by Tamara Treichel
This story was originally published in SACU’s China Eye (Spring 2020)
When news broke of a mysterious virus causing respiratory illness said to have originated in Wuhan, I was about to enjoy several days off due to the Spring Festival holiday at home in Beijing. I vaguely remember Beijing having only two cases at the time. I was chatting with a Chinese coworker, deliberating whether I should return the movie tickets for the Spring Festival blockbusters my boyfriend and I had booked online.
“Nature has turned against us,” a Chinese coworker observed. I wasn’t so sure about that. “Nature is not for or against… it just is,” I mused. While nature I believed was ambivalent, I would discover that people’s attitudes towards the virus it had produced definitely weren’t!
There were bags of face masks stashed on an office desk and some coworkers were helping themselves. Some of my coworkers were already wearing masks in the office, and there was a sense of nervousness and hush. No one encouraged me to take any masks; but in retrospect, I think I should have been more proactive and asked to help myself. However, a Chinese coworker kindly offered me some from her bag, and I gratefully accepted.
Little did I know how valuable these face masks would be to me and my boyfriend Jackie in the coming weeks, as people made a run for the pharmacies to stock up on them. (Note: the usefulness of face masks in preventing the spread of the new virus, dubbed novel coronavirus, is controversial, but in China they are widely believed to be effective. Another issue is what types of masks work.) When I visited a pharmacy and convenience store, they were sold out and had no idea when new stock would come in. Searching for masks would become somewhat of a search for the Holy Grail for us in China.