In the cold night, the man in the white hazmat suit shone a red laser on my forehead. We were clear to go.
“辛苦你们了,” I said. You guys are impressive.
“没事,” he responded. Not at all. “人民服务,” he added as our car pulled away into darkness. Serve the people.
A month into the novel coronavirus outbreak, 13 days after it was confirmed the virus could spread from person to person, we got a message from my husband’s employer. If we wanted to leave China, they would help us, but we needed to decide in the next few hours.
There still were not many cases where we live, just outside a large city (eight in a region of more than a million people, and not a single one in our district). All the same, following official recommendations, we, like our neighbors, had been sitting indoors for days, reading, working, and staying off social media as much as possible.
It was evident so far that the biggest danger we faced from this virus would be psychological. Although I was more than 30 weeks pregnant, I pushed off an obstetrician visit — the long drive into the city in a cab seemed too fraught with strangers’ exhalations. We washed everything we’d bought from a nearby grocery store with soap on the porch before bringing it into the kitchen. Gloves and masks came off in a choreographed order, placed on a shelf by the front door to remind us: potentially contaminated.
As someone with a background in science, I kept track of the statistics of the outbreak from the beginning. Despite many inflammatory headlines, this new virus does not appear to be terribly deadly in the grand scheme of epidemics. Though numbers fluctuate, the overall mortality rate has been estimated to be about 2.1%, compared to nearly 10% with SARS. From a practical perspective, for most readers of this story, even that number is inflated because it includes the quarantined Hubei province, where the rate is sadly far higher than it is outside — the mortality rate in the rest of China, which leads the world in cases, is less than 0.2%. Efforts to contain the virus were merited; mass panic was not. We’d felt from the start that the best thing to do was wait it out in solidarity with the brave and determined folks around us, keeping the streets empty and all our viruses to ourselves to break the chain of transmission.
Efforts to contain the virus were merited; mass panic was not.
That’s how I thought about the risks. But, I realized belatedly, about a week or 10 days into our self-isolation, nobody cared what I thought. Airlines had started to cancel flights. The United States was making noise about closing the border. Every morning in the days before we got that message, some new horror — not from the virus but from the panic of others — lit up our phone screens. It was infuriating how days that should have been spent peacefully waiting for this to pass were instead spent wondering what the hell was coming next. It doesn't need to be this way, I thought. It's not that kind of virus.
But we had been picked up by a stream of events bigger than ourselves, involving decisions made in airline headquarters and government suites around the world. and the knowledge that they were fueled by a poor understanding of biology made no difference. With about an hour left to decide, we weighed the pros and cons. We decided, given all the new and all the future unknown restrictions, to go. It was around 2:45 p.m.
For me, rumors that it would become harder to move around had cast a long shadow. On a normal day, it was a two-hour trip across a provincial border to see my English-speaking obstetrician; it was like living in New Jersey and seeing a doctor in Brooklyn. But as the outbreak ballooned, the OB’s office came to seem as distant as Fiji, if the ocean were lined with officials and thermometers and battered by winds bearing sudden changes in policy.
Then, if either of us did get sick, even just from an ordinary virus, there loomed the specter of being shunted into the local fever clinics. Already our doctors had announced that, if we had a fever from any source, they would be legally forbidden to see us. In the background was the constant drumbeat of canceled flights, new restrictions, xenophobic fear abroad, and the knowledge that as I entered the last month of my pregnancy, I would be barred from planes altogether. If there were planes left to board.
Moreover, something had come over me in those last few days. As my father said when I spoke to him on the phone, the worst danger might come from catching not the coronavirus but a normal cold. Your immune system would know the difference, he said, but your frontal lobe would not. I thought more and more, floating through endless hours cooped up inside our apartment, of a summer I had spent doing sterile cell culture experiments. You feed the cells in the safety of a fume hood in which everything has been doused in alcohol, and you are the one potential source of contamination.
Though it had been more than a decade since I had done research, it came back right away, the insistent paranoia that tracks how the glove touches the bottle that touched the table that touched the sleeve of your coat. If that coat sleeve weren’t sterilized — if the package of food from the grocery store hadn’t yet been washed — then everything it touched would become unclean. Similarly, one misstep entering our apartment, and our safe haven would slowly convert itself into a dangerous place. In a sense it had already become that, not because of the distant virus, but because of what was going on in my mind. I monitored exactly where my coat had been, exactly what my mask had touched, exactly which patches of the shelf by the door could no longer be trusted.
And so, despite feeling that the greatest danger we faced was an amorphous cloud of anxiety, we put a few things in our carry-ons. I packed two shirts, the baby carrier we’d bought, a few boxes of heartburn medication. We started a last load in the dishwasher. Russia announced it was closing its land border with China. We gave a neighbor our food. We got a message with our flights, to Boston via Hong Kong, leaving a few hours after dawn. The travel agent told us it was the last flight left. The only flight today? Ever? This week? Tomorrow? I wanted to retort. But the right to demand complete information had evaporated with the growing feeling that no one had it. The option to leave was a privilege, but it came with no particular guarantees.
