By the start of January 2020 I didn’t hear of coronavirus though it was creeping in Wuhan in December 2019 and emergence of 27 pneumonia cases were brought into the notice of WHO by China on 31st December 2019, at that time an unknown virus. Closure of Wuhan seafood market on 1st January 2020 caught a little attention of our group of friends later. In January mid we occasionally talked about corona virus spread and just stopped eating meat and avoiding sea food and meat section during grocery shopping. We were relaxed as it was proven by that time zoonotic only. By mid of January we had no shadow of fear around us, though 2019-nCov had already started spreading outside Wuhan and even China. My real fear started when on 19th January WHO tweeted statement of limited human to human transmission and I remember saying to my friend, “Limited is nothing if it is human to human transmission” that on 20th January confirmed by Dr Zhong Nanshan a human-to-human transmission mode. Beijing reported its first confirmed case on 20th January that made us to limit our mobility. Wuhan was locked down on 23rd January and soon after that most of the cities around it were locked down too, almost 16 in total making around 50 million population. During Chinese new year vacations seeing Beijing as a ghost city is normal but this time it was with a fear of 2019-nCov. Chinese new year festivities of 25th January were called off by the authorities and for me from 25th January things started changing rapidly as I paid extra attention to social media. Media showing disinfection of buses and subway stations, social media bombarding post over post mixed with facts and rumors. In Beijing major subway stations, all train stations and airport started fever checking. Institutes and universities started fever checking too and isolation in dormitories became stricter. Visitors to dormitories were banned and students were advised staying inside unless it was urgent to go out. If you had fever you wouldn’t be allowed to enter your educational institute (if your dormitory is outside), get on metro, train or plane and had to go back to your residence to consult health clinic. The logic was to keep yourself isolated, the proven weapon to contain the pandemics in past. Confirmed cases started increasing in Beijing and it was shut down for interprovincial highway passenger bus services from 26th January. Airlines, one after another, were shutting down their operations to and from China. My institute was put on manual lock and disinfection was started. We all foreigners of my research group were instructed not to perform any lab work, getting instructions and updates from our group secretary on wechat. I went out just once to buy necessity of life in a quick shopping and came back home followed by all those precautions of hand washing. Those days masks and sanitizer were short and I had to go to many shops to find them (because of holidays production was stopped and outbreak caused increase in demand). Holidays were extended, local and international students were advised not to come back and stay where they were until next notification. However employees were asked to join on 2nd February (that was extended later, too). This was the time when few or more of us started panicking, even my anxiety reached to peak, and then the only solution many of us could think of at that time was to fly back home. No doubt there was a battle going on inside of some about the fear of carrying virus with them and spreading it in our country, on the other hand all those worries with the charm of being at home ground with family convinced to fly back home. For others, arrival home was either scheduled due to vacations or there was huge family pressure to come back in this outbreak. Many decided to stay in China and face the situation. Being a Muslim the belief of dying whenever and wherever it is written, the hadith of not migrating from the Plague area and the realization of the fact that there is no comparison between China and Pakistan for the diagnosis and treatment of the infection were the factors I came to know that stopped many from flying back home. Soon Chinese officials of different cities started writing letters to foreigners, few psychological help groups stepped up, people started speaking in support of isolation to tell it’s not good to fly, and there are strong chances of catching virus during travel and spreading in your country. For those who left in anxiety, including myself, I now realize it was all about controlling anxiety, enduring isolation, tolerating pressure and copping up the fear either of being alone or entirely of catching virus. And I realized we are not trained to cope up with psychological situations in our educational institutes in Pakistan, until you choose psychology as a subject. How to combat with disasters, how to deal panic attacks, how to overcome anxiety in big scale epidemics or pandemics, how to take decisions in tough scenarios when social media is continuously affecting your nerves and decisions. I don’t remember in my whole educational period I ever heard a single discussion on it. You are blessed if you already have that potential inside you or somehow in life developed it by your own or because of your family circumstances. It is a fact that all human beings are not alike and can’t deal the situations similar way. We all are brought up in different circumstances and have different exposures in life. This is human nature that some can endure tough situations and others become panic and weak. You just need to control your anxiety. With the rapidly changing eco system and heavily increasing socioeconomic interactions around the world we need to train our generations on this aspect too. In past, isolation has been proven successful to contain pandemics but still you will find arguments in favour as well as against the biggest isolation experiment China is doing now in human history. I believe there is need of provision of psychological support to those Pakistanis who are still in China, though they are humans with strong nerves but still it is not easy to cope up with the influence of social media and prolonged isolation. I strongly suggest our health ministry should pay attention to it if they want those Pakistanis in China to stay there.
Those of us who are back home, have a questions and fear. What if we are asymptomatic carrier of virus and already spreading it on our land? Who knows what research will bring tomorrow about this virus! For us it is very crucial to keep ourselves on 14 days isolation with all precautions and cooperate fully with the health authorities if we find any symptoms of the disease. God forbidden if any of us bring the virus on our land and spread, it would be a massive damage. Our social and medical infrastructure is not at all capable to deal this trauma. I would request families in Pakistan to be strong and give strength to their kids in China. There is no doubt that Chinese government is doing incredible efforts to contain the outbreak and treating all foreigners very well. The level of care China providing is not at all possible here. We can’t deny that we don’t have as excellent medical facilities as China has. On the other hand I cannot negate the isolation our people are going through is entirely a different experience for them as we have never been to this situation before. May China come out of this difficult time soon so as this world!
DR. RIFFAT ZUBAIR AHMED