social distancing

The C Word: Life After Eight Weeks of Coronavirus

Over the past week I’ve watched as the United States and Europe woke up to the reality that we in Hong Kong (and other parts of Asia) have been living with since late January. Coronavirus…Covid-19… Wu-monia…whatever you want to call it. We are all in the same boat now.

I admit that it’s a little irritating to see people suddenly panicking. We all have a tendency to ignore that which does not seem to affect us, and Americans are notorious for this on a national level.  It’s not that I want anyone to be panicking, and I certainly am not happy that the virus is spreading, but I can’t help feeling a little like, “Welcome to the party.”

If you’re like me, you are equal parts sick-to-death of hearing about it and simultaneously reading everything you can find. I wanted to share some thoughts about my experience so far. I’m not in any way unique here, but I hope it helps someone to hear that life can and will go on while practicing social distance.

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Here in Hong Kong, we are 573 miles from the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, China. Which is basically the distance between Washington D.C. and Charleston, SC. To paint a clearer picture, it takes 10 minutes by high-speed train to cross the border from Hong Kong into mainland China. Chinese and Hong Kong citizens are able to easily pass back and forth over the border without visas or passport stamps.

Hong Kong ranks between 2nd and 3rd in the world for population density with 17,311 people per square mile. Compare this with the US’s 92.9 people per square mile to understand how staggering that is. In my own home we have 3 adults and a baby living in slightly less than 450 square feet.

I remember first hearing about the virus as “a kind of pneumonia” a few days before our school closed for the Chinese New Year holidays. By January 24th, the first day of our holiday, 75% of people out and about seemed to be wearing masks. Juniper had just turned 3 months old and we had been hoping to get out and enjoy some Chinese New Year festivities. On January 25th, the Hong Kong government declared a virus emergency, cancelled all Lunar New Year events, and began restricting access from mainland China.

The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year for Hong Kong and literally millions of people travel to see family in mainland China during this time. As those travelers moved back and forth, the virus spread to Hong Kong.

For two weeks everything shut down. Many things were closed and we hardly left home. We went from 75% of people wearing masks to 99.9% of people wearing masks. This also led to a mask shortage. Prices were hiked. People lined up for actual miles to buy masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and cleaning supplies from stores. The toilet paper crisis started.

The Education Bureau announced the extension of the Chinese New Year Holiday to February 17th. A week later it was pushed to March 1st. Then March 17th. Then April 20th. As of this writing, the report is that schools will not reopen on April 20th, but a new tentative date has not been set.

Jonathan and I are both teachers, but we work for independent learning centers that are for-profit businesses. We have to abide by the Education Bureau’s decisions, but if our company does not make enough money, they can shut down and we can lose our jobs.

At this point we have been teaching online classes for 6 weeks. Many of you are probably experiencing online school now, whether as a teacher, a student, or a parent. In whatever capacity you are experiencing online teaching…it is both a marvel of modern technology…and an absolute pain in the rear. Whenever you think it is impossible to make online learning work, please remember…I have been trying to teach 4 year olds how to read. Oh, and also, English is not their first language.

Some of our students have continued classes, but some have suspended indefinitely. This means that our schools are actively trying to recruit new students to join our classes all the time. To encourage this, they offer two free classes. The result is that we have a core group of students who have stayed and a revolving door of students who come for a few classes and leave. On the one hand it feels pointless to stall the rest of the class to try to explain what’s going on to these students who will more than likely attend their two free lessons and then leave. But at the same time, if you don’t stop and give them some extra time and attention, what chance do you have at getting them to enroll? It’s very challenging as an educator whose job is also dependent on student enrollment.

Unfortunately, at this point we are still required to go in to work to do our teaching from there. Which means I don’t get to spend my between-class-time with Sweet Juniper.

This is what daily life looks like:

We go to work. The doorman at my office building takes my temperature every morning when I arrive at work to make sure it is not above 37.5.  We come home. On the weekends we sleep, we cuddle our baby, we take walks. We read books. We watch shows. We do the New York Times crossword every day. We occasionally see friends. Rinse and repeat.

Whenever we go out we wear masks. As Westerners, this is not a cultural norm. We don’t necessarily believe they are effective in protecting us from others, but it does make sense that it helps keep people who are carrying the disease from spreading it as much. Mainly, we wear them because it has become socially unacceptable not to. In other words, it makes other people feel safer if we wear them.

Here is some good news:

All that social distancing seems to be working. Hong Kong has had 181 cases only 85 of which are currently active.

Fourteen of those cases were confirmed in the last 24 hours and all but one were imported infections. A significant number of people left Hong Kong when the crisis began and are now trying to come back because things are better here than wherever they fled to. And some of them have brought the virus back with them. Hong Kong now has mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, thank goodness.

The toilet paper crisis is over. Because it was not real to begin with. A rumor started that there would be a shortage of paper products coming in from China and people started panic-buying. I can only assume that word of our experience spread to other places until everyone for some reason thought: Coronavirus means toilet paper shortage. And they too did panic-buying. THERE IS NO TOILET PAPER SHORTAGE, PEOPLE. YOU CREATED THE SHORTAGE BY BUYING MORE THAN YOU NEED. If you are experiencing this now, don’t worry. In a few weeks, you will no doubt find that there is ample stock of toilet paper and hand sanitizer again.

I plan to do a few more posts over the next week or two with some adventures in online teaching, tips for dealing with anxiety, and book recommendations while you hunker down.

For now, I’ll just leave with this thought – we are all living in unprecedented times. We are all experiencing things we have never dreamed of. We will remember these days for the rest of our lives. Our children will remember these days for the rest of theirs. So let’s make them worth remembering.

Tickle your kids. Kiss your partner. Inhale your baby’s sweet smell. Let your dog sit in your lap a few minutes longer. Light a candle. Play your favorite song with the volume up loud. Dance if you want to dance.

After all, how we spend our days is how we spend our life. Even these days. Especially these days.