The right to demand complete information had evaporated with the growing feeling that no one had it.
If I couldn’t come up with a medical certificate stating my pregnancy was shorter than 36 weeks, though, the airline would deny boarding. It was 5:25 p.m. My OB's office was closed. I called the emergency line. “There's a lot of panicking going on,” said the doctor placidly. “I know,” I said, “but can you get me this?” She did not know.
She hung up. I sat there. The walls of my abdomen slid into a tense, locked posture, pushing the baby out front. Eventually, after glacial minutes, she called back and said they could send me the certificate. I waited until the electronic version arrived, hoping it would be enough. I didn't really sleep that night. In the wee hours, our alarms went off, sending us into the blackness with our almost empty suitcases to the gate of the apartment complex.
No one was allowed to come inside anymore unless they lived there. We got into the car, where the driver sat silently wearing a mask, like us. We rode off to the airport. At the empty toll gates, we were flagged down by the men in white suits, diligently checking documents and taking our temperatures with their signature infrared thermometer guns. I felt a swell of admiration for these careful workers, for the army of people who've risen to the challenge in China.
At the airport, we checked in three hours early and waited to board. As we showed our boarding passes, the staff suddenly muttered in Chinese, “They're here, they're here.” They told us our tickets had been canceled. Minutes earlier, they said, the US had specified that flights from China to all but seven of its airports should be canceled, and Boston was not one of those airports. A woman led us all the way out of the secure area, almost back to the sidewalk where we'd been dropped off. Her colleague said the only thing we could do was call a phone number, which she pushed across the desk on a scrap of paper. It led to an infinite hold, the music repeating, repeating.
Maybe we would not be leaving China after all, we thought. Our food in the apartment was gone. Where would we go? I couldn't think. The internet on our phones wasn't working well. Could we buy new tickets to somewhere else? No one knew.
I felt a swell of admiration for these careful workers, for the army of people who've risen to the challenge in China.
Finally, after perhaps 45 minutes on hold, someone picked up. They could send us to Hong Kong and then on to JFK. We would be on our own after that. We went through the entire security cordon again. We waited. This time, they let us on. The baby kicked and writhed like mad the whole flight to Hong Kong, perhaps from the roar of the jets. We landed and filled out paperwork attesting that we had not been to Wuhan and that we had no symptoms. We submitted to a temperature check and continued into the airport. We ate some noodles. We continued, like everyone else in sight, to wear our masks and wash our hands and keep our distance. We boarded the next plane. For 15 hours we were over the Pacific, sleeping and reading. The masks, white and blue and gray, glowed faintly in the light from the movies unfurling on the seatback screens.
We landed at JFK the following night. At that point, there was not yet a medical check. There was no taking of information. They didn't even take our temperatures. The customs officer had to be reminded what the name was of that city in China we were supposed to have not been to. “Wuhan,” we told him. In 30 minutes, we were on the cold sidewalk, in the same darkness we started in, but on the other side of the world.
We looked at each other. After our days of isolation and more than 40 hours of wearing masks and washing our hands and keeping close track of exactly what our phones had touched, to be waved through an airport like that felt like the height of surrealism. I watched as people around me touched the door handles, touched their faces, sneezed, laughed, touched other people. Amazing, their microbiological innocence, alongside the panic that drove us from our home.
Our family picked us up in New York. In the days after, in solidarity with our friends back in China, we stayed close to home. To me, this piece of advice was worth clinging to: For 14 days after possible exposure, limit human contact to arrest spread. Even if no one tells you to. We sat inside all day, waiting for this phase to end. Then it did. And then there was nothing left to be done but put together the pieces.
It feels like we’ve lost something, an idea of the world sort of roughly continuing along in its groove. Four weeks ago, I was at my doctor’s for a routine visit, and my husband and I walked to our favorite spot for ice cream. Squadrons of the city’s waimai delivery drivers whipped by on their scooters. The smooth lines of the high-rise apartments were clear and crisp. I had ordered mint chip.
Now in the eerie sideways light of a New England winter, I am swimming in a bizarre fish tank. All the choices I once had are gone and replaced by new, vastly more stressful ones, involving hospitals toured and obstetricians met for the first time at the last minute, and the prospect of figuring out how to pay to give birth in the most expensive health care system in the world.
What I keep thinking as I make my rounds is that it was not really our knowledge of how dangerous the virus is that caused this change. It was the fear of humanity at large, acting together to reach a tipping point where normal people like us decided it was time to reroute their lives. Like a run on the bank or a stock market crash, ultimately the fear was the first thing to become real. Fear is what causes people to lose faith and take their money out — and so the bank fails, the market crashes, and in the end, the outcome that was feared has come to pass. The thing I was ultimately scared of was losing access to my health care at the time I needed it most. And I did lose it, though it was of my own volition.
The same weekend as the ice cream, we’d had a photographer take a few photos of us. The pictures have a new quality to them now, a kind of fragile unreality. Look, I will be able to say to our child, that’s Mom and Dad and you, four days before the largest quarantine in the history of the species. Just before the world lost its mind. ●