On 1 February, I woke up with an email notification telling me that my flight from China to Sydney was cancelled. That afternoon, Scott Morrison announced a 14-day travel ban restricting almost all people in mainland China from entering. Within a day, the plans I had for the upcoming semester had all been put on pause.
This was the first time I felt that the novel Coronavirus, now officially named COVID-19, was so close that I was no longer an outsider. Instead, I was in the middle of it. The consequences had gone beyond small things like needing to put on masks or remembering to wash
I first heard about the COVID-19 in mid-January, when it was only present in a few isolated cases. It was almost time for the Spring Festival in China — a time meant for communal gathering, celebration and lots of red packets. Nobody could have predicted the extent of the viral outbreak, or expected the holiday to be marked by fear, panic and anxiety.
Everything happened so fast. COVID-19’s human-to-human transmissibility was confirmed on 20 January. Wuhan, the center of the infected area, was locked down on the 24th, British Airways stopped all its direct flights between UK and China on the 29th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Global Health Emergency on the 30th, and one by one Singapore, the United States and Australia issued travel bans. Not just China, but the whole world sensed the threat.
In light of all these sudden changes, many Chinese international students like myself didn’t know what we were meant to do when so many things became immediately and frighteningly uncertain.
Coco is a friend of mine. She had booked her flight from Qingdao to Sydney exactly on the 1st of February, the same day as the travel ban was announced. When Morrison was making his travel ban speech, she had just finished checking in her luggage and was making her way to the boarding gate.
“I remember suddenly panicking,” she said. “I hadn’t yet boarded the plane, so I’m thinking maybe I should just stay instead.”
The rollout of Australia’s travel ban was as confusing as it was harsh. If someone had a flight from China to Australia right on that day, or even right at that time, what should they do? Like Coco, the ban was announced, but her flight was still there.
“So many people were talking about it in the waiting area, and many of my friends were messaging me,” she said. “I had a connecting flight in Seoul, so at the end, I decided to fly there first and see how it would play out.”
When Coco arrived at the airport in Seoul, she asked the staff there to contact Sydney Airport about whether she would be able to enter Australia later. After receiving positive confirmation, she felt relieved and boarded the second half of her journey without worrying.
She landed in Sydney on 2 February. She got off the plane, took an E-Passport ticket, passed customs, took her luggage and got out of the airport. There was nothing special. She then went back to her apartment in Sydney and we talked about all her experiences over a phone call. Her feelings were complicated; it was hard to use a single word like “lucky” or “unlucky” to describe the trip. At the time, I felt a bit jealous because at least she had been able to get back to campus and continue her studies. I was instead totally stuck, worrying but not being able to do much
I am currently staying in Guangzhou, a city in Southern China about 1000 kilometres away from Wuhan. That seems like a fair distance from the epicentre of the outbreak, but Guangzhou already has 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 13 February. The city is overwhelmed by a sense of anxiety and people are unsettled. Guangdong, the province where Guangzhou is located, used to be ground zero of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. It was another contagious coronavirus similar to COVID-19, which infected more than 8000 people and resulted in 800 deaths.
I was five years old back then, so I didn’t have a clear memory about what had happened. I could only recall that there was a day when my mum stopped taking me to the kindergarten on the bus as usual, and she would get angry with me if I randomly picked up things on the street.
Optimistically, I initially thought that Guangzhou’s past experience with SARS would have made the city more cautious, but calm when facing the COVID-19 in 2020. This could not be further from the truth.
By late January, we were asked to stay at home as much as possible. The seven-day Spring Festival vacation for companies has been extended a further 14 days until 10 February. The education sector has seen an equally lengthy delay. From primary schools to universities, the starting date of the new semester was pushed back from February to March.
To further prevent people from having physical contact with others, most restaurants are indefinitely closed; even McDonalds has become take-away only. We have started ordering grocery deliveries more than we have ever before. Masks and hand sanitisers have become so crucial in our everyday lives, but have been sold out for weeks. Clinics, pharmacies, supermarkets all have bold signs on their doors warning about the lack of stock. Each time I receive a parcel, I have to open it outside and throw away the packaging before I enter the house.
