Coronavirus diary: Life inside China during the outbreak
CHONGQING, CHINA -- Canadian Kai Wood and his wife, Xiaolin, live in Chongqing, China, a sprawling metropolis with more than 32 million people. The large municipality is located about 800 kilometres west of Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Chongqing and several other Chinese cities have been in a state of emergency since Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei were locked down in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.
In Chongqing, public gatherings are banned, most shops are closed and nonessential travel or outdoor activities are discouraged as people are being advised to self-quarantine in their homes to control the spread of infection.
Wood is a 40-year-old writer and teacher. He also works for iChongqing, a local news organization. He is keeping a diary of what is happening in China and is sharing it with CTVNews.ca.
Thursday, Feb. 27 -- Staying brave while getting groceries
It is day 34. Bravery is not the absence of fear, but managing anxiety and holding steady when your body tells you to shut down or run. I've always felt like a brave person, I'm rattled. I've never endured this much constant existential stress without finding a way "out." I need a new approach.
I've been doing a lot of outreach on social media, trying to help get my friends and family ready for potential outbreaks near them. When my friends tell me they think I'm brave, I laugh. Putting one foot in front of the other doesn't seem brave. We're all staying safe and surviving, slowing down the virus long enough to give the rest of the world a chance. I'm scared for my family back in Canada walking around, exposed.
Last night I stayed up until dawn reading medical studies about potential medicines. Although China is stable, I have this paranoia; I have to prepare to handle everything on my own. I find a credible article about a respected Canadian scientist who's had success with a supplement in treating similar diseases. I find a nearly sold-out shop online, and with the help of my dad, arrange to have the medicine sent to me in China. The whole thing's a Hail Mary, but it's something.
I wake up, exhausted and depleted. We eat our egg cake and drink coffee. I have a meeting with Liz in Toronto and volunteer to help Bernie win the Democrats Abroad primary. When young people react to a global pandemic with "good on you, Mother Nature," I know in my bones it's time for a green new deal.
Today marks the first day more new cases originate outside China than inside. I weigh myself, down another 2 kilograms. I'll have a beach body by summer if I keep this up.
I'm watching Iran closely. Iran's peculiarly high death rate for their confirmed cases either indicates a nasty mutation of the virus or, more likely, hundreds of more cases unreported. A sophisticated Canadian mathematical model predicts there are actually 18,000 cases in Iran today. They aren't canceling public gatherings. Instead, neighbours are closing borders and canceling flights.
We can't order more rice, so I make the decision to suit up and go shopping. The streets are mostly empty. I pass a public toilet and hold my breath to avoid dangerous aerosols. I manage to arrange my goggles, so they don't fog up in the first 5 minutes for once. The supermarket is quiet today.
As shopping drags on, I start to feel exposed. I'm pushing my cart along with Xiaolin on a video chat, and an older man behind me starts to cough violently. I bolt away, shaken. Everything is taking too long. I slow my breathing, but it's not easy. I keep moving and avoid close proximity to other shoppers.
The vegetables are quite well-stocked, but I still can't buy mushrooms. The supermarket is sold out of bags of sugar, and when I find the bulk section, I end up scraping the bottom of the sugar barrel. I get a big bag of rice, four bags of Doritos, lots of vegetables, pasta, and other goodies. I get some meat for Xiaolin. Everything is expensive but worth it.
Shopping order, expensive but worth it.
On the way back, I struggle with four heavy bags and stop to catch my breath. The old men that used to shine shoes have their tent taken over by a half a dozen policemen. They've closed down my street for half a block, around where my tailor lives and works. It's all cordoned off and they make me cross the street. I slow my breathing so I don't fail the temperature test.
At home, I'm sweaty and out of breath. I toss my clothes in the washer and jump in the shower. The ice-cold water doesn't warm up because I forgot to plug the water heater back in. My apartment isn't heated, but at least today is warmer.
I do some laundry and make a tomato and cheese wasabi mayo sandwich. Later, I enjoy some shrimp wonton soup, but my throat's icky. I eat a few Fisherman's Friends my mom sent me and have a nap. Later, I drink honey Echinacea tea, and we watch some TV. Tomorrow I'm going to make French toast and ignore the world.
Wednesday, Feb. 26 -- Will life return to normal?
Day 33. I wake up at 11:11. Make a wish. Old friends I haven't spoken to in years are reaching out. I have lots of fun things I want to do today, but start with the news and some strong coffee.
I'm told I need to try to get more invoices from a tax office to keep getting paid. I ask them to hold my money. I'm surprised when a delivery guy is allowed to come to my building, and I pick up a package. Xiaolin tells me that things are almost back to normal, but I'm wary.
I work on a new song on my ukulele, and sign up for a course at MIT called "Principle and Practice of Human Pathology." To boost my productivity, I subscribe to a lecture series called Pathoma. Later, I take a break and continue my journey in a juicy sci-fi novel.
I worry about people coming back and reinfecting us, after a month of quarantine. What's China going to do? Restrict travel back in?
To relax, I paint Dungeons & Dragons miniatures under the warm light coming through my window. My shoulders relax, and in the blink of an eye, I'm 12 years old, and my dad and I are shopping for miniature figures of heroes and monsters. I used to be good at painting. When I started up again, resisting the urge to glob paint and patiently dry brush practiced discipline and restraint. Being OK with making mistakes is a grounding technique that allows creativity and happiness to bloom.
Xiaolin tries to buy some vitamins, but they are all parked on the Yangtze at Wuhan. This summer we'll go to Canada and stock up. Part of me wants to buy a little cottage and become an off-the-grid hermit, but once this passes, living in a high-tech supercity is pretty cool.
I make pizza sticks with a wasabi hummus dip, a fun little invention so refreshing to eat it brings tears to my eyes. We have noodles for dinner, and Xiaolin is excited to try to make an egg cake. I'm enthusiastic in my support, and we work soundlessly together. She's delighted with it. Sometimes when life cracks your eggs, you have to make a cake.
The last piece of news I get today is with the rate of infected coming under control, China plans to stop infections coming from abroad. "China's containment strategy is shifting to an effort to stop the coronavirus from being imported back inside the country." Wow, so that's happening.
Tuesday, Feb. 25 – Passion; purpose, progress
Day 32. I stay up half the night, sending out hopeful messages and lists of emergency supplies to family and friends. COVID-19 is coming to their communities, and I hope people will take precautions. For many, it's still not on their radar, even with the change in media messaging informing of a pandemic and possible draconian quarantine measures such as in Italy's posh northern Lombardy region.
Xiaolin wakes up coughing, and I am quietly concerned. She's been a bit quiet and grumpy since Sunday, but gets up and makes pancakes, and I enjoy them with yogurt and coffee. We binge the whole season of Joe Hill's Locke & Key show while I alternate between work and exercise. The show is excellent, and he's the spitting image of his dad.
In absolutely fantastic news, China enacts a ban on wild animal trade and consumption, thought to be behind the SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks, overnight, wow! Amazing, and about time. The world is slightly friendlier to animals today and tomorrow.
My dogs are misbehaving again, peeing and pooping on the floor in protest. I wish I could explain to them it's not safe for them outside for multiple reasons, including possible infection, and targeted by concerned locals might see them as a health hazard.
My colleagues in the U.K. and Germany ask me for information I don't have. They wonder about our health insurance, with our countries warning us to return home, and whether we are going to be paid. There have been only three new cases in the past two days, but one is close to home for us. A man working in a butcher shop (one of the few open businesses around) about five minutes from my school is infected and hospitalized.
Today I "blow" my one meal a day diet, trying to help Xiaolin cook her dinner. I end up joining her, and we eat a simple meal of greens and rice. I can't justify not eating fresh green vegetables.
Due to local hotels being full, China is sending seven cruise ships to Wuhan to accommodate health care workers being sent from all over China to help treat the infected and suspected infected at the epicenter.
I steal an Oreo around 9 p.m., because dieting is hard, and watch some of Apple's "Mythic Quest" comedy, wondering what it would be like to go work for a Chongqing-based video game company. I think I’d enjoy it, so am going to write them some great stories and see where it goes.
Xiaolin naps after dinner and I read, knowing it will be an early night for me too. This has been going on so long I'm no longer frantically trying to absorb all the breaking news, and I feel like I might be able to relax.
Monday, Feb. 24 -- Good housekeeping
Day 31. A normalcy bias is an inclination for people to believe things will always function the way they have. This causes them to underestimate the probability of disaster and potential outcomes. We often see this when talking about the environment, sustainability, animal rights, and infectious disease.
I prepare for online teaching with a strong coffee and some textbooks. I send a few friends pictures of gutted Italian supermarkets; now might be a good time to stock up on a few months of rice and medications. Being prepared is something we can do, given the right information. The first step to escaping normalcy bias is situational awareness; trust your instincts.
The first chartered train for 500 migrant workers from 30 districts in Chongqing leaves for Zhejiang Province. Today 77,269 of 79,707 people with COVID-19 are in China. Chongqing has two new infections today, and 234 hospitalized, including 21 severe cases and ten critical cases. We've had six deaths, and 335 have recovered.
