The Virus Diaries

Will Connelly* is a friend of mine. He’s a web developer for a company doing an online restaurant booking app. He lives in Jiading or Putuo or Huangpu – one of those Shanghai districts that people sometimes mention but no one is really sure where it is or whether it really exists. Like most everyone else, Liam has been living under virus lockdown for the last two weeks. Unlike everyone else though he’s been writing down his thoughts and experiences.

He shared it with me and I thought it gave an interesting insight into the mind of someone going through this. Not someone on the front lines in a fever hospital and not someone hanging out in Bangkok waiting for the all-clear, just one of the millions of people caught in the cross fire.

With his permission, I post his words here.

*names have all been changed.


Prologue (Shanghai)

Hey.

How’s it going?

I’m guessing you’re at home with not much to do except watch movies, scroll the feeds, and alternate between confidence and despair. That’s cool.

I’m just reaching out, just wanted to say hi. I know, on ordinary days I just walk right on past you, probably with a scowl on my face, a look that says “don’t talk to me”.

But that’s not really what I want to say. Actually I want to hear everything about your life. I want to hear your story. I want to hear every detail you can remember. I want you to talk and talk for hours. I want to listen.

Just one thing – can we not look each other in the eye? Let’s sit side by side while we do this, or shoulder to shoulder. Even back to back would be fine. Best of all would be each of us on our backs in a lawn of grass at the park our heads almost touching, but not quite. The sun shining down, getting caught in our eyelashes, our bodies exposed to butterflies and random falling twigs.

Can we do it like that?

If you insist that we sit facing each other, well, I can do that too. Don’t mind me if I sway back and forth, though, like a baby cobra just figuring out cobra balance. Just swaying.

I’m – what’s the word? – worried. Here are some things I’m worried about in no particular order and not limited to these:

  • Fever hospitals
  • Economic collapse
  • Losing my job
  • The health of my daughter and my wife and my wife’s parents (外婆 and 外公)
  • Environmental collapse

Beyond that, I’m somewhat convinced that these are all actually the same thing, that they are all related to a deep core of central logic, and that worries me too. Because I don’t know what that central logic is. I can only make guesses.

[several hours later]

So this is the future, right?

  • Can’t leave the house
  • Social relationships all take place online
  • No job

This is the future we have all been kind-of-subtly-but-not-so-subtly gesturing towards. Well here it is. It arrived quite suddenly. Two weeks ago things had their usual veneer of normalcy. That disappeared on January 24 when they locked down Wuhan, a city with 10 million people in it. Then it was like – “oh shit you have a fever? you’re going away and never coming back.”

That’s how the future arrived. The last nail in the coffin of the old world, the one that rose out of the ashes of the Black Plague – the high medieval era — right before the bankers realized that it was much more expedient to take power for themselves.

We kept imagining that somehow the world would find equilibrium. Perhaps through the simple majority mathematics of democracy. That hasn’t happened. Capital has proven to be a very formidable force. But at least we had the legacy of the French revolution, we could always take to the streets.

And now even that has been taken away. Surprisingly easily too.

Look at me – I’m babbling again. Not even making sense either. We are in China, after all, one of the few places in the world left where capital cannot simply buy political power, while over in America – there is no virus. And, in any event, we are here to talk, to dialogue, to get to know each other.

So let’s begin. What makes you happy? What’s the last really good novel you read? Who was your best friend in middle school? Go slow. Let it unfold in a natural way. It looks like we have plenty of time…

Day 1 (January 27 – Sanya)

“The Epidemic-Stricken City of Wuhan.”

That’s the headline that makes this real. Before it seemed like something that might somehow just go away. Not anymore. Now it’s Biblical. No one can get out of Wuhan, but the broadcasts never cease, some screaming, some calm.

Where I am the situation is calm, orderly and organized. I’m told there is free medical care given to those in need. Everything looks the same except everyone is wearing a mask. But the trust one takes for granted is gone. Everyone is a potential carrier and no one wants to end up a statistic, or, even worse, a fake Chinese statistic. All around is guarded suspicion.

All this started for me on Dec 31. I have a colleague who’s actually from Wuhan and he went back for his cousin’s wedding. He mentioned something to us something about a flu – not SARS, not pneumonia, something else – and showed us a screenshot of a Weibo post. I passed it along to my wife who replied with a frown emoji. And then we promptly forgot about it. A month later and we are in the middle of the world’s biggest quarantine zone. It’s the kind of thing that happens in the movies.

