Son writes home about family, life in China

My older son, Chip, has lived in China since about 2002. He married a Chinese woman and they now have two kids, a boy, Ming, 15, and a girl, Mei, 13. They live in a seven-story apartment building in a secure walled-in complex in Putian city in Fujian Province — 7,652 miles from good old Warren — as the crow flies.

At this writing, this little family of four is in quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic as are the rest of the citizens of Putian. Putian is a coastal city on the Tropic of Cancer (about even with Key West) and about 475 miles southeast of Wuhan, where the virus started, 425 miles south of Shanghai, and 400 miles north of Hong Kong. It is hemmed in by cities with numerous cases of the coronavirus on their west, north and south — and on the east by the Straits of Taiwan.

Putian, as of March 9, has, according to official statistics, a total of 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections in Putian. All these patients have recovered, so there are no fatalities.

Putian has a population of about 3.25 million in 1,622 square miles. Good old Warren has a population of 39,898. That figures out to Putian having about 81 times Warren’s population. However Putian has an additional million migrant workers who come in from the countryside to work. Since industry there is light in nature, there is no appreciable smog.

My son’s family must stay in place, only venturing out (wearing surgical masks) to get groceries and other vital items. The schools where both parents teach and the schools the kids attend are in lockdown. Chip spends a lot of time tutoring the kids.

Outside the door, instead of the normal raucous amount of traffic made up of pedestrians, motor scooters, taxis, buses and motorcars, Putian is nearly silent. The pedestrians your see are wearing surgical masks and are hurrying on their journeys to get sustenance for their for their families.

This is a letter Chip sent home:

Dear Dad,

Here in Fujian Province, authorities have taken some measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. These measures are not as extensive as those taken hundreds of miles away in Hubei Province, whose provincial capital of Wuhan was the epicenter of the outbreak. However, daily life has been affected since the end of January.

People are encouraged not to make unnecessary trips out of their homes. Public service announcements encourage people to wear medical masks when venturing outside. This is primarily to prevent people who might be carrying the virus, although not ill, from spreading it.

Some people seem to think that wearing masks will protect them from catching the virus, but given the transmission vectors involved, I’m pretty sure diligent hand washing and keeping hands away from eyes and noses would be more effective.

Masks are in short supply, and I received a ration of 20 masks via express mail from the local foreign expert bureau.

When I venture outside into my apartment complex, which houses a number of people on par with a small municipality like Hubbard or Newton Falls, I don’t have to go very far before I encounter a wad of phlegm that one of my neighbors has spat upon the ground. Even the fear of death won’t break some people’s bad hygiene habits.

I am expected to wear a mask when I enter the shops located within the complex, which I do from time to time when I need supplies. Last month, in February, only a few shops were open — those which could supply foodstuffs and other basic necessities. Now, in early March, almost all of the shops are open, with operators and customers alike wearing masks while inside them.

Going outside the apartment complex was rather severely restricted last month. Other than some work-related exceptions, one member from each household was allowed to leave the complex once every two days. Paper tickets were issued by the apartment complex office, and the usual contingent of security guards at the gate was complemented by bossy little ladies who implemented the system.

This month residents can come and go as we please, but when entering the gate our body temperatures are still checked by a guard equipped with an infrared thermometer. I’m not quite sure what sure what would happen if I showed signs of a fever.

When I do venture outside the complex, about once a week, I make a point of taking a good look around and taking stock of what businesses are open. I can visit an ATM, too.

While I’m walking around, sometimes I pass local farmers squatting beside the sidewalk, displaying freshly dismembered animals for sale — another sanitation failure.

I need to wear a medical mask if I want to take a public bus to a shopping center where I can procure supplies not available in my apartment complex. Entrances of supermarkets are staffed by greeters who check the body temperatures of customers with infrared thermometers before letting them into the store.

While many commercial enterprises have reopened for business during the past few weeks, some institutions remain closed, most notably schools and government bureaus that provide nonessential services.

The kids don’t mind staying home, where they can connect with friends and otherwise keep themselves entertained via the Internet. However, their teachers have also taken to the Internet, tasking students with homework assignments for them to submit online.

As a public school teacher, I haven’t been able to go to work since just before Chinese New Year at the end of January. I record video lessons with my mobile phone and prepare some other materials that I upload for my own students to study. Given the data size of some of the files I produce, squeezing them through the narrow bandwidth that I have available at home is more difficult than getting an overweight aunt through a cellar window. (I don’t think you’ve written a column about that story, have you Dad?) Ming has provided valuable technical support for this endeavor.

What I miss most is going to work. Being cooped up in an apartment in southeast Asia, sometimes I feel like Captain Willard, as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now. “… Waiting for a mission, getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. … Each time I look around the walls move in a little tighter.”

There is an end in sight, though. The authorities gained significant expertise for dealing with a situation like this during the SARS outbreak that started in 2002, the first year I was here in China. The number of new COVID-19 infections is declining, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospect of getting back to business as usual in April.

Also, it’s worth noting that the lethality rate of COVID-19 is lower than SARS, and that the statistical probability of being infected or killed by the virus is far lower than the likelihood of being injured or killed in a traffic accident.

Right now my biggest problem is cabin fever.



Mumford, of Warren, can be reached at columns@tribtoday.com


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