Citizens stroll around the Baocheng road night market stall in Wuhan, which has recently reopened © Photo by YFC / Costfoto/Sipa USA)

The remarkably short slide from me worrying about relatives in Wuhan to them worrying about me

The anxiety of worrying about the safety of my family was replaced with anger at the lack of preparedness in the UK
June 11, 2020

first heard of it in a phone call with my father a few days into the new year. A mysterious illness was cropping up in the city, he said, infecting a few dozen people. Within a matter of weeks, the coronavirus’s rampage across Wuhan made global news.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to see your hometown—and the hometown of your father and mother, and generations of fathers and mothers long before you—become an international punchline, a metonym for a crisis that has taken so many. It is even harder to describe the anxiety I felt that first month, checking in with my family to ensure they were safe (they were, and remain so). A particular worry was my mother, who works in a mental health ward of a hospital and lives nearby. Living in a high-risk zone, she is still stuck inside her apartment as I write in early June. My father had in fact moved away from Wuhan to the south of China some time before the outbreak, but was holidaying abroad with his family—the rest of whom still live in Wuhan—when it cropped up. My grandparents, uncle and nephew were barred from returning home, so had to move into my father’s new apartment in the south. They stayed in that small space for two and a half months.

In February, the worry I had for my family started turning into anger at the lack of preparedness here. An English friend’s brother returned from road tripping around China. There were no health checks at the border, nothing of quarantine. Racing festivals continued and Tube commutes rolled on. News reports valiantly tried to tally the number of coronavirus cases in London. Just one case. 104 cases. 407 cases. Anyone who takes these figures for anything other than wildly ill-informed underestimates is in for a nasty surprise, I thought.

For many Britons, the most difficult part of late March was adjusting to the restrictions on daily life and the overall climate of uncertainty. But I had been in that headspace for months; indeed, with numbers decreasing in Wuhan, I thought the worst of it—for my family—might be over. But it wasn’t. Now, instead of worrying about my parents, they worried about me. I was terrified by “herd immunity,” but did my best to downplay it to them, lest they swim across multiple oceans to collect me themselves. Most difficult of all was trying to explain why, after weeks of their own highly-publicised suffering and confinement, Wuhan’s crisis did not seem to spark competent and urgent action here. Does our pain not count for anything? my mother asked me over the phone. There was no good answer.

Has coronavirus dented my family’s view of the west? Perhaps: my mother has certainly developed a grudge against Boris Johnson. But broader ideas about other countries slowly seep through more immediate concerns; and theirs, like so many of ours, are gloriously quotidian: they think about what television show they’ll watch; that terrible conversation they had at work; whether they should finally cut their lockdown-nurtured locks. Understanding the news is important, of course, and so is tracking the evolution of global power. But we shouldn’t forget that behind the proverbial corona curtain are also ordinary people going about their lives: grieving, doing their best, and dreaming of better days, too.

This article formed part of Steve Bloomfield’s cover essay on the challenges facing liberal democracy in the July 2020 issue. You can read his essay here.