So many individual stories caught up in this mess. My wife told me one about her colleague who is also from Wuhan. This colleague just had a baby a few weeks back and her mother had come from Wuhan to help out with the baby. But then her mother was diagnosed with stage three liver cancer and didn’t have much time to live. They were devastated by the news.

Her mother’s dying wish was to see her hometown one more time – a small village in rural Hubei. So in mid-January she took leave and drove them all the way from Shanghai to Hubei. The baby went to Lanzhou with her husband’s parents. Shortly after they arrived, the city was put under lockdown. They are still there.

Later today we fly back to Shanghai. Better get back before home is cut off.

Day 2  (January 28 – Shanghai)

Yesterday when I said goodbye to my wife and daughter at the airport, I thought I would never seen them again. Either they would die or I would. Why were we on separate flights? Ctrip fuckup. Somehow they got one digit of my passport number incorrect and so the airline refused to issue the ticket and everything was a big mess. So I had to pay twice as much for a later flight.

Their flight made it to Shanghai safe and sound.

When my flight was called, I had a thought – if the plane were to crash and I wanted more than anything for my family to sue Ctrip. Sue Ctrip, sue the airline, sue the fucking algorithm that made the mistake – just make sure someone paid for their fuckup. This would be my final revenge.

I imagined how it would play out in a film. In the film version my wife and kid would be foreigners who didn’t speak the language and after the unthinkable happens my wife sets off on a journey to get justice. She would run up against the intransigence of the big publicly-listed company which sold the ticket. She runs up against the intransigence of the Chinese justice system. She runs up against the intransigence of the technology itself and who is responsible when technology screws up.

It’s a years-long battle. Over and over again she is told to drop it and move on with her life. She spends all her money and neglects her daughter who doesn’t understand anything except daddy is gone and is never coming back. In the end she wins a settlement from the company – a few million RMB. Subtract out the taxes and the legal fees and all the other fees and there’s barely several hundred thousand left. That’s it. That’s what a life is worth.

This is what played out in my head before they called my flight.

But the flight was fine, perfect even. There were moments when I couldn’t even feel the plane moving. Then I was on the ground and just over an hour later I was walking through the door.

And then today. Pottering around. Working on an oil painting. Cleaning clothes. Snacking. That night my wife and I watched a movie in bed all snuggled up, our daughter at 外婆家 for the night. Life just goes on, until it doesn’t.

Day 3 (January 29)

Feels like we are in a slow moving disaster movie. Hollywood movies compress the time frame so that everything happens bang bang bang – the end of the world in 72 hours. Hollywood hours are like real world weeks. Reality unfolds differently, but the destination is the same. It’s just the realization comes a little slower.

It’s absurd to think school will be back in session before April. And then what about work? As soon as masses of people start filling up subway cars and office buildings, won’t the virus continue to spread around? It’ll put us right back where we were. All we are doing is digging a shallow moat just deep enough to shovel in a week’s worth of days. What then? No really, what then?

That night we watch “Always Be My Maybe” – new Ally Wong film. Great cameo from Keanu Reeves who has the best line – “Embrace your noble mediocrity. Your nothingness is greater than anything celebrity could hope to achieve.”

Day – what? – 5? No. Day 4. (January 30)

Trapped. Announcements came out today – many train lines and bus lines between cities have been cancelled. Airlines have cut way back on flights to and from China. Slowly but surely China is being cut off from the world. For whatever reason I feel no panic. Not yet at least.

There is an anxiety – a type of panic – incipient to being trapped. It’s a kind of claustrophobia combined with agoraphobia. This may very well be the main condition of the world – of people – moving forward, the anxiety, panic, paranoia of being trapped, of realizing you are trapped. Trapped on this planet, trapped in your home, trapped in an economic system, trapped in a relationship, trapped in your own skin, trapped in your own mind.

It makes sense that this would happen. As the world gets smaller, as the map gets filled in, the discourse of “freedom” which sustained us for the last few centuries gives way to power – implacable, unyielding, unreasoning, uncaring power – power backed up by AI systems.

This feeling of being trapped will eventually give way to a feeling of peace. You won’t have to wonder about yourself, about who you are, about your identity. Your identity will be ready-made for you to log into, like slipping into a suit off the rack that feels tailor made.

