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Landing in China, 22nd January

passengers wearing masks on the train

Passengers wearing masks on the train.

My story has no modern heroes but is merely a documentation of my confrontation with the Coronavirus outbreak in China.

My name is Athena and I was a student studying abroad at King's College London (fall 2019 term). Originally, I am from Peking University in Beijing. After four months of an ‘Alice in wonderland-ish’ exchange in the UK, I was excited to go back home to Yantai, a coastal city at the east-end of China. That day was the 22nd of January 2020, and boarding the British Airways flight to Beijing later proved to be another rabbit hole into a new world.

From the first day I arrived in Beijing, to the next time I was legally allowed to step outside, I had experienced 53 days of lockdown. During this period, I had come in close contact with a Coronavirus patient, I witnessed the Wuhan lockdown, experienced the cancellation of Chinese New Year, and had both disturbing and heartwarming moments.

22nd January, The Train Ride

On 22nd January, the unknown virus from Wuhan was already spreading in all megacities in China. Before my departure, I bought a box of 6 medical masks from a pharmacy in Hackney.

After landing in Beijing (I was so tired it felt like I was dragging along a sandbag), I took a 6-hour train across the virus-stricken country to my hometown of Yantai. That was the direst train ride I have ever experienced. For 6 hours, I was sitting diagonally to a sick passenger, a young lady who was coughing nonstop. It was not an ideal time for coughing in a train car packed with 85 passengers. Back then the deadly virus didn't have a name as it showed the exact symptoms as a usual cold, such as coughing and high temperature.

At first, the train car was just like normal, people chatting, watching Tiktoks, and having snacks, (except half of the passengers wore facial masks). As the lady continued coughing, ominously, the hustle and bustle evaded, and the whole train car became silent and tense. The only thing that you could hear was the sick lady's continuous thick coughing. No one eating, no one drinking, no staff going through, for all 6 hours only her coughing. And she wasn't wearing a mask; many weren't at that time. I was so scared. Had she been a patient of "that thing", we all had a big chance of catching it. Other passengers clearly had the same thought, as people started turning their heads to her, she was flushed with heat and looked exhausted, resting her head aside.

At that time, no one had any idea of the death rate, or whether there was a treatment. Anybody on the train could have been a patient; we were all playing by chance. For a moment we realised it was like 'Snowpiercer', the Korean thriller movie in which furious passengers revolted on a train. I would be lying if the idea of throwing her out had never crossed our mind.

I was desperate and texted my mom "I don't wanna die". As the night grew darker, I put on two masks at once. I still had three spare masks left in the box, I gave one to a train attendant at the snack trolly, one to the little girl sitting in front of me, and I had the last one left. I gazed at the coughing lady for several seconds. It would be insulting to show my concern, but for the sake of everybody's health, eventually I broke the courtesy, pulled out a spare mask, and handed it to the coughing lady. "I don't think you are, but just as a safety concern..." I didn't even need to finish as she understood and accepted the mask quietly.

At 10 pm, when I reached my lovely home (after four months abroad), my worried mom didn't even try to hug me (even after four months abroad!) She stopped me at the door, sprayed me head to toe with ethanol and washed all my clothes after getting inside.

The next morning, I woke up and Wuhan was locked down. Two days later on 25th, we heard the nationwide lockdown announced amid Chinese New Year’s Eve.

25th Jan, The Chinese New Year Eve (CNY)

It was the most horrifying CNY Eve ever. You can’t begin to imagine— or perhaps you can (just picture watching 9/11 on Christmas Eve). We were wearing festival clothes and ready to light the firecrackers after our family dinner when someone knocked on our door telling us, "don't go outside. Cancel your visiting plan"—they didn't even say for how long. We were bewildered, and certainly couldn’t keep up with reality. The TV was streaming CNY gala, supposedly a joyous event. Still, we were receiving a flood of news on social media. People were dying in Wuhan, medical staff lacked PPE and Coronavirus data skyrocketed hourly. Everyone was calling each other, not for festival blessings, but checking if they were okay. It was like wartime, and we were sending everything to Wuhan. Such a panic - I could never forget that.

But meanwhile, we got busy. My friends in the university set up a charity fund to buy PPE for hospitals in Wuhan. I called for my classmates’ support, and we were able to donate a good number of medical equipment for hospitals within a short time.

Two days later, 27th Jan, the police called me because that lady on the train had tested positive and was admitted to the hospital. So, I was in close contact by definition. It was a whirlwind of emotion after knowing this. I was immediately the least favourite person in the room (once again, after four months abroad). I went under strict quarantine for the next ten days, and CDC team became my only friends. Shout out and big THANK-YOU to CDC for wearing astronaut overalls to my house repeatedly making me the cool kid in the neighbourhood. After two tests saying negative, I was set free. And I know it was probably my tiny act of kindness that saved me.

15th April, Today

Now our life is getting back to normal, but there are more people out there affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. My American friends in the US couldn't find masks anywhere, so I sent out 500 medical masks to them.

I do feel unsafe for being a Chinese these days. Undoubtedly, we are standing at the turning point of history. The chasm between people has never been more profound. But in fact, it is the humanity that we all rely on. Our decisions are changing history right now, and I hope we choose to get through this, and many more dark times together.

Wearing 2 masks on the train.

Wearing masks on the train.

Edited by Shreya Sharma

Images by Athena Wang

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