Today I work hard to convince Xiaolin to order more rice. Three packages arrive. I put on my gear and crank up my rock cover of "My Corona." We've got weeks of greens, milk, and yogurt, but no rice. She tells me her favorite 'Thai Rice' was out of stock. I'm not impressed.
I'm pretty sure this will be over soon, but I still start boiling water to fill the empty spring water bottles. At two litres a day per person, I can store a month of water for peace of mind.
I start a new diet plan: one meal a day. Fasting for 23 hours a day is shown to kill dead cells and strengthen my immune system. My huge lunch consists of three boiled eggs, refried beans, quinoa, and toast with a side of hummus, salsa, and hot sauce. It's hard to finish, but by sundown, my belly is rumbling.
My slippers are sticking to the floor. I miss our friendly, affordable, and familial 'Ayi' (Chinese for auntie, our housekeeper). For the past six years, she's kept our place spotless. Now she's in her village, so I take two hours to mop, and almost slip half a dozen times.
I repurpose a magnetic strip to fix the fridge door, and old Benben poops all over the living room floor. Even as I banish him to the balcony, Hachoo, in solidarity, maintains eye contact with me as she pees a big puddle. I scream until my throat burns and mop the floors all over again. That's just good housekeeping.
Sunday, Feb. 23 -- Patience prevails
Day 30. The word "quarantine" comes from the Venetian form of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning "40 days." People made sailors dock for 40 days to prove they weren't carrying a disease. I've got 10 more days before a real quarantine.
I don't want to imagine a decade locked up like this, but it's exciting to experience the largest self-isolation in human history. One in every five humans on earth is hiding from COVID-19.
I play some hockey with my dad and help Xiaolin with her shoulder treatment. I eat some oatmeal, boiled eggs, and bread with hummus. We teach a class, and it's OK. The next class is the problem.
The last class of our weekend tends to stress us out in normal circumstances. Today I'm ready to cancel it. There's massive audio lag. Usually, I'm asking students to take their earbuds out, and now I'm hassling them to wear them. These students are older and a bit slower to pick up the concepts. I let Xiaolin take the lead and mentally shut down. Xiaolin is convinced I've been cursing under my breath.
Later, Xiaolin stomps around the kitchen, banging pans. Arguing in a global pandemic is high stakes. You can't just take a walk, so patience prevails.
In a wild fantasy, I google an escape to Thailand, en route to Canada, one of the only direct flights out of Chongqing still running, but South Korea has put out a travel warning for Bangkok. Thailand might put one out for South Korea tomorrow.
I revisit my writing community on Scribophile and make a new group for locals called Cyber Chongqing & the Hot Po(e)t Society. I hope we can publish more this year.
My buddy falls over and messes up his knee. He wants to go to the hospital, but he's scared. He asks me for advice, and I recommend ice, heat, and prayer.
I refry refried beans in onions and garlic with a fried egg in a toasty burrito with hummus, salsa, and cheese and hot sauce. I'll remember this burrito forever.
Today it is cold! I'm excited for warmer weather on the horizon. I laugh until my gut hurts in a long call with my friend Andrea about the absurdity of life. And yeah, I've got a tough wife, you know who else did? Shakespeare. Lovecraft.
Saturday, Feb. 22 -- We Rise Again
Day 29. I sleep well and feel good today. We teach a morning class as laughter, and the grinding of coffee beans hums in the air. We make our famous spicy Chongqing noodles for lunch. One day, maybe we'll move back to Canada and have a restaurant or a B&B by the water somewhere scenic.
Frightened Ukrainians clash with police as they attempt to stop passengers returning from Wuhan. The panic of social media can be as dangerous as a virus. In Italy and Iran, people wear masks in public as the infection spreads. Many Korean neighborhoods look as empty as Chinese streets. A Canadian woman who contracted COVID-19 while in Iran causes a 'sentinel event' to broaden Canada and the CDC's criteria from "have you been to China or know someone that has" to reflect the current climate: people in nearly 30 countries are infecting each other, and potential cases could be coming from anywhere. Increased precautions must be made to slow infection, and front-line workers must prepare.
After lunch, I organize my digital life and read a bit. We teach another afternoon class, and make an early dinner; fried potatoes, fish, and green veggies. We teach a final lesson in the evening, and then it's time to relax. Keeping busy makes the day fly by in a comforting way. I've decided to limit my COVID-19 news to daylight hours and wind down with some self-care in the evening.
In China, Xi Jinping says that the turning point hasn't yet come about, and the situation remains severe. This is comforting to me. We want it to be over, but this thing has to burn itself out before we pat ourselves on the back, or this quarantine was for nothing. As long as I see my grandma in Canada this summer, I can handle anything else.
Packages of dog food, coffee, and avocados show up. I talk to a good friend Stu, and he gives me a real boost.
The things we've seen since we were kids astound us. What a time to be alive. I grew up when kids played outside and witnessed the birth of cellphones from bricks to flip to then smartphones. Video games turned from pixels on a screen to virtual reality, indistinguishable from life. For 1,000 years, the digital age will reign upon Earth, but I saw the beginning. I remember connecting to other computers directly on local bulletin boards before the internet was a thing.
In my lifetime, globalization went from an idea to completely automated and controlled by AI. Instant, affordable, and reliable global transport became a reality for billions around the world. I remember when dance music was underground, moved to stadium concerts, and became the soundtrack of TV ads and shoe stores. I got to experience the height of the Western world, in terms of power and culture and influence, and move to China as they came to power to stand next to America in terms of prosperity and cultural significance.
Automation and artificial intelligence revolutionalize the way the world operates on a near-daily basis. This flu may threaten our chain of globalized transportation, but it will make us stronger and more resilient in the future. We've gone through worse, and we will rise again.
Feb 21. -- What a time to be alive
Day 28. I wake up early, in a cold sweat. Strange dreams.
A live COVID-19 Q&A starts with Dr. John Campbell. There’s more than 4,000 of us tuned in, and despite his cough and cold, he patiently answers questions for hours. I make some coffee and tune in to my daily dose of my viral pathologist, Dr. Chris Martenson. I help Xiaolin put medicine on her sore shoulder. The new numbers inside China are low, and many companies in Chongqing are back to work, fantastic.
I am a little confused that we’ve changed counting criteria twice, once to allow for diagnostics, again to go back to PCR tests. I’m missing the black swan here, but like everyone, I am hopeful. Two of the most severe cases of Diamond Princess patients in Yokohama turn out to be Japanese government bureaucrats. B.C. has a new case, with some connection to Iran’s emerging cluster.
My school asks my colleagues to return for 14 days of quarantine, while Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.’s embassies are still advising us to leave China. I want to teach online until we get rid of travel restrictions on public gatherings. If a beer at the pub and a movie at the mall aren’t safe, how can teaching be?
The seal on the fridge is loose, and I have a strange cramp in my left leg, stress? I’ve been sleeping funny. I rub some Arnica and stretch. I used to press 300KG, and now my calves look small and flabby. I’m another KG lighter today.
I suit up and find our number on a big white cooler wrapped in plastic by the gate. On the way back, I tear open the layering and rip the cut on my finger open. It’s fish, and Xiaolin spends two hours cleaning and preparing a beautiful dinner while I decontaminate. I try to imagine being blind as I navigate my shower. This practice has three features, removing the fear of losing my sight, making me grateful I can still see, and I don’t worry about any ‘virus’ getting in my eyes while I wash my hair.
Later, I demo a PS4 game I might start writing for when Xiaolin comes in, wanting me to prepare for class. I hold up my controller and tell her I’m busy working. It’s one of those moments where we have a hard time understanding each other.
I apply for a job on a remote island community in Ireland. They’re looking for a happy couple to live for free and handle their coffee shop. It’s fun to dream. I’m halfway between dying for a night out in the city and wanting to buy a little cottage in Quebec and live off the land.
Close to midnight, a package text rolls in, so I suit up again. Xiaolin hasn’t been outside the flat in two weeks; I’m more comfortable with our protocols, and she’d rather stay inside. Through the foggy darkness past my goggles are flashes of light, and I hear creepy violin strings around me. No one is around. It’s terrifying… what a time to be alive.
Feb 20. -- A grain of salt
Day 27. The molecular structure of matter is decided by the chemical bonds between its atoms. Through an electron microscope, cubes appear as ancient monuments, concealing secrets in the recesses of its cubic rectangular prism. This is a grain of salt.
Instead of listening to the 99th COVID video of the day, I opt for a stoic video on Memento Mori and my anxiety slips away. Memento Mori is the ancient idea of reflecting on our own inevitable death. Time is precious, I won't wring my hands. Instead, I've got to make each moment count. Am I afraid death might keep me from sitting on my couch and binging Netflix for another night? If I'm going to fear death, I should also worry about not living my best life. I slept well finally.
I can't escape being informed, so I listen to the news all day while I cook and clean and make notes and write my fantasy book.
I make banana pancakes, and then I find some broken glass and slash open my finger. It bleeds a lot, and my inner mind screams out something absurd: "I wonder if hemophiliacs live 10 years longer on average," while I apply pressure. Finally, it clots so I don't have to go Rambo with the stitches.