Day 5 (January 31)

Caught a little bit of sun today. Things grew bigger, vaster – the enormity of something called “global pandemic”. The growing sense the bottom will fall out. The inertia of not being able to move, even to go for a run around the park. The new normal. It’s fine. Fine! Except the for the part about not being able to go for a run around the park. We’re getting through this. On Day 5, I believe, we are getting through this.

Watched a film tonight – “Aniara”. New Swedish sci-fi. Not quite Bergman, not quite Tarkovsky, but that direction. The set up is a near future, Earth is falling apart and people are migrating to the Mars colony on large space ships that are like huge flying hotels powered by nuclear reactors. Ordinarily the trip takes 3 weeks. One such ship, the Aniara, hits some space debris and is forced to jettison its fuel. It then drifts aimlessly through space and the film traces the fate of the people trapped aboard over the next 2 decades.

There’s a lot of things you would THINK would happen – gang violence for example. Just a lot more violence really. But maybe that’s apocalyptic western-think. Looking at the response to this current pandemic – maybe that’s all wrong. Seems like people just fall in line, like they did in the movie.

But one by one the people aboard the Ariana succumb to existential nothingess, the complete and final and utter extinguishing of hope. Nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to – you’re done. Your kid too. Until 5 million years later you wash up in gravity well, frozen through like an ice cube.

Day…6? (February 1)

Technically today is what was supposed to be the last day of the CNY holiday. Seems ludicrous. Seems like it’s already been a month. In fact, it’s just beginning.

Some semblance of normalcy today. There were some kids playing in the square in our compound. Clio scooted after them on her little foot scooter, desperate for interaction. It’s not about safe versus unsafe. It’s about the human need for real social contact.

I caught the last rays of the dying sun, orange on my eyelids, powering up the circuits before it faded out in the west. Day 6 – patience wears thin.

Day 7 (February 2)

I have been extremely worried about my company, about my job. I’ve heard almost nothing from my company, just a perfunctory note a few days ago from HR saying the office had been thoroughly disinfected in accordance with government regulation. The silence spoke volumes though. The restaurant business is hardest hit. I didn’t need to check the logs to see that there were no bookings coming in.

Finally I talked to my wife about this. “Opportunities will come,” she told me. For some reason I believe her.

Day 8? (February 3)

It was a week ago that we flew back from Sanya. 7 days. Seems like a month. When normalcy returns that is the most dangerous moment. I went for a run inside the compound – two laps. I finished up a web project for a friend. Every day that passes I become more certain that my company is done no matter what happens with the virus.

Tomorrow some people begin to go back to work. Metros and buses and offices again filled with people – strangers – shedding germs on each other. We will see if there is another spike in cases. If we do, then we are back at square one with dozens of Wuhans all across China.

If I were to write a precis for the epidemic so far it would go like this:

  • Ignorance becomes unawareness which becomes curiosity (“it’ll never happen to me”)
  • Curiosity becomes fear (“Is this really happening?”)
  • Fear and panic (“Save yourself.”)
  • Desperate for the truth (“Who can I trust?”)
  • All your options on the table, even the unthinkable ones (“What kind of person am I really?”)
  • Then you realize you are probably not going to die and no one you know is going to die (Cue the anger and blame)
  • Then you start to worry about your job and how will you make a living (“I’m going to have to cancel that summer vacation!”)
  • Later…much much later… you regret not taking more advantage of the inordinate amount of time you had on your hands (“I could have learned r!”)

Note to self – begin studying up on r tomorrow.

Day 9 (February 4)

People are waking up, slowly and painfully waking up, to the great – tremendous! – power of their own insignificance. I don’t know if the seas will be cleaned up or the air refreshed or if the forests and jungles will be regrown or if justice will win more often than it loses, but at least it will not be due to ignorance of our role in all this. It is we, collectively, who brought all this on.

Will China be able to get through this, I mean REALLY get through this? Will there be an accounting of the dead this time? Will there be boiling anger at yet another cover up? Can they simply get through yet another tragedy by telling themselves once again they have no other choice? Will it be too much this time?

Day 10 (February 5)

Downloaded a bunch of movies – all bad. What else? Over the next three days people will try to convince themselves that things are getting better, returning to normal. Does it even matter where the virus came from or whether there was a cover up? Some would say it’s the ONLY thing that matters. Making paper airplanes with your wife and kid and flying them around the room – that DEFINITELY matters.

