From where I’m sitting, I watch an old woman cross the street, her face half-hidden by a light pink mask. I hear that most stores across the United States are all out of masks right now. How will we protect ourselves if there’s a pandemic in this country? There’s only been five confirmed cases as of writing this, but that’s bound to change, right?
That old woman with the three-wheeled walker who just j-walked reminds me of where I was just three short days ago. Hurriedly rushing around my Beijing apartment, doing the dishes and packing my clothes, I was preparing to evacuate the country.
In less than two months time there are more cases of 2019-nCoV (commonly known as the Wuhan virus) than were ever reported in the entirety of the 2003 SARS outbreak. I’m frightened for what that means for all of us as global citizens. No matter how isolated you are, this virus could become a serious problem for you.
It was strange traveling from Beijing to Chicago in a plane full of masked people. In the main capital airport of the most populous country in the world, I only spotted two people who refused to wear surgical or N95 masks. I land in Chicago and exit out of customs to a world where no one even knows what an N95 mask is.
Here, facial protection is the exception, not the norm. The only people I can find wearing a mask are fellow travelers from my flight, still afraid to remove their only visible line of defense against a deadly pathogen. I slowly become more confident after I land. I wear a mask for the afternoon but then decide to take it off; what good will it do me if I’ve already hugged my mom and eaten off a plate from our family’s kitchen?
I eat dinner that night as if nothing is wrong. I eat dinner as if I didn’t just leave China three months early to escape from a potentially fatal infectious disease. I eat dinner as if I will be able to continue sharing meals with family and friends for the rest of my life. And in all probability, I’ll be able to. But what if I can’t?
Here in America, the question of societal collapse is far less pervasive. But what if China can’t control the virus? What if it keeps on spreading and spreading and spreading? What then? I’m a patriotic American and I firmly believe in the superiority of the CDC’s response over dozens of public health bureaus in other nations. But still, the question nags: what if?
It isn’t a pretty world to imagine. People must wear masks constantly. New hospitals must be built continually to keep pace with the development of this uncontrollably contagious disease. New factories must be constructed to produce masks. International travel inevitably grinds to a halt and leaves the estimated nine million American expats stranded around the world. Economies plunge into massive recessions as business slows and people begin to hoard, fearing societal collapse. Though the danger is not imminent, it’s a frightening prospect nonetheless. And it really might not be as far-fetched as we wished.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, is known for publicly commenting on the ever-increasing risk of a disease that could go global and cause societal collapse. In response to a request for comment from Time magazine in 2017, he said, “Any one of these [infectious] cases could trigger something big. By then it’d be way too late.”
Though I know little about epidemiology or scientific research on vaccines or genomic sequencing, I experienced the feeling of fright on a deeply personal level. What if I came in contact with someone in Beijing who was plagued by this illness? I might not know until it was too late and my life was at risk. I was genuinely scared.
In many ways, I imagine the fear of a pandemic is similar to the fear of terrorism. You don’t know when, who or where it will strike. You have to be ready, and yet, preparedness is virtually impossible in the face of this novel coronavirus.
I don’t know when China will be able to stem the tide of illness flowing out of Wuhan. I hope it’s soon for the sake of my friends and acquaintances in the country as well as for the sake of our human race. It’s frightening to think about this and when I was in Beijing, it was very easy to become consumed by that fear. The constant reminders made me feel trapped.
I wish there was a message of hope to conclude this narrative. I wish there was a bright light, shining at the end of this tunnel. There’s not. There is only the comfort of knowing that we have those we love and we must cling to them ever so tightly in the face of this potential global security and health risk.
And I hope that masked old woman who crossed the street stays healthy and safe.