How’s the COVID situation in China?
I hesitated to type a response to my friend back in the US, as the latest media reports of the virus situation over there — over 250,000 deaths and over 12 million confirmed cases — still circulate through my head. When I eventually type out that “Things are nearly back to normal”, a part of me flinches within, wondering if I just sent her the message equivalent of a gut punch. Is it ever polite to tell someone living in a bonafide disaster zone that it’s no longer a problem where you live? Even if it’s the truth?
I breathe a sigh of relief as she responds without any apparent annoyance, and I do my best to quickly shift topics to something else. But my guilt remains tenacious — the guilt that comes from living in a country that has nearly restored life to the new “normal”, as friends and family in the US, my home country, face a frightening surge of cases and deaths.
I wish my family and friends didn’t have to live with the threat of COVID-19 stalking them so close to home. The virus, which once seemed relatively distant from them, has now infected people they know, from fellow churchgoers to kids’ college roommates. And, even worse, the COVID situation in the US has now turned into a full-blown denial of service attack on the local hospitals, where ICU beds are running slim, healthcare workers either overworked or in short supply, and patients with other non-COVID issues might not be able to get care. It’s the stuff of a pandemic horror film, and yet it is their reality, thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.
Meanwhile, my office in Beijing has seen all employees return to their cubicles, only to work from home on the occasional weekend or other shift. We no longer engage in the same obsessive hand sanitation, though the majority of us still seem to prefer washing our hands first when we come to the office anyhow, out of habit. My colleagues and friends gleefully make plans to visit a new restaurant, such as that one in the nearby alley touting roast meat, or hop on the high-speed train for a weekend getaway, or meet up with others for coffee, or even attend that upcoming Christmas bazaar. When I get off work, I see streets thronged with pedestrians, scooters rumbling down the side lanes, and cars zooming down the center of the road. I pass by the hair salon around the corner from my office, which sees a steady stream of customers every day. The whole scene looks borrowed from the pre-pandemic world, save one detail — that nearly everyone still continues to wear masks, usually the surgical masks seen on TV in China.
It’s the kind of “normal” that everyone in the world deserves to have — but many don’t, due to poor leadership or handling of the COVID situation, such as in the US.
In the meantime, my friends and family hear little about what’s going on in China, COVID-wise, because the news back in the US doesn’t really report about it. So when we message or talk, they might ask me, How’s the COVID situation in China? And as long as this gulf in COVID realities persists between our two countries, I will have to brace myself for my awkward conversations, punctuated by some guilt and much worry over their well-being.
Have you experienced any awkward conversations as the pandemic affects different countries in different ways?