A friend of mine from Wuhan said, “It feels like the world is ending.” A friend of mine from Shaanxi said, “Whoever thought it would be cheaper to buy steak than green vegetables in China?” At the gate of the compound they have started checking temperatures. In Zhejiang’s three biggest cities you are only allowed one person out to buy supplies once every two days.

Has no one thought to ask the most important question – how will the prostitutes survive?

Every morning I wake flush from a dream. It takes a few minutes to come to grips with the reality of epidemic. Stumble into the kitchen, start in on the hot water, look at the plants, look out the window: nowhere to go today, nothing to do.

Maybe in the future the idea of “making money” will seem as absurd as waving your dick around in public. Zero gravity…floating…down below, the ground is rapidly accelerating in this direction. The future is here. It arrived so suddenly. Can’t go outside, all your relationships mediated by the internet, no job, waiting for the government to provide a solution.

Day 11 (February 6)

It looks like we are going back to work on Monday. A turning point. But how will people react after two solid weeks of being pounded by the message it’s unsafe to step outside your home? It will all fall apart quickly or get us some traction so we can start to climb again.

Today seemed to be more hopeful. Best not to get the hopes up though. Not yet. What can be believed? Is it ten times as bad as the official figures or just two? Why was there no analogous outcry to H1N1 in 2009? Is there really a swarm of desert locusts heading for the African breadbasket and the Indian subcontinent? Are these the plagues that mark the end of times? All we need is a super volcano, an earthquake and a flood.

Day 12  (February 7)

Is this the greatest experiment in mass isolation in human history? How could it not be. More importantly, it’s a glimpse of the future – the hyper-networked fascist capitalist state controlled by maybe a dozen families and their proxy corporations flanked by the twin dreadnoughts of discourse (legal) and culture (politics).

What will we all do? What significance can anyone have? You won’t even be able to be a hero in your own microdrama. At least now we can imagine our chains and rail against our perceived oppressors. I guess there will always be a way to carve out a niche by debasing yourself in public and finding novel uses for other people’s garbage. Oh yes and gambling too – we will be able to place bets on whose cringe meme gets reposted the most…

Dream last night: I’m in New York City walking through narrow back alleys, spaces between buildings, places I’ve never been to before. There is trash and puddles of dirty water and sharp edges sticking out. Then I’m in a laundromat doing laundry putting coins into the machine. A woman is there. I’m making her laugh with some corny stand-up jokes. Then her friend shows up – another woman – and she asks me to repeat the jokes but I’m reluctant. I know they won’t be funny the second time around.

Day 13 (February 8)

People are starting to realize that work is actually going to be happening on Monday, that people are going to get dressed, get on the metro, take cabs, go to the office. No doubt they will be taking temperatures at every door, at the entrance of the subway, at the counter at every Starbucks. Everywhere. Fail a test even once and you’re reported to the police or just directly hustled away. Maybe. No one really knows.

Who’s going to be first to market with a forehead thermometer that has built in facial recognition and is chipped to connect to the internet? That’s the epidemic panopticon dream – a live database of the everyone’s movements and their most current temperature reading. Data appended to their government file. Sesame credit adjusted as needed. If you’ve got the R&D dough, now is the time. Maybe the virus is made up? Maybe this is all a terrible mistake?

Day 14 (February 9)

An unlucky day. A lot of bad stuff today. First, yes, the news comes out – the company is shutting down until further notice and we will not be paid moving forward. Even worse news – we won’t be paid for January either.

This was bad enough, but for the news to be delivered by Dimitri’s horrible Shanghainese wife (whom everyone already pretty much hated and despised), this was too much. Never before had I wanted to punch someone in the face as much as I did at that moment. So I’ve officially been furloughed. We all were. Just like that. It enrages!

Dimitri, meanwhile, posted on Instagram several days ago about his amazing diving holiday in Malaysia. Dimitri, meanwhile, is rich from the two other companies he has founded and sold, the most recent one not even two years ago. He bragged to everyone about the 14 million he got for it. He bragged about it when I interviewed for the job. Everything he said came back to that.

“There is no revenue!” Dimitri’s wife told me. “There is no money to pay people!” What about that 14 million? I wanted to ask. But of course I cannot ask this, and anyway we already know the answer.

