The Coronavirus Marched on America, and America Pretended Not to See

I left China and returned to the US, where nobody seemed to care

Note: apologies PutongWords Etc. has been neglected for now a full month, it’s been hard for me to find the energy to work on it.

About a month ago I wrote “Should I Leave?” for the New York Times, about life under self-quarantine and my wrestling with the decision to go back to the US.

Well, I left. But I didn’t find what I was looking for.

It has been almost a full month since my husband and I left our home in Shanghai for the US due to the COVID-19 epidemic. I had held my breath as the ground approached outside my airplane window after a full day of traveling, my heart touched solid ground the same moment our plane taxied across the tarmac.

What short-lived peace it turned out to be, it lasted the walk from the jet bridge to the end of the terminals. 

I kept looking around for a sign for “visitors from China”, or a couple of PPE-clad figures standing by to whisk us away for testing and questions. Instead, we were herded into the customs and immigration area, where the line was wound as tightly as the coil of lower intestines as we pushed our way through. I nervously regarded every cough and sniffle from those around me, keenly aware of the thinness of the surgical mask I wore, my flimsy armor that puffed with my every breath. 

For two hours we stood amidst travelers that has arrived from all over the world just for a five minute chat with couple of CDC agents.

“What if we were sick? Why weren’t you there to collect us at the gate? Why were we allowed to stand with the other people?” I asked indignantly after we’ve been cleared to leave.

The CDC agents were apologetic, “What you’re saying makes sense, but it’s not up to us.” 

I didn’t know it then, but my first few hours back in the country set the tone for everything I will come to observe of the US response to COVID-19.

I returned to the US under no illusion about the state of the union, but I believed in a few key fundamentals. I knew that in America, information about the coronavirus would not be throttled, the media has full power to scrutinize and criticize the government, and most importantly, the administration, having had full warning of the approaching epidemic which ravages China, surely must have been preparing to deploy necessary resources to protect its people. 

Imagine my consternation to discover the coronavirus has inspired more racist attacks against East Asians in the US than preventive measures against transmission. Despite the coronavirus occupying the front-page of every news platforms since it first emerged in Wuhan, the the six weeks head start the US has been afforded have largely been squandered. One popular camp believes the coronavirus is no worse than the seasonal flu (never mind that at least 12,000 people die from the flu each year in the US), while far too many others are under the spell of the magical thinking that COVID-19 is a foreign problem, as if it’s some ugly fashion trend that Americans can save themselves from by simply ignoring it. When I was still in China, under self-quarantine, I couldn’t have imagined that in the US, it would be considered so uncool to be worried about the coronavirus.

This dangerous flippancy that has infected the populace is thanks in no small part to the continuous stream of falsehoods issued President Trump and his administration. Just as I had previously hoped the Chinese government would put aside its self-serving credo to protect its people, even at my most cynical I didn’t expect Trump and associates to partake in the same kind of insidious dishonesty as the CCP for political gains. Though the media in the US is not co-opted by the government as its own propaganda mouthpiece as it is in China, nothing prevents the president from Tweeting that everything is under control, that it’s no worse than the flu, that it will simply disappear with the arrival of hot weather. People are robbed of the weeks they could’ve spent preparing for what’s to come. Everyday I read the news and find myself reeling from deja vu. 

In China, people talk about fighting the coronavirus like they’re at war. I have no military experience, but my layperson’s understanding is that in a war, seeing enemies approaching from a distance is an enormous advantage. The enemy loses the element of surprise, and anticipating battle with a thorough plan can mean the difference between total victory and all out defeat. China was not prepared, but what reason is there for the US not to be prepared for this fight? 

I thought leaving China took me away from potential chaos, but now chaos seems to loom closer than ever.

My parents, having been through the SARS epidemic, are alert and vigilant. Even then, my father insisted he’s not in much danger, and touted a pet theory that the virus must be getting less harmful as it spreads, because the mortality rate appeared lower outside of Wuhan. 

When I heard this, I snapped at him. “Don’t pretend to be some kind of expert in this!” 

He bristled, and I forced myself to level my voice with a few deep breaths. “Let’s not jump to any conclusions, it would be good if that’s true, but right now please just stay home.”

With my white American in-laws, I took a somewhat tortured circuitous path in convincing them to take the coronavirus situation seriously. I didn’t want to come across an obsessed alarmist, paranoid from my time in China. I danced an awkward, impossible dance of trying to casually broach a topic that’s life-or-death, to sound the alarm without being too alarming.

At first, I furtively dropped the coronavirus into conversations with my in-laws, hinting at the need to stock up on supplies. I led by example by making a dramatic show of rushing into the bathroom and washing my hands the moments we get into the door. My in-laws never once ridiculed me, but I privately agitated over how relaxed they seemed, and uncompelled they were to change their routines and take up preventive measures. Perhaps in their house in the woods, it all still feels far away. Outbreaks in Seattle or even Westchester County might still seem like a safe distance. But what about the hundreds of thousands that have sickened and the thousands that have died China? Why must tongues of fire lick our brows before it feels real?

A few nights ago, I was invited to dinner in the Bronx and I agonized over whether to go. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to see if New York is handling things differently than when I was in Shanghai, which was a ghost city when I left. On the crowded subway going uptown, I was a lone mask wearer. I watched a couple kiss tenderly on the platform, their faces lit purple by the PSA sign urging people to wash hands and practice social distancing. 

That night, on a crowded train home, the other riders gave me a wide berth. I had an entire three seater to myself, and the row facing me was empty too. Another mask wearer, also East Asian, came and sat down across from me. We caught each other’s eyes, and exchanged the faintest of nods before we went back to looking at our phones. 

There was no need to speak, we understood each other.

 “I see you. You’re not crazy.”