Experiences from the Coronavirus outbreak in China’s capital

By BENJY RENTON

BENJY RENTON
A child wears a mask on a Chinese train from Beijing to Harbin on January 25. The recent outbreak of the coronavirus in China has caused Middlebury to suspend its spring semester programs in China and order the return of all students who were studying in China back to the U.S.

I expected to write this column under vastly different circumstances. Today, Thursday, February 13, should have marked the start of Middlebury’s semester-long study abroad programs in the bustling Chinese metropolises of Beijing, Hangzhou and Kunming. Over two weeks ago, I finished a month-long intensive language program and was looking forward to traveling with my classmates on our new year holiday break and visiting the Snow and Ice Festival of Harbin and the ancient Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang.

 Instead, I sit writing this piece at home, having repatriated back to the U.S. and a week into self-quarantine. The new year travel period, known as chunyun, is usually the largest annual human migration in the world. Normally, close to 3 billion trips are made over the 40-day period as workers across the country return to their families to celebrate the new year. And yet my new year holiday, like many others’, ended only two days after it started, train tickets refunded and plans upended. 

Beyond holiday cancellations, the spread of the coronavirus has invoked a sense of fear and xenophobia towards Chinese around the world, causing division and provoking often discriminatory attitudes in shops, restaurants and college campuses. As countries have closed their borders to those from China in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, disinformation spread through the media has resulted in a perceived global crisis.

 So how did we get here?

 On Jan. 16, Middlebury students studying abroad in China received an email from Global Rescue, indicating that the “U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ha[d] issued a Watch Level 1 Alert.” We were advised to “be aware and practice usual precautions” for an “outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, preliminarily identified to be caused by a novel (new) coronavirus.” It was not until the following week, however, on Jan. 21, when I began to focus on the coronavirus outbreak shaking China to its core. The virus was and is believed to have originated in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of central China’s Hubei Province and home to 11 million residents.

I visited Wuhan in the summer of 2017 and had fond memories of my time there. Under the blazing heat, I enjoyed dishes of reganmian — hot dry noodles — as I climbed the Yellow Crane Tower for a view of a city larger than New York or London. More than 500 Americans have been evacuated from that same city since the beginning of the outbreak.

From our position in Beijing — over 600 miles away — our group initially felt a sort of immunity to this new disease that few could confirm exact details as to its source and spread. And yet as cases began to pop up in Beijing and throughout the country (as of now, the virus has spread to every region in China), we began to echo the sense of fear and paranoia felt by our Chinese counterparts. 

During the final week of our J-term program, residents of Beijing donned masks and started to cancel new year plans. We watched as a typically joyous time transformed into a grim one. Wuhan and the surrounding area went into lockdown and quarantine. Residents in Beijing rushed to the supermarkets and pharmacies, buying every face mask and hand sanitizer in sight. The Chinese government China made an impressive response to the coronavirus’ spread, shutting down tourist attractions nationwide and attempting to limit travel on the country’s extremely popular rail network. The effects of the virus were felt on a person-to-person level as well. On the eve of Chinese New Year, I had the privilege to be invited to a local friend’s celebration banquet. A depressing undertone filled the air of a usually lively restaurant, as the family next to us removed their masks only to eat.

The following day, I made the decision to continue with our small group’s trip up north to Harbin. After analyzing the situation as it stood at the time, I believed that the risk of anyone in our student group contracting the virus was still quite low. However, the country remained on high alert. China’s supply of thermometers seemed to quadruple as in every public place, temperature checks became ubiquitous. Even outside walking around Harbin’s Snow and Ice Festival, tourists wore masks as security guards pointed thermometers at every entrance.

 Still, a day into our trip we received an email from Middlebury’s study abroad office, instructing us to return to Beijing and gather in our dorm hotel to await further instructions. The rapidly changing situation meant that each day brought new restrictions nationwide — intercity bus services suspended, the official new year holiday extended, schools and universities cancelled until further notice. Many of our Chinese counterparts spent upwards of a week at home, with friends in Harbin cancelling dinner plans in fear of spreading the virus. Upon arriving back in Beijing, myself and my classmates were all placed in separate single rooms to undergo 14 days of health screening, since we came from outside Beijing. This consisted of three temperature checks throughout the day: one in the morning, one at noon and one at night.

 On the few occasions I ventured out during those days, I saw a city unlike the Beijing I had seen before. China’s capital had begun to show early signs of a “ghost town.” Many gated neighborhood communities in Beijing sealed themselves off from the outside. Taxis and cars sped along Beijing’s usually congested streets, with most people inside in fear of spreading the virus. Restaurants closed and dozens queued outside one of the only open eating establishments, hoping for a supply of fresh vegetables to bring home.

 On Jan. 29, we woke up to notice from Middlebury that the college had made the decision to suspend all programs in China for the spring semester. The days that ensued consisted of trips to the bank and cell phone store, closing accounts and refunding phone plans. Our group of 24 dwindled as students left on flights operated by airlines that were constantly announcing cancellations. On campus, movement became more restricted as security guards required us to register and inform them of our whereabouts whenever entering or leaving campus. Fast food and takeout became the norm for meals, as they were the only establishments open and involved minimal amounts of close contact. Takeout drivers crisscrossed the city as bags of food piled up in restaurants, waiting to be delivered.

 After 37 days in China, I was among the last Middlebury students to leave. On the final night before my repatriation, I walked around an eerily quiet dorm building. I mentally prepared to cut my semester abroad short by more than three months and wondered when I would return.

Leaving China is a privilege. I know that for many in the country, leaving is not an option. Many of my local counterparts have friends and family affected by the coronavirus epidemic. People who have visited mainland China in the past 14 days are currently unable to travel to the U.S. Fear around the global spread of the coronavirus has fueled racism and xenophobia around the world. These thoughts are misinformed and those who believe them fail to understand the vibrancy and diversity of China, its culture and its people. After completing my 19th trip to the Middle Kingdom since 2006, I have every motivation to return. Why? Because this country has given me hope, opportunity and energy, and we should give it the same.

Benjy Renton ’21 was The Campus’ senior local editor this fall.