A super spreader in South Korea infects dozens in Daegu, and now a city of 2.5 million looks as quiet as anywhere in China.
Dr. Iwata, a veteran of Ebola and SARS, clarifies the Diamond Princess fiasco, "(It's a) COVID-19 factory...I was so scared." Bureaucrats, not doctors, have been running the quarantine. Workers were eating while wearing contaminated gloves. He left for self-quarantine, while the passengers waltzed into Japan. This is going to affect the Olympics, I think, and by mid-afternoon, Japan is considering postponing or cancelling. Finger on the pulse.
If we can learn anything, it's the importance of letting experts, not bureaucrats, handle infectious disease.
I check my teeth in the mirror and wonder when I'll be able to see a dentist. What an unpleasant, high-risk form of punishment I'm craving. Speaking of saying ah, scientists are supporting the idea that aerosol transmission through ventilation is possible.
After dinner, a boy calls and asks for help with a big national pride 70-year Chinese speech contest. I correct his grammar and pronunciation and he's a happy guy.
In the struggle to use technology to fight the disease, we're rushing to give up digital privacy, and, in the rush to get global supply lines going, robots are clearly better suited to work than fragile humans. These are dystopian solutions to human problems.
Most of Chongqing's key leading companies have resumed production, according to the Chongqing Economy and Informatization Commission. I have heard reports that hand sanitizers are springing up all over town.
As China recruits more health-care workers to the front line, perks are offered, such as priority entrance for prestigious universities, and if they perish, martyr-status, family benefits, and big pensions. It's a good offer.
I've applied to test the new Cyberpunk 2077 game and might take a job writing for another one. I volunteer some time for my favorite progressive candidate's campaign. These seem like good things to spend my time doing. We need a green new deal more than ever.
I have a song stuck in my head, I can't figure out why.
I believe I can see the future
Cause I repeat the same routine
I think I used to have a purpose
Then again, that might have been a dream. - NIN, Every Day is Exactly the Same
Feb 19. -- Water under the fridge
Day 26. It's water under the fridge, no, I'm not being irreverent. My beautiful merino wool slippers are soaked. Without them, I can't keep my toes toasty. Chongqing has a similar latitude to Miami (29° to 25°), which makes us the furnace of China for most of the year but no central heating and a bit chilly in the winter. Getting these puppies dried up is top priority work, innit.
I'm cranky because I tossed and turned all night again, sleepless and anxious, but brunch makes it right. We make pancakes, and I crack open a bottle of 'canneberges et pommes coulis' I've been saving since we pulled over in Manseau, Que. to bargain in a little roadside shop, overflowing with all manner of squished, dried and candied cranberries. I close my eyes, and I'm sitting on a duffel bag full of cranberries, eating squeaky cheese poutine under a maple tree as the lazy summer wind kisses my face and those plump cranberry bushes sway off into oblivion.
Today, 74,282 people in China have been infected, with 14,601 recovered, and 2,009 have died. In my city of Chongqing, 296 are currently hospitalized, 254 have been discharged from hospital, and five are dead. It's been established that aerosol transmission is possible in a closed environment, so we are encouraged to keep our windows open.
I grow these amazing little bean sprouts, from seeds. They bring me joy. Next, I'll try green onions, garlic, celery, or lettuce.
A friend calls me to say our good buddy Simon and his girlfriend are aboard the Diamond Princess! I message Simon, but it's old news -- he's been back for a while, but they're in touch with friends aboard, and it's a total gong show. Scientists are calling that Japanese quarantine, aka virus incubator, an utter failure but have no explanation of how 3,700 people locked in their rooms are spreading infection. A charming retired couple from the U.K. vlogs that today men in hazmat suits are taping plastic sheets over air vents in the ship's halls. Watch out for invisible cars.
The water heater in our bathroom is slowly leaking, so I put a bucket under it. Xiaolin's still worried. We're not about to call a repairman over, so we unplug it.
I love my wife. She is tough even by Chongqing standards. Imagine the spiritual tough love of Yoda, the chemistry of Wayne's-World-era Tia Carrere and the comedic genius of Mr. Bean. She's terrific, and I adore her.
I bake again today - I haz one bread!
Chonqing Gov releases back-to-work protocols. They look reasonable but seem challenging for ordinary people. On the commute, we suggest keeping one-metre distance from others, wearing a mask and gloves, avoiding rush hour, and driving your own car. In the office, keep one metre away from others, wear a mask, work online, disinfect your office, take a temperature test when entering, use drink containers with a lid, take the stairs, keep windows open, and wash hands frequently. In the cafeteria: wash your hands before meals, dine separately, bring meals from home, and don't share food. In the restroom: keep one metre apart to queue, close the lid before flushing, and wash hands well. Since most public toilets here don't have a lid, I'm not sure how realistic all of this is, but like principles, maybe they're meant to be worked towards rather than fully achieved.
Feb. 18 -- An eerie journey
Day 25. Human beings are wet. We're made of 60 per cent water. Earth is 72 per cent water. We can live for weeks without food but only four days without water. It's amazing we can't breathe water, and more so how susceptible we are to pneumonia.
The shocking news about 99 new infections on the Diamond Princess is grim. In Cambodia, the prime minister shook hands and gave roses as the Westerdam passengers disembarked. Let's hope he washed them well after.
Homemade bread with some Hainanese Honey-Kaya and boiled eggs make a delicious brunch. We get a package at the gate, so I suit up and head out the door as my friend Andrea calls. Worried about my cabin-fever, he's taking me on a tour of CQ streets.
Andrea leaves his compound, gets his "exit pass" stamped, and walks onto the deserted shopping district. He descends into the underground as I make it to my school gate, and notice my head of security give me a wide-eyed stare. Most people wear masks and leave it at that.
Andrea laughs, but he gets me. It's a numbers game. Some people walk out into a street without looking up from their phones. Most of the time they're OK until they're not. You increase your chances with a little situational awareness. Wearing a mask in China these days is like looking both ways before you cross the street. Wearing goggles and gloves is a bit like listening for invisible cars, but we don't know what we don't know.
The train pulls up, and we board, utterly alone. Andrea stands in the centre, careful not to touch anything. I find a small envelope from my coworker, Michael. He's sent his house keys so I can loot his flat and send him lesson plans. He's offered snacks and water in exchange.
At the transfer station, Andrea stops to take a panoramic shot. Not another person can be seen. We remark about how eerie it is. On the busier line three train, there are a few other people, standing far apart.
I open Michael's apartment. Inside, evidence of a hastily packed trip, and I see his laptop on the couch.
Andrea leaves the station, walks past boarded-up and abandoned Prada and Louis Vuitton shops. All traffic has been directed to a central entrance. Temperatures are checked, and masks are mandatory. At the Ole supermarket, they check again.
I grab a big 18- litre sealed bottle of spring water. In the kitchen, I pack a small box with some spices and snacks Michael's encouraged me to use.
Inside Ole, workers are ready to assist shoppers and keep shelves stocked. Andrea stops at the well-stocked beer section and offers to send me a case of Corona. We share a laugh. A few shoppers use gloved hands to fill their carts, but the general vibe is relaxed aside from the perfunctory use of masks.
I take my loot down to my flat and go through my decontamination procedures.
Andrea catches a taxi home, and receives a temperature check, shows his ID, and keys to security before he is allowed back inside his residential compound.
Today, over 80 clinical trials are ongoing. So far, the winner is Chloroquine. The major annual Beijing Congress in March is likely going to be postponed, and Chongqing cancels our international marathon scheduled for March 22.
Today my city has 323 COVID-19 patients hospitalized (36 severe cases and 13 critical cases). We've had five deaths, and 225 discharged patients have recovered. This is good news but we're not out of the woods yet.
Xiaolin says my Chinese is much better. I download books with titles like "Badass Survival Skills" and "Preppers Survival Medicine Handbook," and read through the SAS Urban Survival Manual. It feels good to be prepared.
(Photos courtesy of Andrea Cotte)
Feb. 17 -- A painless Monday
Day 24. This is all my fault. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I wished on a shooting star, for this Spring Festival to be relaxing, long, and productive. I wanted a break from the endless sore teacher's throat and to spend more of my energy doing prolific writing. Now, look at this mess.
A friend suggests I read a 40-year-old thriller by Dean Koontz called "The Eyes of Darkness." In it, a novel coronavirus is released in Wuhan, China. Eerie, but I suppose if you search enough, you can find prescience anywhere. I mean, The Simpsons predicted Donald Trump as president.
I smash up some guacamole and go from 0 to grill cheese in 60 seconds. My fresh-baked bread blows my mind. Why have I never done this before? Oh yeah, I had access to a bakery.
School hours are now further reduced to reduce stress and eye strain. After lunch, we have an online class, and my students are happy and relaxed. Some made me beautiful and creative short films about their "special time staycations." I'm happy today and thinking of a stoic quote by Epictetus that says: "It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don't have. Happiness has all that it wants." No regrets today, and as far as Mondays go, this one is pretty painless.
