Peter Hessler is the best writer about China I’ve ever come across and he has a new New Yorker story about being on Coronavirus-imposed lockdown in Chengdu. It is something of a narrative buster.
The main narratives about China’s handling of Coronavirus that have seeped through social media seem overall to be either black or white:
China is terrible, has been lying about its numbers, and is responsible for what should have been a minor and localized health issue becoming a truly destructive global pandemic; OR
China’s response to Coronavirus was aggressive and decisive and exactly what was needed, and its action since then have set a world-leading example.
The much more interesting truth is somewhere in between, and bits of both, and lots of neither, and a few stray pieces that may never have crossed the minds of amateur experts who assess these situations from their Twitter terminals. And, Hessler, currently resident in Chengdu with is wife and two daughters, has captured it.
This post is not going to be a serious essay with grand takeaways. I simply want to excerpt some of the striking passages from Hessler’s story. If I do have a point to make, I guess the closest thing to it is that you never know what goo might ooze from a vice-press of good intentions.
On overwhelming force:
In Chengdu, there are 1,685 neighborhood committees, and each had prepared a quarantine team like the one near my home. Most details of our local lockdown—the information boards, the hazmat thermometer workers—had been managed by the team, which consisted of thirty-eight people, mostly volunteers. In a jurisdiction of nearly six thousand residents, there had been exactly one case of coronavirus: the person in my compound.
On China’s temporary transition to online education during the crisis:
He described the family situation of one of his colleagues: “His son had been good, and he was hardworking. But in the past forty or fifty days he has been doing online courses, and he spends so much time online. His father said he’s very likely to lose his temper. He goes crazy. He shouts. It’s because of using the mobile phone too much.” Willy’s own two children also had classes on phones, and he had noticed a rapid deterioration in his teen-age daughter’s behavior. “We don’t know exactly when she is having class and when she is using the mobile phone to chat or play games,” he said. “She is right now out of control.”
On death counts:
The effects of enforced seclusion, stressed children, and distrust of neighbors can’t be quantified as easily and as quickly as cases of infection and death… During the fourth week of online classes, a friend in Fuling reported that a teen-ager in the northern part of the city had jumped out of his fifth-floor apartment. Apparently, the middle-school student had been fighting with his father, who was trying to get him to focus on his online lessons… This single incident in one small city equalled the nationwide death total from the coronavirus in children under the age of nineteen.
Mask-wearing, after all, was required by the new measures, and people were diligent: I often saw motorcycle deliverymen helmetless and fiddling with their phones at thirty miles an hour, their masks safely in place
And, now, randomly, something completely different.