After six weeks of draconian isolation, Alessandra Cappelletti is looking forward to seeing her students again
March 13, 2020
By Alessandra Cappelletti
We all knew that it was only a question of time before the coronavirus arrived in Suzhou. That was clear as soon as the Chinese authorities revealed the gravity of the situation in Wuhan at the end of January. Still, it took considerable effort to be ready psychologically for this challenge.
I started anxiously checking the official website as soon as I woke up every morning, watching the number of infections and deaths climb ever higher. Even though I am an international academic, it never occurred to me to flee China while I still could: I take advantage of the positive and exciting aspects of this country every day, so I did not see why I should leave at the first difficulty. Nevertheless, it was amazing how quickly the everyday comforts of a modern lifestyle suddenly became out of reach.
It isn’t just that I can’t access my university office any more. There is also no gym, no acupuncture, no socialising in restaurants or bars and definitely no weekend train trips to Shanghai or Hangzhou. Supermarkets, pharmacies and clinics remain open, but everyone goes in face masks and pyjamas. You must have your temperature taken before you can enter. In some cases, you also have to show your passport and a QR code that officials use to trace your recent movements. Such checks would feel very annoying in normal times.
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This is also the ritual for leaving and re-entering your residential compound, and I am disturbed by the prospect of coming down with a seasonal flu and not being able to get back home because of a high temperature.
One reason to run this gauntlet is to pick up a package from Taobao, a Chinese version of Amazon. Because the storage rooms to which the packages are usually delivered are closed, people are telephoned one by one and told to go and collect their package – in face mask and pyjamas again – from neatly ordered piles in the streets. A new concept of public space and informality is taking shape.
It has also been stressful to field phone calls from concerned family members and to respond to messages from friends abroad – some of whom I have not heard from in years. It has not been easy to calm and reassure them, but I tell them that, in Suzhou, everything is under control and that the directions given by authorities, while draconian, are aimed at stopping the contagion. The local government releases timely notices through social media, including the locations of any new infections, and leaflets, advertisements and posters all over the city instruct us in how to protect ourselves and who to contact if we feel unwell. It is very reassuring.
Amid all this, university teaching continues via videoconferencing, and we have regular online meetings with colleagues and other departments of the university. I have a lot of meetings because I am my department’s nominated liaison with the university personnel working on the management of the emergency.
It was not easy to adjust to these conditions at the beginning. I missed the direct daily contact with students and colleagues, and I had to familiarise myself quickly with new channels to deliver classes and participate in the many vital meetings. But in this kind of situation, it is important to just keep going, with awareness, optimism and willingness to learn new things. Difficult experiences are the best teachers, and I constantly tell myself: “I am able to cope with all this, and everything will get back to normality soon.”
In addition to my university teaching, I have joined English Teachers for Hubei, a group of volunteers who teach English, mathematics, geography and history to final-year high school students in Hubei, the Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus epidemic. These young people are supposed to sit the national university entrance exam, the gao kao, in July, but they don’t know when they will be able to go back to school.
I am not alone in such efforts. Examples of solidarity and cooperation are emerging everywhere, and the response to the epidemic by both the Chinese people and the Chinese authorities shows how disciplined and united this country can be in difficult times.
The government of my native Italy has now ordered a complete lockdown, so it is my turn to make anxious phone calls to family and friends, urging them to obey the instructions to isolate themselves. But I am extremely worried because they have never lived through a situation like this before: they think free movement is a fundamental right that nobody can take away from them. But it is thanks to such measures that China will probably have defeated the virus in just two months.
After six weeks of lockdown, I’ll admit that I – in common with my colleagues – am tired of living in such surreal conditions. But I understand that the containment measures cannot yet be relaxed owing to the uncertainty about how the pandemic will unfold elsewhere.
I am looking forward to seeing our students again, but it may be some time yet before this becomes possible.
Alessandra Cappelletti is an associate professor in the department of international relations at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou. Her research expertise is in Chinese society.