I have some concerns about people going back to work, but the gas man shows up at the school gate to swap me a new canister. He gives me a paper receipt, and I hold it awkwardly in a gloved hand. I pass a tree and tuck it in a hole in the trunk, not wanting to bring anything 'foreign' inside. Back at the house, I try to install it into the stove, but can't find the groove. Calm down, it's just a weak flamethrower. Unless I screw up, then it's a bomb. No pressure, eh. I try counterclockwise, and the rivets take hold.
Xiaolin asks if I have the receipt to give my school. I tell her I shoved it in a tree outside. It's worth $20 when things get back to normal, and I decide to weigh in on hopeful optimism. When I go out later to pick up a food order from the gate, I find it folded up in the cranny of the tree. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks.
Feb. 16 -- A visit outside
Day 23 in quarantine. I might be in a simulation or the peripheral of some crazy rich historical-crisis-tourists from the future. I can imagine this package would be quite expensive.
In feel-good news, a man from Wuhan volunteers with an animal rescue group to care for nearly 300,000 pets whose owners are locked out of the quarantine zone. Some give passcodes; others beg him to break in. He fills up the food and water and changes cat litter.
The school has opened the admin office for a few hours today to help residents avoid a blackout. I suit up for outside, and drop off my power card and some cash at the security gate. Stupidly, I didn't bring my own pen and walk away after signing their form, wondering how many people have also used theirs. I have to come back at four to pick it up, "contact-free."
Speaking of cash, China is burning money collected from hospitals and supermarkets, only issuing out new currency. China is already a cashless society; I haven't touched the stuff in years.
I decide to take a walk to the street. The turnstiles are closed, and I don't have a pass to go outside, but I can wiggle my way through the vehicle gates and walk towards the SF delivery truck parked out front. A young man is sorting through packages. I snap a photo or two. Two community leaders are walking towards me. They gawk at this hulking alien in a bug-eyed spacesuit taking pictures of them. I scuttle back inside the school compound before they start questioning me.
I decontaminate and get my "inside onesie" back on. Dad is still up, and we play a game of NHL Hockey online. I'm Team Canada, and he's "all-time all-stars." Crosby versus Gretzky. When I was in college in Halifax, my best friend used to do Sidney's manicures in Cole Harbour, around the time he won his "golden goal" for Team Canada in Vancouver. He really cared about his hand hygiene. That was the year a band I spent a decade touring with played the Yukon medal ceremony. A lifetime ago.
I take my morning vitamins and eat my last "zinc immunity booster" pill. The gas runs out for our stove as we're making pancakes, but I finish up on our hot plate.
A man on day 13 of his 14-day quarantine decides to go for a walk in the park and gets a phone call from his boss saying he's got to go back home right away. Facial recognition flagged him, an AI called his boss and pressured them to send him back home. China uses AI and big data to combat the spread of the virus so efficiently. I wonder how a country without all this tech would handle this sort of outbreak.
Millions of roses were destroyed this Valentine's Day. The top three most popular gifts this year were face masks, eye goggles, and alcohol-lathered cotton pads. Love in an age of no contact.
Feb. 15 -- Hoping for a vaccine
I wake up and drink instant coffee. Unsatisfied, I make a big pot of freshly ground beans to savour by the sunny window. We put in an order for more with an unknown ETA, but with things returning to “normal” out there, it may arrive this month.
Today we are doing six full hours of online teaching for Xiaolin's private students, making Saturday my biggest workday of the week. The first class is 10 to noon, and they're a sweet bunch. The technology is iffy at times, but we make it work with a few breaks and a tasty ukulele session at the end.
I make some guacamole on toast with boiled eggs for brunch. I'm going to have to make my own bread (a first) tomorrow. Exciting and strange.
There's something odd about being the only ones in an empty building, forgotten and alone, but at a time when contact is dangerous, there is safety in solitude. I'm trying hard not to panic, so I'll limit my doom and gloom to one stream of consciousness.
In good news, Chinese hospitals are using blood plasma from recovered patients to try to create an antibody response and boost immunity or resistance to COVID-19. Vaccine tests are proceeding well with antiviral drugs such as chloroquine and remdesivir, seeming to indicate a quick recovery from the virus. Monkeys that were re-exposed to the virus can create a cytokine storm, which is an overproduction of immune cells and their activating compounds (cytokines), meaning the body's activated immune cells start attacking their own organs. Some experts fear the secondary infection could be more destructive than the first (ala Spanish Flu).
I must sound so paranoid and hope a vaccine comes along before summer. I'm getting tired of feeling like I'm trapped in a sci-fi/horror video game. I hold my dog Ben Ben, and we both breathe for a while until everything feels like it's going to be OK. On the plus side, the virus epidemic has reduced my anxiety about climate catastrophe.
The second class today is another new one. It goes pretty smoothly. William Gibson's new book, “Agency,” entertains me on a two-hour break. Our third class is good too. Today is exhausting, but I guess that's why they call it work.
Xiaolin gets a bit tired and headachy after too much screen time and my booming teacher voice, but I am smart enough to give her space to relax. We had a nice Valentine’s Day yesterday, so some quiet time is in order.
By 10 p.m. we're ready to chill out and let the day drift away.
Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Day in quarantine
Its day 21 in quarantine.
I make Xiaolin breakfast in bed: pancakes and coffee. Her shoulder is starting to feel better. It's a sunny day, and we tidy up, take care of our plants on the balcony and move our trees around the living room to get more sun. I go outside three times, which is unprecedented. The first time, we go out with a couple of chairs to sit on the parking garage roof. We see some people leaving the school with a coupon, which we don't have since no one seems to realize we are the only occupants of the "foreign teacher's dormitory" building on campus. It’s OK; we don't want to go anywhere, anyway.
After a couple of hours of fresh air and sunshine, we go pick up Xiaolin's shoulder medication in a tiny automatic mailbox on campus. We decide to order food, made by unvetted strangers, and delivered to our house. It feels dangerous and romantic in a star-crossed lovers kind of way. Xiaolin wants to order KFC. I am a vegetarian; still, I suppose it's more of a preference than a rule; after all, I've eaten giant spiders and scorpions in Asia in the past, and I'm feeling sentimental. My dad used to call KFC "Champs Chicken' when I was a boy in Ottawa.
When I was 20, we flew to Winnipeg for his dad's funeral, and I saw grandpa's garage full of curling trophies and newspaper articles. Grandpa Wood was a real sportsman. I remember a photo in the Winnipeg Tribute where he had won the Brier with his dad, Pappy Wood, in 1940. The four-man team looked so proud, standing in front of their four shiny new Studebakers. Everyone says I look a lot like my grandpa.
So I pick it up when it arrives at the gate, and later head out again because Xiaolin's baba sends us another package as we’re preparing for another online class. He's raised a duck in his rooftop garden, baked it, and shipped it across town for us as a little gift.
The new video class is just getting started, I've got my phone and laptop set up, and I sit down on the couch. It takes a minute to realize the sofa is wet. Without being weird, as six 10n-year-olds and their families watch me introduce myself, I realize I'm sitting in dog urine because my old dog Ben Ben is angry I went out three times on a sunny day and can't figure out why I'm not walking him anymore. I wish I could tell him it's for his own safety.
Stoicism is teaching screaming children in a puddle of dog pee without a complaint until you can keep them busy enough to sneak away and change your clothes (and wash the couch cover on a break). We finish the class with a song.
I still give Ben Ben a good rub after class, the boy is getting something old.
The duck is fatty but delicious. We watch Tom Hanks in “The Terminal” and laugh at how outlandish his own quarantine is.
Feb. 13 -- A trip to school
Today is day 20 of quarantine. Xiaolin is feeling much better. We've been getting good sleep, which doctors say is the key to beating this kind of virus and could mean the difference between a mild case at home and a severe case in hospital.
Many people are back to work here in Chongqing, with an attitude of optimism. Many of us are still on lockdown too.
We tidy up, air out the blankets in the sun, and eat well today.
A change in testing criteria to use CT scans and other diagnostics means 15,000 new infections are on the board today. It feels like a lot, and now there's 219 infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. They must be so stressed. At least those of us quarantining at home have our comforts.
My coworker, an American teacher who's holed up across the country, needs help to get his lesson plans off his laptop. Our school office has a set of keys for his flat, and he talks me into doing a little break and enter (with permission). Xiaolin wants me to stay home, but I get suited up and walk over to the school gate.
The guard comes out and waves me away. I call Xiaolin to help get more information, but before I can back away, the guard grabs my phone. The school has been decontaminated, and no one goes in. That's it, rules are rules. I return home, remove my phone case, and leave it by the door, spray everything down, shower and change my clothes.
Today we see a lot of videos of police arresting citizens who create panic and spread rumours. During any crisis, some people will take advantage of the chaos for their own profit. Still, it makes me more reluctant to do what I came here for, use my expertise, critical thinking, and voice as a teacher and a writer to be an agent for good.
Better to focus on our small world and leave the big questions to the experts. We play another WeChat concert for babies, and I start reading the new William Gibson book, “Agency,” and Laurie Garrett's “The Coming Plague.” They're both fascinating for different reasons, but it strikes me that I'm juggling a lot of balls. Maintenance is always the hardest part for me, but it's where I'm working the hardest to develop.
