The United States leads the world in confirmed cases of the coronavirus after surpassing China on Thursday. China, the original source of the outbreak, experienced its worst days in mid-February, including one particularly frightening day with more than 14,000 new cases in Hubei province alone. But last week, it announced that it had no new locally transmitted cases.
China had been criticized for stifling early reports of the virus’s existence, censoring chatter about it, and even “disappearing” some local whistleblowers and journalists trying to warn of the threat. But after the news got out, the Chinese government acted swiftly, locking down the population and grinding life to a halt. How does the experience there compare with what many Americans are living through now?
To better understand what we can—and can’t—learn from a country that’s been through the worst of the pandemic already, Slate spoke with Sophia Yan, the China correspondent for the Telegraph, about what it’s been like to watch this virus emerge and span the globe, what life is like in China now, and what Americans should be on the lookout for. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: When did you start reporting on this?
Sophia Yan: When it began, I was on vacation like everybody else over the New Year. China announced very quietly that it was investigating a novel coronavirus. By the time I got back to Beijing nearly two weeks later, it was early January, and things were clearly picking up, and very quickly the story mushroomed. Lockdowns happened. The numbers kept ticking up.
I was interviewing families whose relatives had died, who hadn’t ever been tested and thus weren’t included in the official count, even though doctors had said and hinted very strongly they thought that those people had the coronavirus. It was very clear from the outset: Something massive was brewing. But there was no sense of the scale of the outbreak. The numbers were kind of slow to come in. And there was a lot of concern over the politicking around it and whether or not there was a cover-up and whether we were getting all the accurate information that we needed. China doesn’t exactly have a great track record with transparency. Twenty years ago, they really did cover up a lot with SARS. They did a bit of that, again, this time.
At what point did you realize it was going to be on this massive, global scale?
I don’t think that anyone, at any point, would have realized that this could get to the current point. I mean, the numbers are outrageous. Every day there’s just this massive flow of breaking news with new developments to be covering. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve just been breathless, running around reporting on it. Honestly, I haven’t had that much time to reflect. It’s just been this really intense experience.
What’s it like in China now?
Activity is picking up. More people are out in the streets. People are returning back to work. This country’s been cooped up indoors for more than two months. You can see it, you know—people are smiling when they take their face masks off for a minute.
Everyone is still wearing the masks. There’s still a lot of precautions. There’s a lot of restrictions on the mobility of people’s movements. Everywhere you go—entering a building, a bank, a restaurant, a store—you have to register your personal details. You’ve got to get your temperature checked. In some cases, for housing and office compounds, only those who are allowed to be there with a special pass can come in and out. This is still on a large scale across the country.
Is there a sense the virus is under control there?
There have been zero locally transmitted cases, but the risk of imported infections is on the rise. A lot of the Chinese who have returned from overseas from other countries are now grappling with the virus. Some of them are coming back and testing positive.
Now, there’s some doubt over whether the numbers we’re getting in terms of local transmissions are accurate because a few weeks ago, China changed how we would count confirmed cases, and almost immediately the numbers began to fall. There’s always a little bit of a nagging sense that we don’t have the full picture in China.
Are people there aware of what’s happening in Europe and the U.S.?
Yeah, I think there’s some knowledge. News and information in China are pretty tightly controlled, but there’s a swath of the population that’s a little bit more globally savvy. In general, the propaganda here is all about how China is the leader in the virus response in this emergency health crisis, and how it is the global savior, and how it’s “donating” supplies around the world. In fact, China is selling a lot of the supplies, not actually donating them.
How is the propaganda received there?
It plays really well at home. This idea that China is the mighty nation and there for the world with a helping hand—this is something that does pretty well with a domestic audience. Certainly there’s some people who are a little bit more disgruntled politically, but as a whole, the population of 1.4 billion largely does buy into this narrative that the government is now pushing.
What can the U.S. learn from China’s experience?
China, when they decided to mobilize (after they locked a bunch of people up for trying to warn about the epidemic), did it really quickly. They built these temporary hospitals with thousands of beds in a week, almost overnight. They also repurposed a lot of facilities for quarantine for people who might be sick. They had a pretty set system of people who had been exposed, people who were possibly sick, people who needed to be under watch. They were putting those people in different places. In that moment of crisis, it’s going to be difficult no matter what country you’re in or what political system is governing these decisions, period. But I think that’s something that seems to have been quite effective.
What has it been like to be covering this, from a personal safety standpoint?
Just the fact that we didn’t even know, really, how to protect yourself as a reporter—that was really concerning. Breaking news, you’re working around the clock, right? But if you’re covering something like this, and you’re working too hard, and you’re stressed, your immune system could be compromised. And here there’s great health care in many ways, but I was doing all these stories about how the hospitals and doctors are overworked and couldn’t take any more patients. And if you fall ill with the virus, you could only go to a Chinese government facility. And as a foreigner, who knows what that experience would be like?
I can tell you what I did: I had gloves. I would wash my clothes and disinfect my bags and wipe down my devices. Your phone is really like a giant germ bomb. I wipe it down as much as I can. My laptop, keyboard, same thing. As a precaution, washing your clothes a lot. I have a friend who has a theory about “subway pants”: Don’t sit on your bed with the pants you sat on the subway with. On the road I had shoe covers, gloves. I had full hazmat suits, but that’s for really serious reporting.
I was worried about the safety of my colleagues and my friends. Some of my friends left the country. In the beginning, I had a lot of friends and family outside of China telling me to leave the country. I was worried, of course. I’m human. But honestly, through all of this, I hadn’t known how panicked I should be. Because you’re in the middle of it, and things just kept happening.
What do you think we’ll start seeing next?
We still have the risk of a second outbreak in any of the countries. That could be because of travelers coming from abroad. It could be because maybe they let the measures down too soon. We still don’t know. And if that happens, then we would see again a supply chain disruption and then the economy being thrown out of whack.
The longer-term fallout—obviously, there’s the economy. But I am quite concerned about how this will divide the world, because you’ve seen different waves of discrimination and racism. In the beginning, when this first happened, there were incidents around the world—and there still are—of people who look Asian getting harassed. Like there was a Singaporean man in London who was beat up. My friend has a mother who’s a nurse in the U.S. She’s Asian American. Patients have refused to be treated by her.
And now in China, because of the risk of imported infections, people who look white are getting barred from renting apartments. They’re not allowed into grocery stores, they’re berated in public. People cross the street to walk on the other side, just so they don’t have to walk next to someone who’s white. I just worry that it will divide communities more, long-term. My parents are Taiwanese immigrants, so I am Taiwanese American. I was born and raised in the U.S. So I worry about this, too, for my family. What if something were to happen?
Is there any reason for optimism?
In the early days, what made it so difficult was we didn’t know very much about the science behind it. We didn’t know where the virus really came from. In many ways, we still don’t know the true root cause of it. But we also didn’t know how people got sick. We didn’t know what symptoms you had if you were sick. We didn’t know at what point of the illness you could be infectious. We also didn’t know even how long the illness would last. There’s a lot more science now. Obviously there’s more to go, but I’m heartened by the fact that there are vaccines being trialed. We’re moving very quickly. It’s astonishing how fast the scientists moved, how quickly the virus was sequenced, and how quickly diagnostic tests are developed. There’s been bumps along the way, but as a whole, it’s really impressive how advancements and discoveries have come about.
Any last advice?
Take a lot of vitamins every day. I’ve never been better about taking vitamins.