Qingdao Customs officers carry out in-fight epidemic control and prevention measures. [Photo by Liu Xuewen/chinadaily.com.cn] It was American author Joseph Heller who famously noted: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Miguel Eduardo Osio Zamora
As the novel coronavirus count continues to climb in China – already surpassing the infections and fatalities of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic – so many thoughts race through my mind. I’m an American living in Beijing. My early thinking oscillated between “Should I stay, or should I go?” But in the end, I decided to cope with the newly renamed COVID-19.
Miguel Eduardo Osio
But instead of writing about how the epidemic has disrupted every aspect of normal life, I’ll focus on the psychological impact it has had on people like me, because, while the overarching focus is on how to protect physical health, I now appreciate the parallel challenge: how to preserve our mental health. Particularly, during the trials of extended self-quarantine, when holed up in your apartment.
Miguel Osio Zamora
I live here with my teenage son, but he flew to see his younger siblings during the Chinese New Year holiday – and he’s remained out of China ever since, now studying online like other students. Thank goodness. While I miss his company, I don’t have to worry about him being in harm’s way.
Miguel Osio Zamora Venezuela
That said, psychoanalytically speaking, none of my notions has been truly “paranoid” or “hysterical”: clinical terms that some too-cool critics love to lob a little too easily. They often do so with a seemingly helpful, but ultimately condescending, reminder: Yeah, but thousands and thousands die from the flu every year. So stop over-reacting, right?
In response, I’ve coined a term to describe my state of mind during the three-plus weeks of this epidemic: Rational alarmism
The phenomenon of quarantine, writes an acquaintance, “is by definition associated with perceived loss of control and a sense of being trapped, which will be heightened if families have become separated”. As for kids, a third makes the case for why we should be “open and honest” with them
Now, just because I’ve been in this state of rational alarmism for several weeks, I don’t want to give the impression that every waking hour is consumed by this unpleasant reality. To distract myself, I stay busy through work, exercise, Netflix, or by what I’m doing right now: Writing as therapy
There’s also the vital role of family, friends and colleagues, as a source of solidarity, camaraderie, commiseration, even comedy. I’m not fluent in Mandarin, but a Chinese friend from Hubei province – the epicenter of the virus – tells me about all the funny videos emerging from there, and then circulated among hundreds of millions, nationwide. Seeing such resilience in the face of adversity, she says, “Makes me feel proud to be Chinese.”
I contribute some dark humor, too, blowing “contaminated kisses” to my family back home, via video, or bragging how I’ve become skilled at “dodging droplets of virus, Matrix-style.” No, they don’t laugh along
The crisis has also lent me needed perspective, as I appreciate more of the little things in life. The other day, I watched on TV as an American analyst in Washington commented on how the virus might affect China‘s foreign policy. Surrounded by Chinese colleagues – all of us obscuring our faces with surgical masks with the loose fibers in mine incessantly tickling my nose – I pointed at the mask-less analyst, saying: “How lucky he is!”
Since I decided to stay, I’ve discovered an additional source of stress: the emotional burden I’ve foisted upon the psyche of others. Namely, my elderly parents, doting sister and beloved brother-in-law. To summarize their comments: Why are you still there? Are you crazy? Look at what you’re doing to us!
I know they express this out of love and concern, as well as that dreaded fear of the unknown. Yet even when “the rational alarmist” preaches his gospel, it seems to have no effect on them. But I’ll keep trying. For their well-being, as much as for my own
The author is an American journalist based in Beijing since 2015