times—never more than a five-minute walk from my front door, and always with a face mask (they’re mandatory here)—usually to get groceries or other supplies like shampoo and laundry detergent.

In Kunming, we’re 950 miles (or a 19-hour drive) away from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 60,000 people worldwide—but each time I leave the residential compound I’m staying in, I can’t help but be surprised at how…normal everything looks. While nobody goes far (and are always wearing face masks), people stroll in circles around the facility or go to the grocery store just outside the gates.

The truth is, I’m one of the lucky ones—both in China and around the world. I’m not ill (though, I did have a scare a few weeks back); I have plenty of food and water; and the quarantine my mother and I are in allows us enough outside time to not go stir-crazy. But I’m an American citizen—and the lack of commercial flights throughout China (and back to America) and the lack of US resources offered to private American citizens in China has made me feel very left behind. Even worse: I had no idea what I was getting into when I landed in China just shy of a month ago, to spend the Lunar New Year with my mother and her family.

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I learned about the coronavirus outbreak after everyone else, when I arrived in Chongqing, China, on January 22nd.

Chongqing, a municipality bordering the Hubei province, is just over 500 miles away from Wuhan (a 12-hour drive by car), and the situation there was panicked. Just a day after I arrived, on January 23rd, the entire city of Wuhan—home to 11 million people—was put on lockdown. At least 12 other cities followed suit and announced their own travel restrictions the following day.

During the four days I spent in Chongqing, I didn’t go beyond a three-block radius of my grandma’s residential compound, again, always wearing my face mask. People were frenzied. The grocery store lines were atrociously long and the shelves were being emptied out. As the cases of coronavirus in Chongqing began to rise (and because any and all Lunar New Year celebrations were canceled), my mom and I flew to her home in Kunming, just under two hours away, to what we assumed would be a safer environment.

Before we left for Kunming, we only knew of one confirmed case of coronavirus, but just days after we returned home, that number rose to 19 confirmed cases. As of right now, 46 different people have been confirmed as having coronavirus in Kunming—a quick rise, but a relatively small number compared to the 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Chongqing, since we left.

Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to coronavirus news—especially when you’re in China.

WeChat—a Chinese messaging and social media app, kind of like Facebook—is a huge source of unverified information here. When my mother and I first got back to Kunming, we heard that all supermarkets and restaurants would be closed until further notice, so we loaded up on groceries. Luckily, that rumor turned out to be fake (though stores are completely sold out of thermometers, disinfectants, and face masks). Another rumor claimed that the virus was airborne and that all citizens should close their windows (my mom wanted to; I refused). And, yes, even the people here questioned whether or not bat soup was at the center of the outbreak.

Equally as important as distinguishing truth from rumor, for me, has been not to panic at every sniffle or sneeze—but also, not to avoid treatment if it’s truly necessary.

In the days after I first arrived in Kunming, I started to feel sick: a runny nose (not a symptom of the coronavirus) and muscle soreness and weakness (a symptom of coronavirus). My mom and cousin urged me to go to the community center to get my temperature taken, since we didn’t have a thermometer at home.

I, of course, didn’t want to go—not necessarily because I was worried I had coronavirus (despite a person in my grandmother’s building having a confirmed case), but because I didn’t want to be unnecessarily quarantined at the hospital and risk even more exposure to the virus.

Still, for peace of mind (and a sense of moral duty for those around me), I went to the community center anyway to get checked out. Not only was I nervous, I could see that the two women who took my temperature—the only other people at the community center besides me—were too. I could truly see the fear in their eyes. To our enormous relief, my temperature was normal.

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Luckily, my mother and I remain fine in Kunming—but I'm still disappointed in how little help there is for American citizens here in China.

Airlines around the world have responded to the coronavirus outbreak by suspending flights to and from China—and when a flight is available, it's extremely expensive and roundabout, making it extremely hard for me to get home.

In an email from the US embassy in Beijing at the end of January, US citizens were informed that there would be an evacuation flight sent to Wuhan—but only for the "voluntary departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of US government employees." That flight, apparently, would only have "limited availability for private US citizens." That news really upset me, too; I was confused why the US wouldn't offer to evacuate all US citizens who wished to leave Wuhan.

But for now, I'm trying to stay positive while stuck in quarantine (and China, in general): I'm able stay in touch with the outside world through social media; I read and write to give my brain some activity; and I try to exercise as much as possible to boost my immunity (and to counter the incessant snacking that comes with being cooped up). My mom is learning new recipes, and in the evenings, the two of us marathon Diane Keaton films. Overall, not necessarily a bad “compulsory holiday,” as a friend calls it.

And, despite all the scary news transpiring in both China and abroad, I think it’s just as important to tell the stories of kindness that the outbreak is bringing out, as well—like the elderly street-cleaner who donated his retirement savings to support the cause. Or the citizens in Wuhan who volunteer to drive and deliver food to the doctors and guards on duty. Or even my mom, who, though she’s easily aggravated by taxi drivers, is now wishing them good health.

I can’t even begin to imagine the hardship the people in Wuhan are going through—and especially those throughout the world infected with coronavirus. I can only speak for the scene in China right now, but while we’re all scared and wondering when this will end, there’s still a sense of camaraderie and hope—and, as strange as it sounds, I’m proud to be part of it. In the ironic way that tragedy brings people together, the coronavirus has managed to do that as well.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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