A few more friends leave for Vancouver, and they're lucky to get on one of the remaining flights out of Shanghai. I hope a trip to Canada this summer is possible. As we hope and pray, this thing is on the decline, the World Health Organization and many other countries brace for more spread.
Feb. 12 -- The virus has a name
Day 19 inside, lots of friends send messages to stay strong. What they don't understand is this solitary life is peaceful.
I haven't had a sniffle for a month, but this morning Xiaolin is coughing. She has a headache, and she naps half the afternoon. I drink a strong coffee, and I teach another class online.
The virus has an official name, thanks to the WHO: COVID-19, designed to be forgettable.
Xiaolin learns how to make pancakes, and I make a "Quarantinos" pickle pizza.
I outline, and I write, and when that mythic, sweltering Chongqing sun lights me up, I sit on the balcony reading Stephen King until my face starts to burn. Later, I take former FBI negotiator Chris Voss's masterclass. He gives me an idea.
This virus has taken China hostage, and we need a negotiator.
Feb. 11 -- 'Go inside, it's not safe'
It's dark, and I'm feeling woozy, and I don't know where I am. Xiaolin is telling me to get up and close all the windows. Trucks are spraying the city with disinfectant chemicals. I run around the house, slamming windows shut. Before I pass out, I send a few messages to my friend groups on WeChat.
Around 10 a.m., I get up and check the news from inside the warmth of my pillow fort. Did it happen? I ask Xiaolin if she saw any pictures from her 5,000 friends on WeChat. She's seen videos but already deleted them. A lot of chat groups, our only socialization for weeks, have been fracturing, and tensions are high.
Another broadcast warns that the virus can travel through water pipes as SARS did in HK in 2003. People are covering sinks and drains. I'm caught between hard science that's trying to catch up and helpful ideas that may not be accurate.
Dr. Zhong, the Chinese epidemiologist who discovered SARS in 2003, releases a troubling study. The study says the incubation of 2019-nCoV can last as long as 24 days, and half of the patients tested do not have a fever when they seek treatment. This has implications for testing standards in many countries. Big bummer.
We're sitting around bored when a mischievous sunbeam drops by. We jump up in excitement. Children chatter, and basketballs dribble against concrete. A booming voice on the loudspeaker yells in Chinese, "go inside, it's not safe, go back inside your homes!" Soon it gets quieter.
We grab two chairs and go sit on the upper parking garage, by ourselves. Xiaolin salsa dances in the sun, and I play Shadowrun on my phone. Some people walk by with a little grey cat, but they keep a respectful distance. On the street below, a man smokes a cigarette and then hands off a package of masks to a grateful woman through the gate.
We head home after a couple of hours, and I shower and put on clean clothes.
I enjoy spending my days writing and I'm not sure if I'm ready to return to the hectic classroom. Will it feel safe? If factories are OK to open today, why are we looking at March for school? Will I be standing there with goggles and a mask teaching a bunch of students in bubbles?
Feb. 10 -- Students angry and possibly misinformed
Day 17 of quarantine and we wake to abrasive screaming over a broadcast system through our closed windows. A voice tells us not to go outside because the virus is not finished.
Dr. Zhong posts a message: our first quarantine failed because too many stubborn people socialized, and we will need a better one to stop the spread. More cities go into total lockdown today. The drastic measures scare some, but most see them as necessary to combat this virus on a grand scale. Today is the first day back to work for many people in China.
One of the last great Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, wrote a helpful exercise. You should view your life from above, like a bird's-eye view on your home, your community, your city, your country, and the whole planet as a blip in the endless vastness of space. Your base emotions, such as anxiety, panic, fear, anger, frustration, and boredom, are not so important. We are but small players in the larger story. When seen from above, our feelings disappear. Together, we fight to extinguish the chains of transmission of this virulent virus.
More Canadians try to leave China, and Thailand is one of the few places still offering (cheap!) flights. I'm reminded of a biblical quote that says, "if I come to a land with the plague I do not enter, but if I'm in a land with a plague, I do not leave." This is good advice. We are safer to stay put.
In a comforting reversal from yesterday's reporting, experts are saying there is no evidence for aerosol transmission. Cities continue to spray public areas with powerful chemical disinfectants. If my day feels like it's full of paradoxes, it might be. We can only wait.
High school starts today, online. My first English class is an audio call with glitches, echo, and delay, giggling voices. They're busy with homework; some hardly noticed what's going on outside. Others are angry. Angry at what, I ask? "Those people who ate bats and caused this." I let them know we're not sure bat soup is the cause, but they've heard what they heard, and they're mad.
The delicious bouquet of fragrances of my lentil soup masks the spicy hotness. We eat well today.
I'm practicing my ukulele, and Xiaolin turns the camera on me. Next thing I know, we've got a good dozen family members watching our rock show for babies. Xiaolin is an ethereal singer, and I strum through a half-dozen children's classics before my fingers swell up.
Sunday, Feb. 9 – Two pieces of bad news
Day 16 of quarantine and I'm quite bored. I don't feel like writing anything. We do our morning rituals. I decide to drink instant coffee today and save my beans for a sweet treat once a week until I can order more. I can't bear the thought of running out.
I sprinkle chia seeds on my salt and peppered boiled eggs and smashed avocado toast with fresh spicy hummus for brunch. I've lost three kilograms while getting minimal exercise, so I guess giving up fast food makes a difference.
My editor tells me that a minister of information in Chongqing wants to adapt my blog into Chinese; as a good example of how to stay safe and take good citizen precautions to reduce viral transmission. I feel like a volunteer in (viral) wartime.
The Canadians in WeChat are discussing two pieces of news released by Chinese media today. The worst news is that a girl apparently came back from Wuhan and didn't develop any sign of the infection for 20 days. If this is true, it could have global implications; don't tell the stir-crazy Canadians on that cruise ship.
There's more bad news. Aerosol, the media reports, can now transmit the virus. That means if you walk into a sneeze cloud or a public bathroom where someone is using the toilet, you could become infected.
It's terrible, but I might be the first person to put these pieces of the puzzle together: The nCov virus can live in the intestines and in fecal matter, and it can be aerosolized. What does that mean? It means we have to watch out for virus farts that can give you pneumonia then kill you. This shouldn't be funny, but I laugh really hard anyway.
My mom calls me crying because she read my diary, and it made her feel sad and worried. I cheer her up with horrible jokes, and she laughs until we're OK again.
I burn my hand making toasted garlic broccoli and pickle pizza sandwich burgers. It's not bad, but it might leave a scar.
I play some video games, watch some news, and listen to all my daily medical blogs. When I'm overcome by ennui, I tune my tenor ukulele and play until my fingers bleed. I cut my nails when I realize how long they've gotten. I'm getting pretty good at Danny Boy.
We eat some nacho cheese chips with salsa and hummus dip and watch Jojo Rabbit. Tomorrow my bean sprouts will be ready to harvest. Life finds a way.
Feb. 8 -- Day 15 of quarantine
The cruise ship situation off the coast of Japan looks scary. Xiaolin worries about recycled air, and the YouTube comments, if not the science, regurgitate that fear.
Chris Hadfield teaches me that astronauts don't cross their fingers, they manage risk. Being afraid is a choice. A virus isn't scary, but many people are scared. Why? The unknown. We can learn, take precautions, and manage the risk and choose not to be afraid? Of course, we can. So today, thanks to Chris Hatfield, I became an "AsCan" or honorary Astronaut Candidate. AsCan's train for anything that could go wrong, because out there you're on your own, and you have to be able to solve it or get to safety in one breath. This works for me.
My dad calls, and we play a game of online hockey. I squeak out an overtime win.
I dig up an old reference letter that got me to China and helps my former boss draft a reference letter for me. She's left my school after recruiting me six years ago, and it seems like a good time to have all my ducks organized. The situation is fluid.
We tidy up the kitchen, and the red peppers, some carrots, two tomatoes, and an apple are moldy. It pains me.
It is day 15 of our quarantine today, lantern festival, the last day of Chinese New Year. The magic word is “pangolin.” We call the family, and Baba is so happy he's played MahJong every day for the past two weeks. Baby Ethan is doing great too. After all, it's winter, anyway.
Lin makes hotpot for dinner. Around midnight we eat glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) filled with black sesame sugar.
A friend that's been going out and eating in public blows up a group chat, ready to panic. While dining with a friend, he "learns" that nCoV has become airborne. After spending a good 100 hours researching this coronavirus, I was able to shut that down. There's no evidence of that, likely, it's a miscommunication due to bad translations. We're good.
Feb. 7 -- Stocking up on food
Our 14th day of quarantine is a day full of uncertainty. If we hadn't gone outside for supplies, we would be confident we are healthy. Panic and rumours make us nervous. On the news, a man who removed his mask for 15 seconds with a cashier at a supermarket is now infected. I never took off my mask inside a store. Still, I can't be sure my decontamination protocols for clothes and incoming supplies have been enough. Every cough, sniffle, and sneeze arouses concern.
Lin and I debate stocking up now before Chongqing peaks. I let her win the argument, but low and behold, she orders three big bags of groceries anyway. That's love. We're gonna bar the door and wait 14 more days.
