Life in lockdown

After hearing the “rumour” that an unknown virus similar to SARS appeared in Wuhan, I started wearing the mask in Shanghai this early January. The memories of SARS, though it has passed for 17 years, were still vivid for me. I remember how rapidly it spread throughout the whole country, how slowly the public health system took reaction in contrast, and most importantly, to wear a mask for self-protection. But I didn’t expect this time I was going to be wearing it for such a long time, and especially a global pandemic of the novel coronavirus.

Now the situation is much better in China. Other than the requirement of wearing a mask when going outside, life has almost returned to the normal track. As a person from the group of people who have experienced probably the longest social distancing in the world (hopefully, the people in the world won’t take such kind of isolation anymore.), I think it’s my responsibility to share my quarantine story and thoughts, and the crisis I experienced, since it surely won’t only be my condition.

Emotional crisis

Following the Wuhan lockdown that lasted for 76 days since 23rd January, each province in China announced emergency alert that regulated citizen’s outdoor activities, such as the closing of public area, and mask requirement. I was enjoying the winter holiday at home, so I didn’t feel any difference at the beginning. Not going outside wasn’t a big deal for me, especially when I didn’t know it would last that long. The only thing I felt sad was I cancelled the family trip I planned for a long time, under my parents’ suggestion.

However, with the numbers of cases in Wuhan boosting, the holiday wasn’t relaxing anymore. What was confirmed were not only the infected cases but also probably the worry I had had since the moment I decided to wear the mask. I was afraid the real situation was much more severe than reported, no matter due to political reason or medical reason. Therefore, both anger and panic flooded my mind.

People queuing by the pharmacy for the masks allocated by the government 

My worry was not out of no reason. In December 2019, Doctor Li Wenliang warned his fellow of the virus he thought was SARS through private message. And he received the admonition from the police for “spreading rumour”. He died for coronavirus on 6th February. His death triggered public anger and grief in China, which led to an official investigation on his admonition.

With the situation getting worse, the government tightened the restriction on citizen’s activities. Family or friend gathering was not suggested. The time of initial outbreak should have been the Chinese New Year holiday that every family celebrates the reunion. The supermarket should be crowded with people buying snacks or food for the family party. This year the supermarket was crowded as usual, but the stuff in the trolley was not the party food, but the grocery for long term storage. The same place used to be crowded for togetherness, while for separation this year. It is both a government suggestion and a sign of the public panic, as happened in other countries a few months later.

A poster saying “Wear the mask, wash your hands, no visiting, no gathering” 

Social media might be a substitution under social distancing, which should have relieved people’s emotional pressure, no matter loneliness, boredom, or solitude. However, the bad news flooded on social media as the number confirmed kept raising, and people reported the dreadful life in Wuhan. Wuhan’s medical system was overwhelmed since the patients waiting for virus test were too many. Many patients posted their situations on Weibo (you may understand it as Twitter in China) for help. If you check social media, you might be immersed in a desperate mood.

How did we recover from this emotional crisis? Some warm and stimulating stories helped, such as the medical volunteers fearlessly rush to Wuhan to support, and the civil volunteers worked when the city almost paralysed. However, sometimes the recovery was simply because we became apathetic. Enormous distressing information made people emotionally tired. People don’t know how they can help and how long it would last. All life plans and projects were interrupted. We found the certainty of life we took for granted turned to absurdity. The emotional crisis was not relieved but replaced by the existentialist crisis.

Existentialist crisis

Perhaps no one would feel negative if his or her holiday gets extended. But what if the extension is indefinite? Is it same to the retirement? I would say no. Once you retire, you are sure you won’t be called back to work, and you start receiving your pension. However, the extension by coronavirus brings much more uncertainty. The end of the extension may not be backing to the office, but resulted in jobless. Even if you are fortunate enough to keep your position, you actually can do no planning. How could you make a plan without a timeline?

Empty street in the downtown area.

More serious than the career plan, the pandemic makes long-term life project difficult. You probably never thought of such a historic issue happened suddenly in your life. Will it change your view of the world? This incidence has broken many aspects of life we used to, such as the evaluation of social occupation, the so-called social rule, the definition of a good life. May we still be confident with human’s scientific and technological achievement? After all, we still discover no effective method in curing the virus and predicting the tendency of the pandemic, which reveals human’s vulnerability toward disaster. We don’t know what the post-pandemic world looks like, or there probably won’t be a post-pandemic world.

