COVID used to be more of a stranger in China. The virus wasn’t generally lurking next door. We didn’t worry about getting infected when we dined out or ran errands at the bank or visited a tourist spot.
But in early December, China eased restrictions to open up, and soon the virus ripped through my workplace, faster than I ever imagined.
Of the 10 people in my office, I’m one of three who didn’t get COVID. It’s a miracle, as the virus infected every person in the cubicles next to me. Some estimated 80% of the employees at work caught the COVID virus; the same may hold true for the overall population of Hangzhou.
Witnessing the rapid pace of transmission in the office stunned me. It began with a manager, whose mother-in-law was running a high fever. Then others retreated home — many as close contacts who soon came down with the virus. And then the two colleagues who sat directly beside me reported sudden fevers, which sparked fears that I was next. On that day I rushed to get free medicine and antigen tests from my employer, who was rationing Ibuprofen (only two pills per person). Outside the workplace things were worse, from hucksters hawking meds at a premium, to a shortage of antigen tests at pharmacies.
Thankfully, I dodged COVID then, but would still brace for the threat of more cases in the office, including two other people beside me who were infected. By then I was wearing N95 masks, and altering my work routines, such as having breakfast and lunch at home instead of in the office.
Our community grocery group buying outlet soon shuttered — the neighbor in charge caught COVID. I flipped open the apps for other outlets, and couldn’t get groceries on any of the major platforms. One said delivery slots would open at 6 am, which would mean rolling out of bed at dawn to battle with hordes of desperate netizens — and no guarantees of any deliveries. Oranges, lemons and pomelos were going for two or three times the usual prices, inflated after an onslaught of panic purchasing. Jun and I took stock of our pantry and produce, including the veggies and fruits from a recent visit to his parents’ rural home, and determined we could survive for a while without buying much. For the garlic, ginger and onions I needed, we bought online from a lackluster rural supermarket, which charged more than usual and slipped us a partially rotten piece of produce. We cooked a lot of fried rice, a lot of garlic and olive oil noodles, and, thanks to an enormous pumpkin from my mother-in-law, a few pumpkin curries.
Soon the emptied streets and cubicles lent an eerie post-apocalyptic vibe to the world around. I stopped bothering with the GPS to check on traffic because there were almost no cars on the road and no more rush hours. One day, I was the only person working in the office for a morning; outside the windows, I rarely glimpsed anyone wandering the grounds. The absence of people, of vehicles, brought to mind a new twist on the title of that Simon & Garfunkel classic — that I was nearly “the only living girl in Hangzhou”.
The worst week, ironically, led up to Christmas. It was hard to embrace seasonal cheer while wearing an N95 mask that pinched my ears and getting tested daily to confirm I wasn’t positive. When I streamed holiday music, I preferred the bitter cold and austere landscapes of “In the Bleak Midwinter” to the discordant warmth and exuberance of “Wonderful Christmastime”.
Following Christmas, my workplace scrapped its free PCR testing services, in the abrupt way that real Christmas trees get tossed to the curb just after the holiday. A colleague sick with COVID hurt his back that week, but couldn’t get an ambulance to take him to the hospital due to a shortage of beds. I doubled down on my protective measures, which meant continued use of N95 masks, a lot of hand washing, and little contact with people.
In the weeks to come, I started seeing more masked people on the streets, more cars on the road, and a growing number of colleagues reappearing at work. Soon groceries could be bought on major online platforms throughout the day, without an early rise. A local community center promised Ibuprofen to residents free of charge — too late for most, in all likelihood. And my employer urged anyone still negative to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
So, I received a booster shot, together with Jun, in a community vaccination site with a skeleton crew and nobody else waiting. The staff at the entrance reminded us that you can’t get a shot if you’ve just had COVID. “You’ll have to wait six months.” The COVID surge had, among other things, cleared the queue for vaccination.
Now, as the two of us still remain negative in China, we’re the strangers in this post-pandemic world — the few who haven’t gotten COVID.
According to stories in the media, we’ve passed the peak of infections here, though we may have to brace for more waves ahead, including during and after Chinese New Year. But if this pandemic has taught us anything in the past few years, nothing is certain with COVID. So we will continue to keep calm, carry on and wear N95 masks, while hoping for better times.