We are trying to make a plan for the food. I have a bottle of red wine I'll save for Valentine's Day next week and will make a nice dinner. We stay busy all day. If you strip away the fear, anxiety, and panic, it's like hitting the jackpot for an introvert.
Last night while falling asleep, I regret leaving two unpublished manuscripts in my drawer for so long. It made me think of Ernest Hemingway's wonderful short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I get up out of bed and outline my own “Snows” about the struggles of maintenance and unfinished dreams. That's how a writer's brain works, I guess.
Today's a busy day working on local news. Lots of procedures for getting people back to work, and a protocol handbook on public health. I fight hard to amend one passage that's confusing about coronavirus, but not novel coronavirus (nCoV), transmission, and household pets. There are already such tragic reports about people killing or abandoning their pets due to panic. Both the World Health Organization and local experts say there is no evidence of infected pets carrying nCoV. We amend it, and our station chief passes my concerns up the chain to the health board to clarify their guidebook. I hope in some small way it can ease the suffering of our furry friends a little. It exhausted me, my empathy taxed to the extreme.
Xiaolin makes little paper rabbit finger puppets and entertains baby Ethan on video chat. We play and laugh with him. I eat lentil soup and some potato salad with a couple of delicious German beers. I find myself thinking about dad's fat, red fresh tomatoes and the fragrant aroma of lavender in his Ottawa garden in the summertime.
I pick up and sanitize our load of delivered groceries and shower.
Later, I listen to the news. Quarantined cruise ships and the Wuhan plane touching down in Trenton are the talk of the current cycle. I can feel the patience waning as if the international media is hungry for something exciting to report.
I spend a few hours with Margaret Atwood's creative writing class. Her voice is one of a kind. No matter how this goes, I promise myself to post and publish as much of my writing as I can this year. Nothing like the fear of death to get you in gear.
Feb. 6 -- Debunking a rumour
Thirteen days inside. I stay in bed as long as I can, savoring the memory of normalcy.
Current infected numbers in China are close to 30,000 today and 376 in Chongqing. A big jump nationally, a smaller one locally, but the infection is close to our home now.
Xiaolin asks me not to leave the house anymore; we have enough food to last a while. My coffee is delicious.
The newest scary thing happens on a video call with family and friends. A restaurant worker close to our home died, with no symptoms. Later, I debunk the rumour: the 61-year-old woman had hidden symptoms for eight days before she collapsed and was admitted to the hospital, where she passed away. Still a tragedy, but easier to process. Her coworkers and customers are being tracked.
Today's MasterClass is Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, one of my favorite science educators, on the scientific method. It's medicine for anxiety and unsubstantiated rumours going around. It's excellent.
A local community wakes up to the sound of snoring over the broadcasting system. My friend sends me her video. It goes viral. A good laugh is healthy.
Andrew is making make sour cream and perogies from scratch. When "what's for dinner" is the big question of the day, recipes are hot gossip.
Canada's embassy requests that all Canadians should leave China. Not helpful when it seems more dangerous to fly than to stay in my home. I'm not going to abandon my pets and run.
The big news in treatment: Remdesivir and Chloroquine seem promising for novel coronavirus treatment, hopefully, available by April. Fingers crossed. I really want to be back in Canada for summer.
A friend left for Vancouver via Hong Kong today. Another left to go get groceries this morning and came back to find his building had been sealed. He's in a hotel now.
Between my diary and journalism work, I'm busy. I start prepping to do video classes. Our new ETA for real classes is March 1.
We tidy the house. Xiaolin tries to put the mini vac back together and pulls her shoulder. I find her crying in the bathroom, but an hour later, she's back in bed with ibuprofen and a hot pad on her arm. Gotta be careful; we're on our own.
For dinner, we share some homemade fries, extra crispy, lentil soup, and steak for Lin. I exercise while we watch movies, and we go to bed.
Feb. 5 -- A trip to the market
Happy birthday to you! Xiaolin sings to baby Ethan via WeChat video, and he claps his hands. He's loved the song ever since he turned one. I go wash my hands with soap and water and count two happy birthdays – 20 seconds – that's what the government is recommending to make sure we kill the virus.
Today, China reports 24,423 cases of the infection, 3,949 more than yesterday. In my city of Chongqing, we have 376 confirmed cases and two deaths so far.
Our good friend Chris was called by the police today because she was shopping at a supermarket on Jan. 23. At the same time, a person from Wuhan was shopping, who later became infected. She reported no symptoms. Still, they asked her to stay at home for a couple of weeks. It feels like it's coming closer, but in our house, we're safe.
As Chongqing braces for a rise in infection, families are asked to only allow a single person to leave the house once every two days to buy vegetables and return.
I went shopping again today. At the door of the supermarket, a worker is baking a mask in front of a space heater. She shoots me in the forehead with a temperature gun, but can't get a reading. She asks me to take off my goggles. I politely decline. She shoots my forehead, my ear, and the side of my face before inviting me to remove a glove. She scans my exposed hand. 36.4, no problem, we say to each other, and I carry on. At least there's lots of food.
I take a peek where the live chickens used to be, but they're all gone. Only some fish on ice at the back.
On the way back in, the guard shoots me with a temperature gun, and I'm worried because I'm so hot and sweating buckets, but they let me in with my big heavy bags.
My school sends foreign teachers a check-in questionnaire about our health. Local community leaders are going door to door, reporting symptoms, and providing medical treatment. Most people are happy to wear masks in public, limit our time outside, and seek medical treatment when needed. Some people aren't, and cause a fuss and get arrested. Everyone must do their best.
I read. We watch TV. I see a friend outside who picks up some face masks. We stay two metres apart, although we bump elbows when we say goodbye. He took the bus over, which shocks Xiaolin. He was alone on the bus, he said, and it smelled like disinfectant.
I'm starting to teach on Monday, online, but the system is complicated, and I don't understand it yet.
I hope I can still come to Canada this summer. My grandma turned 90 this year, and it's essential I see her. I give her a call, and she's so happy to hear from us. I made it a whole day without coffee. No headaches. I can't wait for tomorrow.
Feb. 4 – Passing 20,000 confirmed cases
I'm running low on coffee. I think I will go without it today. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome used to practice "going without" as a way to enhance gratitude and allay anxiety (I'm "OK" without coffee today; I'm doubly grateful for coffee tomorrow!).
I'm going to binge on masterclasses for the next week in case I lose access. Today it's a writing and comedy class with David Sedaris. He's really funny, really witty. I learn the importance of asking smart questions and turning small talk into something meaningful. A precious gift.
Newest numbers for Chongqing are 337 cases of serious coronavirus with pneumonia. My district is second highest with 15 confirmed cases and one death. A student's mother told me it was a restaurant worker near my campus. It's scary. We're glad we cook at home.
On social media posts, of compounds with infected people inside make the rounds. My good friend and his wife panic when they find out their compound has a dozen infected, and then realize it's a building with the same name in Wuhan.
We are all worried, but we are hopeful. The measures taken by China are unheard of and will have a huge impact in breaking the chain of transmission if people can be patient and wait in their homes. Official China figures today are 20,471 confirmed cases and 23,214 suspected cases. Of those, 2,788 are severe, 426 are deaths, and 657 have been released. This is a big jump from a day or two ago.
I cave mid-afternoon and make a pot of coffee. It's so savoury, so aromatic and delicious. My headache goes away. Tomorrow I'll try to wean off it and make it every second day maybe.
A dozen fancy nanofiber masks show up from Shenzen. We got the call from Wuhan and for a minute got freaked out — if they're coming from Wuhan, never mind! We find out the admin worker is calling from Wuhan, but the masks came from Shenzhen. I send two more to Chengdu for my British friend and his pregnant girlfriend.
We have lots more stories to edit --- community leaders are going door to door on a grid to make sure to find and treat all symptomatic patients. People feel optimistic that we can isolate the infected patients and beat this. My spirits are high today. Zhongguo, Jaiyo! Go, China!
Feb. 3 – Every meal is a decision
I get out of bed and wash my hands, wash my hands, wash my hands. They feel like raisins. They’re prunes. I’ve never been so clean. It feels like I wash them 100 times a day, before and after every task, so I can have the pleasure to scratch my nose if I choose and not worry it will make me sick or dead.
Yesterday the bakery closed down, so I am not sure if I will be able to make toast anymore. I try to order some flour and cheese to make pizza but my passport doesn’t work for JD online and Xiaolin doesn’t want any.
The balance between wanting food to last and not letting it go bad means everything is now a serious decision. I'm storing boiled water in containers in case I can't order more spring water, and in case I lose power or water for some time, although I'm pretty sure that won't happen. But being prepared is the only antidote to feeling helpless.
Xiaolin is still grumpy. She's watching a video about a young Chinese woman who goes to Santorini to take wedding photos but doesn't have a boyfriend. Her driver is laughing at her. Xiaolin and I took wedding photos there last summer. It was amazing.
We get a call. Some toothpaste is waiting downstairs so I suit up to go outside, and head to the only remaining open market. My goggles are so foggy by the time I get there I can hardly see, but I find a loaf of sweet bread. I let everyone go first so that I don’t have to crowd next to anyone, and then pay with WeChat cashless pay.
