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Living through COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

The Coronavirus Outbreak

From the moment the story of the coronavirus – later renamed COVID-19 – broke, the details and news of it took over our lives. My wife and I, both teachers in Shanghai, were stateside ending our visit with her family during Chinese New Year. After all the flights to China were cancelled, we had to make a decision quickly, so we chose to go to Thailand. Our thinking was that this might blow over (oh, how wrong were we!), and it would be easier to get back to Shanghai from a closer location. After a week there, we were drowning in countless emails and constantly in touch with our uneasy colleagues and friends. Being away was getting tiresome and expensive, and we were missing the comfort of our house (and our cat!). So, we decided to go home to ride it out in Shanghai.

Returning to China

Arriving three hours before a flight is usually quite early. When we arrived at the airport in Bangkok, we were stopped dead in our tracks, faced with a line that snaked through the airport.

Personnel were all over, taking temperatures and sorting people into different lines. For an extra fee, they offered passengers priority seating at the front of the plane and a reduced wait time.

This choice was apparently very lucky because, according to one article, sitting in the aisle seat of the middle of a plane puts you in a ‘red zone’ of an increased chance of contracting the virus. So we paid the 18 USD.

We went through immigration, this one set up exclusively for China-bound passengers, and were crammed together in our seats on the plane, which I found odd. There didn’t seem to be that many people queuing for the flight.

During the trip, I went to the back to use the facilities and noticed six empty rows with all the seat belts clipped over the adjacent seats, with around a half a dozen people sitting in the back two rows.

Also, odd.

When we landed, everyone rushed to get up and stood for a bit before an announcement came over the PA, asking us to wait. Most people returned to their seats, with a few of us choosing to remain standing in the row, after having been on a 5-hour flight (and for us, a 5-hour drive to get to the flight). Without notice, the people from the back of the plane started coming to the front, confusing many of us. As they bounced past me, I looked to the front to see people in hazmat suits coming onto the plane. The plane began to buzz with panicked whispers - were we infected?

We watched the hazmat-clad staff escort the passengers down the stairs, directly next to the plane, instead of over the usual bridge. They disappeared into the main airport and we never found out if anyone had tested positive.

Finally, we got into the airport, and in a city like Shanghai, it is always busy. However, the only people we encountered were employees in more hazmat suits (one of whom I snapped a picture of, who promptly yelled at me not to do that). Immigration, baggage, arrivals, and the roads – all wholly deserted. It felt like a zombie apocalypse, and we were very unsure of what we were getting ourselves into coming back to our adopted home country.

My wife and I have been back in China for a week. Things are, of course, different. Every time we leave the house, we need to wear masks. They fog up my glasses, which annoys me. Every person is wearing at least a mask, and then some include goggles, gloves, and ponchos, which is always a bit funny to come across. It’s as if they are protecting themselves from being slimed on that old Nickelodeon show.

To be given entry, all apartment complexes (and any open establishments) have someone checking your temperature. Sometimes security gives out tickets allowing one exit/entry per complex per day, while other apartments are closed to outside visitors (like mine). It’s a bit tedious to get your temperature taken continuously, but I do get a giggle from it because no security guard has been able to get a read for what mine is (I’m trying to find humour in the challenging, I suppose). It’s always too low for their temperature guns, which confuses the heck out of them – they think I have hypothermia. They take their own temperature and then mine again, and then eventually give up and wave me through. Maybe I’m just cold-blooded.

There’s also what we are calling ‘watchdogs’: government employees who are monitoring the security guards to ensure they are doing what they are supposed to do. I’m not entirely sure what would happen if my temperature read too high. I don’t want to ask.

The toughest thing for me as a teacher is school closures and that students have been away since the 17th of January. Usually, students get 2-4 weeks’ vacation during this time of year, but we are moving into six weeks with no end in sight. While schools have been doing their best to communicate details, there is so much that is unknown. Just today, we found out that all schools are requiring their teachers to undergo a self-quarantine of 14 days before returning to school, no matter what the country of origin.

Daily, we check emails, read the news, teach online and respond to work our students are submitting. We message each other, trying to uplift spirits. We take masked walks, as many people do, enjoying the nice weather. We go out for dinner sometimes because while many places are closed to the public, some are open. We get daily emails about that, too. Going outside or out for dinner might sound shocking for those of you who have been following the coronavirus (although I’m pretty sure there isn’t any way you couldn’t be!), but think about the statistics.

It’s all relative

For comparison, the CDC estimates that about 56,000 people a year die from the flu, or flu-like symptoms. CNN reported that since the beginning of the year, 150 children have died in the US of the flu. These situations have not caused mass panic and school closures. In Shanghai, there have been 336 cases and only 3 actual deaths (and I don’t say “only” to lessen the seriousness of it, but to put it into perspective). The recovery rate is 10 times higher than the death rate. Of course, it is indeed becoming more dangerous now that it has been spreading to other countries, but China has been working hard to contain it, and under this government, they can go to extreme measures to do so. Here in Shanghai, a city of 24 million people (my home country of Canada, by contrast, has 37 million people in total), about 0.000014% of the population is infected. Yes, in Hubei it is much more severe, and the situation in Shanghai might change, but over the last week, the number of new cases reported has been either 0 or 1 a day.

These statistics help me feel positive because this isn’t easy. We are watching a potential pandemic unfold from a country we love. The news publishes story after story on it, and people are reacting negatively to China and it's people worldwide. It’s sad to see the dehumanization of fellow human beings when I read about some cases of xenophobic behaviour in other countries. I believe this is a time to come together. To share experiences – the positive, negative, and the in between. Everyone wants to get back to their normal lives, but it’s going to be a long road. There are millions of people affected by this who aren’t sick but who are doing what they can to help prevent the spread.

You can, too, just the same as you would during the flu season. Wash your hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze. Get rest and be mindful of what you touch. Additionally, as this is affecting so many countries, send out positive messages of love and support to those who are living under varying degrees of quarantine, even if you don’t know someone personally. Sharing stories of human ingenuity or kindness is important, and don’t engage with misinformation – it’s harmful. Donate to Give2Asia to help give masks and necessary medical equipment to those on the front lines. Do what you can.

This virus might be new and spreading quickly, but the human race is not new to adversity. We are well versed in rising to challenges and we will persevere. We only need to support one another, no matter the country we call home.


STEM Editor, Tia Luker-Putra

Tia is a Canadian high school French language turned elementary science teacher of 13 years, living in Shanghai, China.  She is passionate about working with teachers and students to help improve curriculum, especially science. She also has a love for the Sustainability Development Goals of the UN and teaching students about them.  She believe it is important to develop empathy in students and connect them with the world around them, and solving the world's biggest problems is a great way to do it!  Tia loves to travel, be outside, share her experiences on Twitter, and hang out with her wife and their cat, Kimchi.

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