Reflection on daily life, this absurdity comes to be a hotbed for laziness. If you don’t know when is the end, or even whether there is an end, why bother having a routine? Always prepared? Don’t be silly. But a life without a routine will miss the sense of time. Without a life project as a personal faith, it’s no difference to a zombie’s life. Every day simply repeats but never has any progress.

The idle cookware of a restaurant 

Though repeating without progress, it seems not same as the life of Sisyphus, one of the Ancient Greek God who takes the punishment to keep rolling a stone up a hill only for its rolling down. Sisyphus is doing something from which he eventually figures out some meaning, according to Albert Camus, while the quarantine Zombie does nothing. What is waiting in the endless feeling of meaningless? If Sisyphus is asked to stop rolling, would he feel relieved, or the sadness of a Zombie-like life? Each person whose life stopped by the pandemic quarantine faces this question.

The blurring of the boundary of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ also demonstrates the absurdity of life. After more than three months self-isolation, which was defined as abnormal, I got used to it, and ironically, the pre-pandemic life seemed abnormal and worrying me now. It seems like we were born with masks, all the meeting and interview were always conducted online, and body temperature was always under regulation.

If the existentialist crisis I recorded was just out of philosophical interest, some people ‘existentialist crisis’ concerned their physical existence seriously. My self-isolation was supported by saving, and the salary paid regularly. From my experience of online teaching, all my students can get quiet and proper places for learning. However, many labour people were not as fortunate as us. Social inequality became more apparent under pandemic. During Hubei lockdown, one peasant worker sailed on his handmade boat to the next province Jiangxi for working. He had to work for a living, not for self-fulfilment. His action was clearly inhibited but reflecting a sad truth that the lower class doesn’t have the same capability in resisting the unpredicted risk brought by the incidence like the pandemic.

“All the people who enter the community should register. All the people coming back from outside Shanghai should register to the community committee”

From the absurdity set the hope

Existentialists admit the absurdity or meaningless of life, but they are never nihilist. Absurdity implies the full possibilities of life. The implication of life under pandemic is not totally negative. Why we need a clear line between normal and abnormal? What we desire is “better” rather than “normal”.

It is a global gap year that forces us to take the alternative way of life and reflect the life we took for granted. As a teacher, I benefited a lot from online teaching as an alternative to teaching on the campus. Those education websites or apps made their max utility under pandemic, which I was hardly aware of. The students felt more relaxed in discussing, so the class became more exciting. Meanwhile, it pushed us to reflect the special purpose of campus as well. Forming a learning community is much more important than knowledge delivery. 

For other industry, the experience of distant working provided both employees and employers with the opportunity that can be easily achieved to reflect how much workload is actually necessary and how to build a successful working space. However, it may bring the risk of intruding work-and-life balance as well.

Many things I recorded in this article may not be strange to you. Some are happening around the world. I see the dark side globally: we face the ethical dilemma we thought only appear in the textbook; people discriminate the imaginary racial enemy but forget the real enemy is the virus and to weaken our community doesn’t help anything; the shortage of grocery becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the panic rather than pandemic; the government loses public’s trust due to the inefficient policy, but some governors or countries are still blaming each other; many people mock the anti-pandemic policies of other countries for nationalism but show no sympathy. I also see the bright side globally: the donation across the nations in resisting the pandemic; the medical staff put themselves in the high-risk environment just for saving lives; the retired doctors and nurses choose back to the battle; we mourned the death and applauded for the medical servants.

Online teaching sessions 

All of these show that humanity is the same, regardless of the nation. We appreciate the light of humanity, but admit the imperfectness of it. Through the pandemic, they are revealed much clearer than before. It is both alerting and encouraging. To be empathic toward others and to be humble toward nature are the lessons we have learned.

Coronavirus provides us with an opportunity for reflecting on many aspects. Next week I am going back to campus for teaching as the pandemic in China has been mitigated a lot. I hope the world can get rid of the pandemic very soon. I hope it will be better than now, and also better than before.

Wang Yunfei is an IBDP Theory of Knowledge teacher in Shanghai, China and has a degree in Philosophy and Public Policy.