Outside, an old man is kneeling down, wheezing, hacking and spitting on the ground. It’s shocking. I walk away quickly. An older lady walks out and they walk away together.
No salsa class today. Xiaolin doesn’t feel like it. Maybe we'll try tomorrow.
I missed dinner last night. I feel a little hungry, but not enough to make anything. Around 10 p.m., I go cut some slices of bread and make some pizza toast with pasta sauce, feta cheese, and fried garlic. It's not bad.
I think things are going to be OK.
Feb. 2 – 'Everything is closed'
Day 9. I talk to my dad. He's worried but falling asleep on the phone, it's not a great conversation, and I'm impatient. I can feel in my bones; it's going to be a hard day.
I get suited up for a walk. My wife is craving Oreos, and I want some bread. I decided to vlog the adventure in case people want to see what it's like for me.
Everything is closed on my street, and the only bakery that was open closes as I walk by. I do find a little store about 10 minutes away. I end up buying apples and Oreos.
My good friend Sean has moved up his flight because the U.S. is canceling flights from China. He's in Los Angeles and going to make his way back to Toronto. I tell him to try the tacos, they're great.
My wife and I feel a bit crazy, so I go to work in my office. Then I get into a flow state and write close to 10,000 words, and that's really good. She doesn't see a word of my productivity. She runs in and I say something cranky and we get in an argument. It’s hard to be cooped up for so long. We need some fresh air and sunlight soon.
Later I talk to my good friend Stu about healthy marriages, and he's full of positivity and good advice. Being a productive adult seems like just being willing to sacrifice for your family, and being a good husband seems like just never giving up when you have a really hard day. I could be wrong, but I'm hanging in there and hope tomorrow is a better day
Feb. 1 – Not a typical Saturday
It's Saturday! What does the weekend mean when every day is lie in bed day?
I do some pushups and weights, and drink some coffee, stretch my muscles. I hope I can get back to the gym soon.
There are more than 11,000 cases of coronavirus and pneumonia in China now, and I can't figure out if it's the virus or if every case has pneumonia also, which would be much more serious. In Chongqing, we have 238 cases, and one local person has died. One has recovered and been released, but I hope we see more of that soon.
I pull out my ukulele and play for a while, but get distracted fiddling around and doing some work on my laptop, writing, and editing. I wish I was doing this from the beach; what a dream. I watch some YouTube livestreams of my favourite beaches and feel happy and then a bit jealous.
My buddy Jay, an American, is chartering a private plane to Mexico. We discuss his plan. I'm a bit jealous, even though it costs him a lot of money. He's got two children; one a baby girl just six months old. It's worth his savings to him for their safety.
I binge on podcasts and YouTube videos. We have hotpot again. We do a salsa class. It's fun.
Jan. 31 – Worries about what's to come
It's my seventh day of being locked at home with my wife. We try to pretend we're on a nice vacation. It's feeling a bit tired. I hope we get some good news soon.
Today the local specialist, Dr. Zhong, says that the virus will peak in five to 15 days and to be vigilant, not to go outside even if it's sunny. A few days ago, it was really sunny, and lots of people went outside without masks singing in the streets, and the doctor told them to go home and stay strong. The only way we can reduce the infection is by staying inside.
My American coworker defies the U.S. travel recommendation and flies back to China anyway to see his girlfriend. We talk about what will happen if we go back to school on Feb. 17 and the virus is peaking. Maybe we will teach online for the month. We really don't know anything, and our school has no idea either. We all just have to wait and see what happens.
Jan. 30 – Asymptomatic transmission confirmed
I sleep in late. It's been six days of just hanging around the house, and I feel aimless. I go through my morning ritual, wash up, make coffee and breakfast for Lin and myself. I've been watching "prepping" videos. I wonder how long we’ll be in the house for.
My coworkers are starting to realize this is no joke as borders are closing and their plane tickets back are cancelled, and they make plans to go back to their countries. My best friend tells me he's going to fly out in a couple of days (Feb 3) to the U.S. and then Canada. I kind of envy him, but I'm not about to abandon my dogs into the streets just to run away, and my wife doesn't want to leave her family. I've made roots here.
News from Germany about asymptomatic transmission backs up what China has been saying. That is scary. But it makes me feel less crazy for taking these precautions. My friends are freaking out that they can't go outside because all the masks are sold out. I contact a buddy of mine who produced some high-end ones. He's got 200 left in Shenzen. By the time I get a dozen of my friends to confirm, he's down to 40. I buy 13 of them. They’re supposed to ship on Monday.
It's been 10 days since the shopping market activity, and seven and nine days since the family dinners, and I've seen no symptoms, so I feel pretty good about that.
We relax. The day feels like it's crawling by, but before I know it, we have a little Chinese-style hot pot (I eat mushrooms and potatoes) and help Xiaolin put her salsa class on the big screen.
I read something online, and it makes me think of the song "My Sharona," but "My Corona" instead, like a jingle stuck in my head. It won't go away. I download the karaoke version and make an edit for my Canadians in WeChat friends. They laugh, it feels good to chat with them, and I read for a while.
Jan. 29 – Teachers told not to return
My admin support worker Nicole tells the foreign teachers at the high school that we should not come back to China. Some of us are in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. One of us is back home in England. They are confused, as flights are getting cancelled and areas are being locked off. They say they're running short of money and hoping to get back to work and paid soon— but that's not happening. Lots of confusion abounds.
The sun comes out and we get some free air outside the house on the parking garage. No one is around, but we keep our masks on. A journalist joins our Canadian group and starts asking us questions. We ask for help to put some pressure on the Canadian embassy to help out our trapped Wuhan Canadian friends.
I write 1,000 words of my book. I feel blasé today. Maybe frustrated. It's hard to focus with so many people blowing up my social media.
All afternoon I play some video games. Xiaolin video chats with baby Ethan and her family, and then we watch some TV. I have the rest of my falafels and veggies for dinner.
Today's salsa class has 3,000 people dancing and 15,000 watching. It's impressive. People are so excited to have something social and fun to do.
Jan. 28 – Venturing outside, once again
I wake up feeling tired. I have to calm the anxiety and stress or I'm just going to make myself sick. I read some Marcus Aurelius and this quote stands out to me: "When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love."
I post in my daily stoic WeChat community. Now more than ever, we support each other. I can't change the conditions outside. I can only calm myself and do my best. Alert, but not anxious, I tell myself, and get out of bed.
It's early enough that I catch my dad in Ottawa before bed, and we play another NHL 2020 hockey game online. I play like the devil is chasing me and I whoop him.
Lots of friends on our Canada group are discussing safety precautions and what kind of mask can stop the virus moisture from infecting you. I mention I'm wearing goggles too. Most people think it’s too much.
Lin and I decide to suit up and go to the big grocery store RenRenLe. On the way I run into my hairdresser, who looks at us like we're aliens. I ask him where his mask is. Isn't he scared?
No, he shakes his head, He’s not scared. He smiles and keeps walking.
We are shopping and someone starts coughing very loudly behind us. We just abandon the stalk of celery on the scale and take off. I find some pasta sauce in what’s left of the foreign food section, and then Xiaolin grabs my arm. She tells me she can't see. We hold each other's arms and slowly walk through foggy aisles.
Somehow we make it to the self-checkout machine and bag our stuff and pay. I'm dripping in sweat under all my layers and breathing heavily into my double masks. By the time we get outside the grocery store and into the open air, I have to pull off my hood and goggles and get some fresh air. No one is around.
At home, the decontamination process takes a good 20 minutes. I feel like I’m playing chess against billions of invisible, angry little viruses, and I'm trying to stay sane and clean at the same time.
Xiaolin's salsa class has more than 1,500 people dancing and 10,000 watching and cheering them on. She is careful not to use her sore left shoulder, but we're happy to have something to do.
I listen to more news until late in the morning.
Jan. 27 -- A trip to the market
We sleep in late, no reason to rush up early with not much to do. It's our third day of self-imposed full quarantine from other humans and staying in our flat.
My district has one to five people infected so far. It's a huge area, though, so these are still relatively low numbers.
We decide to go shopping at the local market on the street and get a few things. We get our coats and gloves, mask and goggles on, and head down to the campus gates.
There are only a few people on the street, and we all keep our distance. Everyone is wearing masks and walking quickly.
At the market, where we can shop from the street, we feel comfortable, it's not indoors, but we keep our goggles and mask on. I've lent Xiaolin my clear safety goggles, so I'm wearing shaded rainbow swim goggles. Everyone else wears a mask, but most people have their eyes exposed.
At home, the decontamination procedure kicks in. We try to stand in place by the door. We keep the dogs back. We take off our gloves, our jackets, our hats, and our goggles. Then we wash our hands for a minute as hot as we can stand with lots of soap. Then we take off our masks and spray them down with alcohol, inside and out, and then put all that away and rewash our hands. I take a shower.
Today Xiaolin is excited about her club, Salsa 5. They are going to broadcast a class with the two new instructors from Venezuela.
The day passes quickly, writing and chatting with friends online. She's happy to move around and dance and I try a little bit. I'm just happy to get some exercise.
