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Coronavirus in the neighborhood: Shenzhen

co-author: Yana Golovchenko

When the early messages about a new virus appeared in the press in January, Shenzhen was full-on getting ready for the Chinese New Year. Then, in the following few days, came an official confirmation of the new virus, and everything changed after that. All the medical masks were gone from the shelves in an instance, there was hardly any face without a mask outside anymore. The body temperature checks became mandatory at building entrances, and many areas of the city got separated with red barriers to ensure access control. Soon later, messages about an upcoming closure of the borders and evacuations of foreigners started to appear. Most of Shenzhen residents rushed to their hometowns for the celebration as it happens every year, and all the foreigners had to decide – to leave or to stay.

We, a couple – a photographer and an artist from Russia – decided to remain in Shenzhen where we live. We bought lots of food just before the closure of most stores for the holidays, and locked ourselves in. Then, with the beginning of the national holiday, the whole city went still. It got disturbingly quiet. Apart from information from the internet, the only way to know what is happening outside was to watch out of the window. And it looked uncomfortably empty, especially in comparison with the never ending flow of people and cars just a few days ago.

China was the first to face the new epidemic, and Shenzhen, after Wuhan, was at the top of the list of cities with most cases within the country. It was completely unclear how dangerous the situation was in Shenzhen. Things changed every day, and experts’ opinions changed other experts’, completely opposite opinions. We didn’t know what to make of it. As for how everyone perceived the situation at the time, we were in almost the most dangerous place in the world. Yet, it didn’t feel quite like that on the street. In our short walks to a closest supermarket we saw quite an amount of people. Most of the people were either going to a supermarket too, or coming back with plastic bags full of groceries. However, everyone behaved in a civilized manner, there was no panic or paranoia. People kept a distance, but minded their business calmly. It all seemed so much less threatening than expected, so, after several weeks of avoiding unnecessary walks and when the numbers finally started to slow down, we decided to go out of our block and see how it was for ourselves.

Before going out, we anticipated to see something similar to what was happening in our area – people mostly concentrated near the supermarkets, carrying bags with groceries. But in reality it wasn’t quite like that. There were more people on the streets and they were not only near the stores. Though most were busy getting food and rushing home, but there were some who seemed to be out just to be out, even despite the risks. Park walkers, bike riders, card players – unexpected sights to see on the streets during a virus outbreak not far from its epicenter. All that greatly contrasted with the previous few weeks of home isolation.

Such moments felt like, perhaps, this could be the beginning of the awakening from the epidemic. With big hope it seemed that the virus was about to be beaten, the measures would soon be taken down, the borders would open in a bit and everything would return back to normal. But that feeling had changed with another bump in numbers, or after finding out that there are people registered with the virus in the next building. And finally, when the virus managed to find a way to spread outside of China and continued further out. The invisible threat – causing physical harm to a colossal amount of people and affecting everyone else psychologically with its uncertainty. From the start of the virus in Wuhan and up until now, several months later, COVID-19 has been somewhere in the neighborhood, just around the corner, and it’s not clear where exactly and how close.