COVID-19 diaries: An account from China

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Saskea Jacobs

South Africans have been confined to their homes under strict lockdown restrictions for nearly five weeks, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. With the easing of lockdown restrictions from level 5 to level 4 (coming into effect on 1 May), President Cyril Ramaphosa nevertheless warns that South Africa is not out of the dark yet.

Level 4 means that some sectors are allowed to return to work and some activity can be allowed to resume, subject to extreme precautions. And, with the coronavirus confirmed cases climbing daily, it is evident that South Africa still has a long fight ahead against the coronavirus. Lockdown is far from over.

Saskea Jacobs, a South African citizen living in China, knows all too well about the devastating effect of the coronavirus, living in the country where the virus originated. She tells more about how she has been experiencing everything, and where China is, regarding the virus.

Saskea, you are originally from South Africa – when did you move to China, why did you move and how long have you been living in China?

I’m from Cape Town, South Africa. I was a music teacher before moving to China. I was ready to get out of the rut of the school system, as there isn’t much opportunity for development outside of formally studying. Along with that, I was also ready to try something different but still related to education. I’ve been living in China for almost two and a half years now.

Where in China do you live? Do you live alone?

I’ve been living in Tianjin, which is on the coastal side of Beijing; it’s a 30-minute fast train to the capital. It’s known for its rich colonial history, and currently has one of the top universities in China. I opted to live alone in a spacious two-bedroom apartment, which I’m very thankful for in this home-stay period.

Saskea at the Great Wall of China before the pandemic

When the virus originally broke out in China, what was the general feeling surrounding the virus? At what point did people start realising that it was a serious matter?

We first heard about it around the middle of January. The week before Spring Festival (25 January, Chinese New Year), people started wearing masks and buying them in bulk. There wasn’t a sense of panic, but more a sense of fear, as things progressed. I, for one, opted still to go on my Spring Festival vacation to Shanghai.

I’d spent about two days there, and then chose to go back home to Tianjin, as I could tell there was more fear as numbers started rising. By the 26th, most people had cut their vacations or chosen to stay out of the country for a few months. People were worried. As an expat, you have big choices to make that involve your job, apartment and family, and your choices will impact all these factors in the future.

For most people, knowledge was power in that we checked numbers and data that were translated by expat groups; most of us chose to stay, but even that choice was difficult, as we had no idea how far it would go. 

Keeping busy

How is the situation regarding the virus currently in China?

We have definitely come a long way in China, with the infection rate being quite low. Currently, no foreigners can come into the country – only those holding Chinese passports. This makes the situation much easier to control, but there are still cases as people are still travelling in, and with the relaxation of the lockdown, numbers will inevitably rise.

Saskea, are you still in lockdown, and how long have you been in lockdown?

I’m not, officially, as many businesses, restaurants and tourist attractions have opened –with strict social distancing rules, of course. But, because I am a teacher, things are different; we will be opening up last! So, for me, I’m still working from home and not going out.

We still aren’t allowed to gather or to have people over at our apartments. So, for me and for most teachers, we are basically still in lockdown as the city starts to come alive outside our apartments.

Reading as a pastime

Working from home

What does lockdown mean in different parts of China? What are you allowed to do and not do?

For the epicentre, Wuhan, it was very strict, with little to no movement unless it was essential. Most cities went to the same point as South Africa, with only essential runs and deliveries allowed. We were not allowed to visit or have anyone over. All shopping centres closed, with only supermarkets and pharmacies open.

We had to wear a mask outside our apartments; you could face a fine or worse if you didn’t comply. No public exercising or dog-walking outside of your complex. It was strict, and for good reason. We also had a temperature check at every door (complex, supermarket, mall); if it was above 37°C, you had to report to the fever clinic before being allowed back into your apartment complex.

Are people adhering to the lockdown regulations, and are there consequences for people who do not adhere to the regulations?

Most people have taken it very seriously. As time passed, people naturally got a bit tired of it all, but we haven’t had any major incidents of people breaking the regulations. We didn’t have panic buying or bans on any substances, so people felt secure in that they would always have what they needed.

I think that people in China have great discipline; they saw the problem and worked together to solve it quickly and efficiently. 

Staying inside

Can you continue with your work while in lockdown? What else do you do to keep yourself busy?

I am an ESL teacher, and we were teaching in classrooms with our 12–15 students aged 4–17. It was a big change moving online, but our company reacted well and we were teaching online within a month. I do have quite a bit of time to do things at home with indoor weekends.

I spend most of my time writing songs, bullet journaling, reading or listening to podcasts. This time has given me the opportunity to explore my creativity again, which I appreciate. I also think I finished my entire internet in my first month, so I was forced to find other things to do.

Writing songs, journaling, reading or listening to podcasts are some of the activities Saskea does to keep herself busy

How have the crisis and lockdown impacted you emotionally, and how do you keep positive?

Well, I’ve been at this for 11 weeks, and I live alone. It has been really tough at times, and I’m lucky to have a supportive mom, friends and family who are only a phone call away. No one is positive all the time, so I think it’s crazy to expect people to be positive all the time while stuck at home with uncertainty looming.

I think finding joy in each day, journaling and taking time to reach out to people are what have kept me going. A good friend told me: “Tomorrow is also a day.” So, when I feel overwhelmed, I turn to this saying and know that I don’t have to do it all and that my feelings are valid. Tomorrow is also a day, and I can try again.

What are you biggest fears/worries about the global crisis at this moment?

I think the global crisis has been very eye-opening. We see how people and governments react when they’re most vulnerable. We can also see what is most important. I fear that when it is over, people will try to make things go back to “normal”, instead of using the time to make lasting and meaningful change – as people, but also as countries – for their people and the earth.

Exercising at home

What advice do you have for South Africans (and people from other countries), where the virus is only starting to impact the country?

I’d say, don’t do too much. Use this time as the break you’ve been secretly wanting. Take time to enjoy your family or reconnect with old friends. If you want to try picking up a new skill or enhancing an old one – you’ll probably never have as much time again, so just do it.

Follow the rules! We live in a time when we are allowed to have a say about everything, but this one time, listen and stay home. I have seen first-hand what it looks like when people listen and when they don’t. Take care of yourself and those around you.

"I love China"

What are the biggest misconceptions you think South Africans (and people from other countries) have about the virus?

Most people think that it won’t happen to them. This virus doesn’t know your socio-economic class, nationality or gender. It’s as risky for me as it is for my mother or friend. It spreads quickly and easily. You can have it and be spreading it without ever getting symptoms.

Do not live in fear of it; just be conscious of it as you move through the world over the next couple of months.

  • Photos: provided

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