That night, Xiaolin just starts to scream. Her arm is spasming in pain, but she can't tell me what's wrong. She's stuck in her sweater and turned her sore shoulder the wrong way. I help her get it off and then give her a shoulder and arm massage with a balm. We're both a bit freaked out by how much she's in pain.
I worry about what would happen in a medical emergency where we are scared to call for help or to go to the hospital.
I stay up all night listening to a WHO and Centre for Disease Control podcast, Canadian news, American news, European news, British news, podcasts from doctors and specialists, and start listening to "city preppers," those that discuss how to survive "grid down" situations.
Jan. 26 -- Travel discouraged
We wake up before noon on our second full day of isolation. Lin's mom asks us to come over again. Lin wants to see the baby. I get a bad feeling about it and try to put it off a few hours, or until tomorrow. It would be nice, but it feels risky.
Our headline update is "Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 18 Newly Confirmed Cases Reported, Group Tours Suspended." We publish a story about Chongqing's emergency control measures. We list several foreigner-friendly hospitals. No one I know is sick yet. The government is discouraging travel, and our hopes at a nice vacation are canceled.
Online we are discussing lots of ideas. Is it an airborne virus? Probably not, it seems. Just coughs and sneezes and touching stuff. The best thing to do is to stay away from other people.
Later, Lin says she wants to go to the family house tomorrow. If I don't want to go, she can stay a few days and come back. I don't like the idea, not because I am afraid to be alone, but because this thing has a long incubation period. If she is sick, she could infect her parents and the baby and then me when she returns. It's probably an overreaction. I say, let us think it over. I ask a friend on WeChat. He encourages me to talk her out of it, citing rumors about asymptomatic transmission. Lin agrees to discuss it tomorrow over lunch.
It's been five days since the shopping market adventure and two to three days since the family dinner. We feel fine. That particular panic that I'm already sick starts to subside.
I write a chapter for my new book. I stay up really late listening to YouTube videos.
Xiaolin's shoulder is still sore from our trip to Rome. We've been to the hospital for an MRI recently, and her medicine to control the inflammation and settle it down will run out soon.
Jan. 25 -- Self-isolation begins
Saturday, we sleep in until noon. Benben has urinated in front of the screen door. He's an 11-year-old brown poodle with lousy hearing and cataracts and can't figure out screen doors. I mop it up, using disinfectant. Everything has to be clean now. Our lives depend on it. Hachoo, our tiny black poodle, is about four but has good eyes and a quick mind. She can zip outside and will use a puppy pad out there too. Xiaolin tells me people are worried animals can get infected or get their humans sick. Some are throwing their pets away in fear for their life.
We decide we will keep the dogs inside until it's over. Lin's mom asks us to come over, but we tell her it's too dangerous to go outside and risk the taxi. Mama says it's not too bad, I mean, we're all healthy, we don't know any sick people. We try to explain it could be a big health risk, and we're trying to be careful.
I get a call from Jenny, the newsroom chief, "pending stories, please edit!" I check the news. "Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 57 Cases in Total, Medical Team Headed to Wuhan." A medical crew and army support from all areas of China are organizing to go support Wuhan's seizing hospital system.
We get suited up with protective "outdoor clothes," including gloves, goggles, and masks. We grab a couple of stools and head to the parking garage where we can sit outside and get some sunshine for an hour or two. It feels amazing. Poor dogs looked so disappointed when we left them inside. I'm going to get some more dog treats as soon as I can.
My friends decide to make a "Canadians in China" group, and I meet Terry and Patterson, two Canadians inside the Wuhan quarantine zone, although they tell me there are a couple hundred more that aren't in our group. We talk about the lack of contact with the Canadian consulates and embassy. I guess they're on holiday. Most of us aren't registered, although I did it last year and have gotten a few emails, basically "Don't go to Wuhan."
There's talk about an American plane coming to rescue the Americans. We're not sure if that means consular officials only or all American citizens stranded inside the quarantine zone. We wonder if Canada will come to help us, at least those of us in the quarantine zone, and how the people will make it to the airport with roads closed off. Those of us outside but in China wonder when the virus will come to us and if we will be quarantined too if Canada will help us if we are.
My school tells the foreign teachers if they're outside China, not to come back. Those in their home country, stay home. A few of my friends are on vacation and wonder how long they can manage to stay away and what they should do. So many unknowns and people are starting to freak out.
Jan. 24 -- A family gathering
I wake up around 11, pack a book bag of stuff, and we head over for the day. We take a taxi and wear goggles, masks, and gloves to protect ourselves in the cab. We won't be taking the subway anymore.
It sounds like the Wuhan quarantine has grown. A total of 60 million people are affected by travel restrictions in Wuhan and neighbouring cities. The World Health Organization is saying the virus is not a public health emergency of international concern. They admit it's an emergency here in China.
Baba and mama cook all day. Our niece, Yidan, is studying for her college entrance tests. Lin's got a little "flying UFO" drone for baby Ethan, and we are all amazed playing with it inside the living room. The day passes quickly, and we have a nice dinner.
I ask where Panze is, as his wife and daughter show up. He got stuck in Xinjiang due to snow, Lin tells me.
On WeChat, we set up a Chongqing Canadians group to keep in touch about the virus and other news. It's long overdue, and it's nice to have that space.
Jan. 23 -- The day Wuhan is locked down
While I'm editing the news, we both discuss Wuhan. A city roughly the size of London, or New York City is going into quarantine mode at the end of the day. We hear there is a rush to the highways and airports for Wuhanians hoping to travel for Spring Festival.
In Chongqing, our headline is "Chongqing Reports 9 Confirmed Cases of New Coronavirus Pneumonia." Nine cases in a city of 8 million downtown and more than 32 million in the metro area doesn't sound like a lot.
We have only two family dinners this year, and Lin has a big extended family in Chongqing. Lin offers that I can stay at home if I'm worried about travel, but my mind does the math, and there's no difference if I stay or go. If she comes back sick, I'll catch it. I might as well go and remind her to take precautions on the way there and back. Plus, I like spending time with family, even if my Chinese isn't very good.
We just relax all day, happy to be home and free. We get suited up to take the subway to my cousin's place. Almost everyone wears a mask. The few that don't look around puzzled.
We get to Panze's place. He's an air marshal for a major airline. We discuss a few things, such as the quarantine expanding to nearby cities and 20 million people altogether in that part of the Hubei province. Hubei borders the Chongqing municipality. Panze has to fly to Xinjiang the following day. He's nervous; he wishes he didn't have to. We predict it'll be over in a couple of months but should stay safe until then.
After dinner, Lin tells me they're debating canceling the dinner at our parent's house tomorrow. Her sister is all for being safe, with old people and a one-year-old staying in the house, but mama is stubborn and doesn't think it's a big deal, and she worries she might not have too many Chinese New Year’s dinners left. So we say we'll be careful and come over for lunch.
Jan. 22 -- People start wearing masks
It got sunny for a few minutes, and we took the dogs to the parking garage with two chairs and sat in the sun for a bit. That was glorious.
Around 5:30 p.m. we got ready to head to Raffles City, the new mall in Chongqing, to meet our son, Jin, and his girlfriend, Cici, for dinner.
On the subway, Xiaolin agreed to wear a mask, and luckily, I have a bunch to spare. This time we noticed more like one out of three people on the subway were also wearing masks, and we moved to stand next to some masked people rather than unmasked ones.
We got off the subway in Jiefangbei, the original downtown centre. Raffles City is a $4.8-billion horizontal skyscraper on top of an enormous shopping plaza. It's very modern inside. I can smell a strong disinfectant spray there. By this time, many people, over half, are wearing masks outside, and I think almost everyone inside is.
We walk around for a few minutes before Lin gets a call, and we go to a Vietnamese restaurant. We see Jin and Cici seated. They aren't wearing masks, and we self-consciously take ours off. They have an amazing, colourful, fragrant, massive spread of soups, curry, rice, and seafood in front of them. It's all really delicious and clean, and it was a really relaxing experience.
Later, we walk around a bit and buy Jin and Cici some N95 masks. Most shops are sold out, but we eventually find a three pack. A boy about 30 metres away is running, and he stops to sneeze into the air. He's not wearing a mask. People have stopped to stare but continue on. Collectively people are becoming a bit more paranoid or careful.
We take the subway home around 10, with our masks on, and most people have them on.
Jan. 21 -- Life before the outbreak
We get in touch with my journalist colleague Sasha and our cameraman Deng. We agree to meet at noon to shoot a Chinese Spring Festival Shopping Gala at the Nanping Convention Center
I wear a mask on the subway, but I notice I am the only one. I feel comfortable even though I feel the weight of stares. Normally people in China only wear masks when they are sick, as a kindness to others.
After we finish up and get back on the subway, I get my mask back on.
We make it to downtown and spend some time with Lin's family. We get coffee, walk around and play.
My 17-year-old niece invites me to join her in a zombie apocalypse escape room. The next hour of my life was straight out of a horror movie.
We walk around, tasting street food, and relaxing.
We stay up late - maybe until 2 a.m. and then go to bed. I slip on some headphones and listen to some YouTube news coverage.
First cases are discovered in Beijing and Shenzen, and there is an ominous tone to the coverage.