“The COVID-19 looks much worse,” my dad tells us. “In 2003, we didn’t wear masks and we still went to work every day.”
One night my dad woke up with a sore throat and our whole family became paranoid. We were afraid of having COVID-19 in the family, which would mean that we all needed to be quarantined. Yet, we didn’t want to send our dad off to the hospital either, due to the high possibility of contracting the disease there. Fortunately however, it was only a sore throat and it cleared very quickly.
Questions like “why me?”, “why now?” and “why my country?” keep flooding my mind. Overthinking takes up lots of my time. However, comparing myself to people who are right in the middle of the outbreak, who are surrounded by death, panic and broken families, I still feel like I’m a lucky one.
“I’m very worried,” Amy told me. She stayed in Sydney during the summer break, but her family is back in Shiyan, Hubei. The city is in the same province as Wuhan, which has around 480 infected cases as of 13 February.
Amy was supposed to fly back to China on 23 January, one day before Chinese New Year. She booked her flight from Sydney to Wuhan and a train from Wuhan to Shiyan the week prior.
“My dad messaged the morning of my flight and told me that there are already 17 deaths in Shiyan because of COVID-19. He advised me that it would be better to stay in Sydney,” she said. “I’m struggling, I don’t know if I should go back or not.”
Amy’s flight was at 9:30 that evening. Throughout the day, she spoke with her family, friends and colleagues to make up her mind. Eventually, she decided to cancel her travel plans three hours before her flight, and so became the only ‘lucky’ member of her family outside of the infection zone.
Staying in Sydney, however, did not equal relief. Over the past three weeks, she has been trawling news websites as the first thing she does in the morning to read updated statistics on the number of infected, the fatality rate and the possibility of improvement back home.
“I can only message them,” she said. “I forward them like… more than ten articles a day, especially after the city was locked down. News, information, how to recognise signs of the virus, how to protect themselves, how to eat well, how to properly put on a mask… I send everything.”
However, she understands that her choice to stay was the right decision. Even if she risks the journey, she may catch the COVID-19 on the way and bring the virus back home. The last thing she wants is to pass the virus to her unsuspecting family. It would also get in the way of her new job in Sydney — if she had returned to Wuhan, who knows when she’d be able to return and get to work?
“If my family falls ill and needs me to look after them, I wouldn’t care. I would definitely go back,” she said. Watching her hometown severely impacted by the disease is not an easy thing to deal with; the distance has made her feel powerless.
Amy works at Urbanest, a student accommodation building near the University of Sydney. It is almost the start of a new semester, so there are supposed to be many Chinese international students checking in. However, as a result of the COVID-19 and travel ban, the entire area has become much quieter than it used to be.
Lucy is another friend of mine who is currently in Sydney. She departed from Beijing to Sydney at the end of January, and is now under a 14-day quarantine in her accommodation. She has been asked to stay in her room and can’t go outside or have any physical contact with other people. All her food and groceries need to be ordered online. To pick up her packages, she can only use the back or side door of her accommodation, because there are always people walking through the front.
“I can only do some reading or video chat with my friends,” she said. “It’s quiet, but there are times when
I feel very depressed.”
Another issue she finds is that, during the quarantine period, it would be hard for her to ask for help if there is anything broken, or for any accident that might occur in her room. She still misses her family from time to time, since she is totally isolated under quarantine, but she told me, “I know there is no such place which is perfect — neither China nor here. I would have the support of my family if I was in China, but since I’m here, I need to be careful and independent.”
By the time you read this, Lucy will have just finished her quarantine period, but I will still be stuck in Guangzhou and Amy will still be separated from her family. There are people in Wuhan still suffering and there are students still on pause. As long as COVID-19 continues to spread, the situation will be a struggle for all.