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More than a year ago, when the virus that was paralyzing China was only part of the daily news, the RoundTable learned that Evanston resident Kurt Mitenbuler was quarantined in Wuhan province. Last month the RoundTable reposted “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” his contemporaneous narratives of the quarantine. In this and the four ensuing segments, Mr. Mitenbuler recounts the 2019 visit to his in-laws in China, which was lengthened by the novel coronavirus. Here is the sequel.
By Kurt Mitenbuler
I’m told many things.
I’m told by friends in America that my experience of living both hemispheres of the pandemic fight is unique.
I’m told by my Chinese friends experiencing both sides of the story is a Confucian parable.
I’m told the Chinese autocratic political system is superior, and that the results of the fight against the pandemic prove it.
I’m told that if the autocratic system had not covered up early signs of COVID, it could have been nipped in the bud.
I’m told by tenured academics that quarantines are lousy for fighting epidemics.
I’m told by other tenured academics quarantines work effectively.
I’m told masks don’t work.
I’m told they do; I’m told two masks are better than one.
I’m told by a guy on the street I’m a “sheeple” for wearing a mask.
I’m told the virus had been out and in circulation for months, even years, before the explosion of the pandemic.
I’ve been told where the virus originated.
I’ve been told the explanation is not true.
I’ve been told by street vendors, who work the wet market in Wuhan, where the virus came from, and honestly, it’s the only thing I’ve been told in the last year that makes perfect logical sense.
I’m glad there are so many people telling me what this is and what it means, because I’ve been told everything by everyone, lived through the middle of it, and my understanding of it is still muddled and disoriented, a collection of non-interchangeable parts resisting assembly into a coherent whole.
Muddling along as I have been, and in a prelude to mindful recollection of 2020, I initially lay claim to the FIRST iteration of an entire genre of what eventually became thousands of pandemic essays across all media employing the Gabriel Garcia Marquez theme of “Love in the Time of …” Mine was “Love In the Time of Coronavirus”, published via Medium on Feb. 4, 2020 and four days later in the RoundTable. I’ve not found any published account preceding my own.
It felt so clever at first, and now it seems so obvious. If one reads enough, one understands how professional writers do it; they copy everyone else and repurpose it as their own.
It was mid-to-late January, and we were in the earliest stages of rumblings and infectious disease warnings preceding the lockdown in Hubei. It was still an unknown disease, mysterious, in a Chinese city few had ever heard of. All the news focused on Wuhan specifically, when in fact an entire province was the focus of attention, an approximate population of 70 million people, including completely unknown numbers of migrant workers that were literally stranded, whose already desperate lives became existential odysseys.
Directing a small group of like-minded individuals to behave in unison is a remarkable achievement. Getting 70 million people to do anything together is something beyond achievement. It was a view into how humans can behave in mass societal directives, something I’ve not experienced in America.
In the earliest moments of the pandemic, we had actually been in Wuhan, traveled to Fenghuang, Hunan for a Spring Festival family get together, and then collectively retreated to the hometown of Enshi, a small city of about a million souls in the foothills of Western Hubei, about 500 kilometers west of Wuhan.
We figured that would be the best option as it was where my family is located, and my brother-In-law has a farm on the outskirts. It’s always good to have a direct connection to good food in a quarantine, and with substantial family support, we hunkered down and pondered our options.
Initially, it was entirely surreal. Quarantined in an obscure Chinese mountain town, no way out, no nothing until the authorities released us. Friends in America rallied to provide emotional support that was appreciated but not necessary.
I was excited more than anything. I was at the epicenter of worldwide news! I imagined myself being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, Larry King (may he rest in peace) would have me on when I returned, Joe Rogan would sit across the desk from me and we would smoke cigars in front of bare brick walls while I recounted … etc. …
Someone forwarded me an article in the NYT Review of Books by a young woman writer in China (one meets a lot of young people in China that are “writers”) who was in East Hubei in some unknown place. She had been clearly overexposed to writing workshops, as her several pages of detailed narrative described everything in specific and nothing interesting in particular. “You should write about this … like her!”, someone exclaimed.
Similarly, Peter Hessler was over in Chengdu, not too far away, and he reported on quarantine efforts there. I always had Mr. Hessler as being incapable of writing anything less than fascinating, but he too managed to turn in a couple stinkers on quarantine.
The woman and her article were never heard from again; Mr. Hessler’s accounts lasted a day or two in the New Yorker, and as the news quickly escalated to a pandemic, all interest in what a few laowai mopes in Hubei had to say was eclipsed by the scope of bigger things.
I mean, think about how you’ve been living for the last year. Does it sound like it would make for interesting reading?
So, the idea of doing quarantine related journalism and reportage kinda fell by the wayside as the world moved on to larger issues. Besides, I didn’t know what was going on enough to make any sense of it anyway.
As far as the physical surroundings of our incarceration …Check back tomorrow.