For Moran native Molly McEwan and her boyfriend, returning home to China last week was like stepping into an apocalyptic movie set.
Their temperatures were taken repeatedly, both on and off the planes as they traveled from the Philippines to Taiwan and then to mainland China, a country trying to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus that has sickened more than 71,000 and killed 1,775 as of this morning.
The airport stood eerily empty, with employees wearing protective suits and shielded helmets.
Tents and guards are posted on every street corner and apartment entrance to check the temperatures and papers of everyone who passes by.
“It was spooky and strange. Even if we wanted to go out, there’s nowhere to go because every business is closed except supermarkets, and most of the stores are pretty much cleaned out,” McEwan said of her return to China. “They’re taking really big precautions to try and nip this in the bud.”
When news of the illness first broke, McEwan and her boyfriend, Tyson Carpenter, were out of the country on vacation. The two are teachers at a school in China, and it is common to leave the country during the month-long celebration of the Chinese New Year. McEwan talked about her experiences in China for an article in the Register published Feb. 4, while she was still in the Philippines. At that time, she wasn’t worried about the virus.
Now that she’s back in China, she sees firsthand how seriously the country is handling the outbreak. She’s relieved to be home safe and healthy, and she’s not worried about contracting the virus. She uses a cellphone app to keep track of where the virus has spread; very few people in her area have been infected, and the overall numbers remain relatively small compared to the total population.
But the coronavirus certainly has disrupted life in China.
“When all of that happened, I was pretty nonchalant,” she said. “I still stand by what I said, that there aren’t a lot of cases around us and you have to keep it in perspective. But maybe I took it a little more lightly than I do now. It’s super contagious. It’s still growing and we don’t know anything about it or when it will stop.”
BECAUSE McEwan and her boyfriend had been out of the country, they will be under a minimum 14-day quarantine. But even then, the entire country is essentially in lockdown, with travel restricted and schools closed until officials are satisfied there is less risk of spreading illness.
McEwan and Carpenter live in the village of Cixi, near the larger city of Ningbo, which issued a list of 12 rules “to win this battle and ensure people’s health and safety.” Among those rules:
— Everyone must wear a mask and submit to temperature checks when they enter or exit public places.
— Only one person per each family can leave their homes to shop every two days.
— It is forbidden for people to gather together or visit each other.
— All air conditioners in public places are shut down, and elevators must be sterilized daily.
— All public places and businesses not providing daily necessities (supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.) must be closed.
— All symptoms such as fever and cough must be reported immediately.
McEwan and Carpenter are lucky to live in an apartment complex with a courtyard, allowing them an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Two of the three gates of the complex are closed, with a full-time guard posted at the only open gate. They’re also lucky because the school for which they work has taken good care of them, having groceries and supplies delivered on a regular basis. Their landlord also is a police officer, who provides extra reassurance.
When one of them leaves, they must present a slip of paper that will be used as authorization to be out on the streets.
“I’m appreciative of what they’re doing,” McEwan said.
“Tyson went to the store and he said it’s pretty much what we’ve been hearing. Most of the shelves are cleaned out. Dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables are pretty scarce. Frozen food supplies are pretty much empty. I went on a walk inside our complex and the weather was quite nice, so there were a lot of people out but nobody was socializing with each other and everybody was wearing masks.”
She and Carpenter were on vacation for three weeks, now followed by at least two more weeks of quarantine. That’s a lot of time to spend together, she said, and they’re finding ways to entertain themselves, like playing a lot of board games, putting together a puzzle, reading books and practicing their culinary skills. They don’t watch a lot of television because they don’t understand much of the Chinese language, but they’re able to keep up with English news sources and use online technology like Skype or FaceTime to visit with friends and family.
The start of the school semester has been pushed back by at least a couple of weeks. McEwan filmed a couple of videos so her students can continue with their schooling, but she isn’t sure how long it will be before she and Carpenter can return to the school. She hopes the quarantine will not force an early end to the semester, or to her time teaching in the country. But even then, travel to and from the country is restricted. Would she even be able to find a flight home if it came to that?
THE QUARANTINE has given McEwan time to reflect on how such an epidemic might be handled in the United States, particularly in small, rural areas like Allen County.
Her mother, Kathy McEwan, is a family and consumer sciences agent for the Southwind Extension District, so it’s natural for Molly to think about the impact on food supplies. Some area communities are considered “food deserts” because they lack grocery stores or access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Imagine if a large part of Allen County shut down. What would we do? It’s scary to think about.”
She’s seen how fear can bring out the worst in people, such as a tendency to hoard groceries and supplies. She’s heard stories of people entering supermarkets with suitcases.
She and Tyson struggled to find masks, which are required for travel in public. They finally found some at an airport, which restricted purchases to one mask per person.
“People turn so selfish in situations like this. Maybe in places like back home, there are a lot of hunters and those families would be OK, but in a small town it doesn’t take much before all the eggs and all the milk are gone. What would happen?”