I could only fume and start calling everyone I know asking about jobs. The only time worse than the middle of an epidemic to look for jobs is at the beginning of an epidemic. Let’s be honest that’s exactly where we are.

Enraged, unable to concentrate on anything, I contacted a lawyer.

“I’ve already received over 50 inquiries just like yours,” he told me. “In fact, we may be representing your employer. It would cost you 3,500 US dollars just to find that out. There’s nothing you can do. The government has bigger fish to fry right now. And anyway, they won’t care about a foreigner.”

So all that publicized government talk about “protecting the people’s livelihood”? Just more BS. My wife explained it like this, “The government has to say all that for the benefit of the lowest of Chinese society.”

I contacted a few Chinese colleagues. They didn’t seem as upset as I am. They even told me they believed the business will start again in one or two months. They obviously don’t know Dimitri very well. That damned Russian mobster will sit on the company until he can make a profit from it. He’s not going to re-open it just to break even. And that will be a while. We were barely in the black as it was.

And even IF the company re-opens, the very first thing Dimitri will do is downsize. “Wait around doing nothing with no paycheck for 2 or 3 months only to get layed off? You’re going to gamble on that?” I asked my colleagues. They shrugged. The Chinese are the world’s greatest shruggers. Even better than the French.

Then it hits me, do I think for a minute Dimitri has stopped paying office rent or server costs or interest on the loans he’s taken out? No way. Even if the government issued an amnesty on rent and taxes, it wouldn’t change the fact there’s no revenue. No revenue, no pay. Ain’t my fault there’s no revenue. An entrepreneur is rewarded for taking on risk. Well, what about when that risk goes the opposite way? Shouldn’t he be penalized? Otherwise…there’s no risk!

It enrages me to realize once again how the world is slanted toward the rich. It enrages me that ordinary people are unwilling to do a damn thing about it. It’s so obviously a rigged game, but no one lifts a finger, no one even questions it, they just scramble over each other trying to get on the other side like lobsters in a tank at the grocery store.

Who is going to come out of this unscathed? The rich. They always do. In fact for them it’s not the worst thing. Prices of assets will fall so they can buy more of them and sit on them and charge rents until the world is destroyed by a meteor.

The other thing which disgusts me is this doubling down on technology. The only silver lining people seem to be able to find is how central technology has become. It may seem an odd sentiment coming from someone who works in technology, but it really disgusts me this slavish technology worship that is engulfing everything. It disgusts me that there is so little resistance to it as if there were nothing else to hope for.

“Epidemic Shows How Automated Last Mile Delivery Will Be a Boon for humanity” Pdfs of dumb articles like this make the rounds full of infographics that explain it all with great authority. “How SARS Helped Usher in the Taobao Era” proclaims another. Pure propaganda. The new pornography. But no one complains because, I guess, there is nothing else left to worship.

And no one wants to hear the negativity. No one wants to hear the anger and disgust. It bums them out. Especially now with everyone locked up at home and no outdoors and no friend gatherings and no big slap up hot pot dinners. “China will Come Back Stronger from Coronavirus!” “Three Industries That Are Booming Right Now!” “Online Education Is the New VC Darling”. It’s the last spasm of desperate people. The edifice is crumbling faster and faster. Free money will keep asset prices inflated permanently while you smile and weep and plead for a handout.

All this before 3pm.

Then at 3pm the phone rang. My wife answered it. A man’s voice. Not 外公. Not work. I heard the voice asking about the flight they took from Sanya back to Shanghai. My wife explained that I had taken a later flight. “What was that about?” I asked.

“Someone on our plane has been diagnosed with the virus,” she told me.

And with that, the day got much worse.

Epilogue – Day 15 (February 10)

Technically it’s been only seven or eight days since the end of the Chinese New Year. Seems like years.

This morning I saw out the window a man and woman arguing. He was screaming at her, really getting up into her face, letting her have it with all sorts of “妈逼”s and “靠你”s. When he let off screaming at her she started screaming at him. Both of them were wearing masks and the masks trembled when they shouted. Finally she stormed away and he trailed after her still shouting.

Are people starting to break? I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of this to be honest. Today China goes back to work, except of course me and my wife. We float in an undefined space – neither employed not unemployed. And there are millions just like us.

I am expecting a knock on the door, the people in hazmat suits to take us away for testing. Any minute now…

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