“Don’t panic!” The two-word immortal life lesson from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has come to my rescue when it matters the most. When the novel coronavirus pandemic and the usual info-demic associated with it unleashed a reign of fear psychosis in my mind as well as in people around me, I stayed put in the Chinese capital of Beijing, 1,000-odd km away from the epicentre in Wuhan. At that time, I had no option but to remember the comforting words from the Douglas Adams cult novel in order to thwart the ever-dangerous panic-demic.
It was life as usual for most of us in Beijing until the third week of January. Reports of sporadic outbreak of a SARS-like mystery virus in the provincial capital of Hubei had started trickling through the city’s firewalls earlier that month, but the celebratory countdown for the biggest jamboree in the Chinese calendar, the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, prevailed over our unsuspecting mind. With the entire ‘Middle Kingdom’ and the city in its middle, despite silently detaining and reprimanding Li Wenliang and seven of his fellow doctors for prognostically blowing the whistle of a potential pestilence, gearing up for welcoming the Year of Rat, Chunyun or the biggest human migration for the Spring Festival was already underway.
The closure of Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market had raised the alarm, but all hell broke loose on January 23 after the number of dead and infected persons in China and outside started percolating to mainstream media. With most Beijingers heading homewards to spend the new year with their dear ones, the Chinese top leadership cracked the whip, putting Wuhan and several other cities in Hubei province on complete lockdown. The same day saw a special Republic Day reception hosted by Indian ambassador Vikram Misri and attended by China’s vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui as chief guest, besides top diplomats from many countries, including the US and Russia. That lavish luncheon with a sumptuous Indian buffet was perhaps the last public gathering many of us in the Chinese capital attended before going into the government-guided self-imposed quarantine.
Wuhan, the burgeoning Chinese metropolis that came into prominence with the headline-grabbing summit of PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was back hogging the limelight with its transformation into an apocalyptic necropolis. I have undergone the largest mass quarantine and sanitising exercise in history, which kept us safe and sound. Even as Wuhan and several cities of Hubei were put into a state of large-scale lazaretto, the rest of China, including Beijing, was placed under a self-quarantine phase through repeatedly extended Spring Festival holidays.
While schools, colleges and most offices were shut, the deserted public places, functional offices and the massive public transport system along with a slew of convenience and grocery stores were kept open to give the capital its much-needed lifeline in a medically menacing time. Masks became the national armour against the wrath of the virus, and the hazmat-clad doctors and their support staff became the vanguard of an ailing nation. Thermal scanning became one of the first lines of defence for the administration with almost every residential complex, each of Beijing’s 400-odd subway stations and the handful of operational offices, banks, convenience stores, supermarkets and shopping malls admitting people based on their body temperature. The ruling Communist Party of China’s well-oiled propaganda machinery played a pivotal role in preventing panic with precautionary pamphlets, posters and publications both online and on-site, covering every precinct in their remarkable outreach.
WeChat, China’s most popular multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app has come to our rescue, enabling us to stay in touch with our friends, fellow expats and the Indian embassy. On a personal front, being at the right place at the right time has made me a sought-after on-the-ground reporting face and an accessible free-of-cost talking head for many news channels. Busting frivolous rumours and blabbering with a brave face, I also saw myself being on air as a victim with visuals of my parents shedding tears for my well-being and dramatically holding my photographs.
Suvam Pal, Beijing-based media professional and author