Queer Covid Chronicles: Where Were You When it Started?

On January 21, 2020, authorities in China finally announced the human-to-human transmissibility of a new virus on the scene that is said to have been identified in the country as early as mid-November 2019. The largest cluster of cases was in Hubei province’s capital Wuhan, a place that would become globally synonymous as the potential ground zero of a virus that has now come to be known as COVID-19. What followed on the Chinese mainland was an imposition of citywide and provincial lockdowns, and ultimately a national lockdown that barred international travel into the country. Three years on, countless lockdowns in, and several vaccines and testing kits’ availability on the market, many in China are still waiting for a return to normalcy.

A surge in infections across the country caused by the more transmissible COVID-19 Omicron variant has seen years of hard work in containing the virus through the country’s Dynamic zero-COVID strategy eroded as cities all across China, including Shanghai went into partial or full lockdown, with residents having to contend with mass mandatory testing and live in fear of the dreaded quarantine facilities where those who test positive are transferred. As uncertainty persists while the rest of the world attempts a “live with COVID-19” approach, we take a look back at where we started and where we are now. Welcome to a series that should be dubbed “curb your enthusiasm.”

“We have recorded the sound the wind makes on Mars, but we cannot listen to one another.…”
― Ilan Stavans, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mark – Beijing

Being involved in the world of journalism, I had heard of the virus as a passing rumor as far back as December 2019. We heard that there was a certain virus that was as yet unnamed affecting people in a certain part of the country but honestly thought nothing of it, and it wasn’t until the end of January 2020 that the gravity of the situation truly made itself known. We have heard isolated incidents or cluster infections caused by some novel virus or a mutated disease that don’t usually amount to much and I didn’t expect it to be any different this time. I remember that on what was meant to be my birthday and the start of the spring festival, our office informed us that we wouldn’t be returning to the office and would instead be working from home until further notice which wouldn’t be months later. All the compounds in the Beijing began issuing residents with entry and exit passes and life had suddenly come to a standstill.

What was most shocking was how the virus went from just a whisper to an out-and-out lockdown in such a short time. Quite a few of my friends panic-fled the country, hoping instead to ride it out at home or in one of the many tropical destinations in Asia. No one expected that the country would be locked down for over three years! I wasn’t so much worried about contracting the virus as much as I was worried about what it would mean for foreigners like me socially. I was moving apartments at the time and I remember the suspicion with which everyone in my new compound regarded me, and even though it didn’t get as bad for me and those around me, it wasn’t long before we started hearing stories of Black African foreigners in Guangzhou forcefully evicted under fears that Black foreigners were the vectors of this unknown virus.

“The irony is that people are surviving lockdown thanks to the arts. For centuries, the task of washing clothes has been made more bearable by singing.”
― Ilan Stavans, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kari – Shenzhen

I didn’t think COVID-19 was a big deal. I was with friends in Shanghai when things started to “get bad.” We were supposed to go to Shenzhen, then Hong Kong if I remember correctly, but we canceled our trip because too many cases started to pop up and we didn’t want to get locked out of Hangzhou. What was scary for me at that time wasn’t the virus but being locked down in another city or not being able to get back into the city in which I live and work.

I didn’t think being Black or Queer and a foreigner clouded my judgment. Until the narrative was switched. First foreigners were targeted, and then they specifically targeted Black foreigners to fit the narrative that it was they who were the cause of the spread of the virus mainly due to “foreign” imports. It was then that I realized that this whole COVID-19 situation was less about people dying and more about political control.

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Michael – Beijing

Well, when I first reacted to COVID-19, I was in Kyoto, Japan on vacation over Spring Festival. My Chinese coworkers were the first to message me and tell me to watch the news and then message them back. My father messaged me at the same time and told me to do the same thing. I was shocked and worried. Shocked that an outbreak like this had happened so close to me, worried about my friends, coworkers, and myself, and what it would mean for my career. This is when I found out my flights were getting canceled, while I was getting rained on with no umbrella in the Arashiyama bamboo forest. I thought yeah “this is the world and fate telling me that “bad things are coming.” Luckily, one of my Chinese teachers, a sweet girl named Zoey was helping me find flights to get me back. She was the one who told me that the border will be closed soon and to get back now.

I honestly don’t believe that my being queer and a foreigner clouded my judgment to come back, but I did feel my expectations of what was to come were based on being from another country. I didn’t really expect to be locked in a country for three years and only be able to video call family. It made me feel like I was working for Walmart again.

“This pandemic seems to me not unlike my mother’s cancer: a threat, a warning, a reminder for society. Whether, like my mother, we ignore its import, is up to each one of”
― Ilan Stavans, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jevon – Guangzhou

Well, I was actually in Wuhan when the virus first broke out, and like anyone I panicked because this was an invisible pathogen that was killing people my age and younger all over the world. However, being stuck in lockdown there for some time, I was grateful for the government’s initial reaction to a swift lockdown because it definitely saved thousands, if not millions of lives.

I think most foreigners here felt the brunt of some racism that was targeted towards us since there was the belief that foreigners were the ones carrying the virus. Being Black only added to this a bit more due to the ignorance that exists about Black and Brown people. However, I don’t think being Queer added any extra pressure or clouded my judgment.

Stephon – Qinhuangdao

Coming from the US where I was under a constant “SEMI” lockdown and multiple quarantines because of my work, seeing a chance to escape the US (since I was not in China at the start of the pandemic) and begin making money again overseas was very appealing especially when I’d been hearing from friends in China how they’d been handling things. My friends would say…”Things are open here. You have to scan in and take your temperature EVERYWHERE but it’s not a big deal.”

In the USA I would constantly hear yelling and arguing from people refusing to put on a mask and social distance. “They’re taking our freedom”, “It’s all a Hoaxes”, or “It’s a ploy by the Left/Right side” were and continue to be common refrains.

Photos: Unsplash

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