Overline: Coronavirus
Headline: “It’s about being soft. It’s about being connected. It’s about surrendering to nature as it is.”

Wuhan train station is being disinfected
Disinfection of the Wuhan train station, March 2020 Xinhua News Agency

Affiliate IASS scholar Man Fang has been working online from Germany since late January as a volunteer coordinator to support her hometown of Wuhan, organizing donations and helping to transport medical resources from around the world to the local hospitals. Here on the IASS-Blog she answers a few questions how differently the pandemic is dealt with in Germany and China and expresses her thoughts and feelings about it.

Wuhan Huanghe tower and Changjian bridge
Wuhan Huanghe tower and Changjian bridge after the shut down of the entire city, January 2020 Xinhua News Agency

1.    Man, your family lives in Wuhan and has been in domestic quarantine for 50 days - what was the most important learning of the last weeks that you would like to share with us in Europe?

Man Fang: The first learning: Trust makes miracles. In my role as a coordinator, I have been surprised at how much trust can develop between people as you work together for two months. Most of the team members did not know each other before, but we have developed an unconditional trust in each other through our work. That made miracles possible in terms of how smoothly and effectively we could drive action.

The second learning is: Collective consensus is crucial. And equally: the irresponsible actions of just one person can easily screw up the security of entire families and communities in the coronavirus crisis.

The third learning: Keeping a balance between emotional sensitivity and rationality. Sensitivity makes us aware of what is happening in the world and compassionate with others, while rationality is the power that keeps us calm and lets us take reasonable decisions in chaos. Achieving this balance is difficult. When it comes to issues like food security and the use of facial masks for protection, it can be so hard for us to tell whether we are over-reacting or being ignorant. However, the only consideration we could have for ourselves is how we can help others. Sometimes, this means that we have to make sacrifices around our freedoms and rights; or perhaps we have to reconsider how much food we plan to stockpile or assess the extent to which anxiety and uncertainty are shaping our actions. Ultimately we have to trust that medical professionals and governments are doing the best they can to support us.

2.    You think that Europe has been slow to respond – what should we have done, when and why?

M. F.: While my hometown, Wuhan, is starting to recover from the coronavirus crisis, Germany is just entering its lockdown. Living in Germany, I have witnessed an interesting contrast between these two counties. My friends in China started worrying about me in late February already and wanted to know if I need masks to protect myself. On 2nd March and 6th March, two friends of mine separately mailed masks to me from Nice (France) and Shanghai (China). When I told them that governments in Europe were not recommending that people wear masks in public, they were very surprised.

People in China are very aware of how contagious this virus is, of the severity of the symptoms and of the fact that victims die a painful death while being at full consciousness until their very last moments. I decided in early March that I would remain at home as much as possible. While the official figures did not indicate any confirmed infections, the situation was very unclear due to the extended incubation period of the coronavirus, which ranges from 3 to 24 days or even 27 days (Shennongjia adds a new confirmed case of new pneumonia with an incubation period of up to 27 days). Unfortunately people were not made aware of this sooner in Europe.

I feel painful that the lessons of my hometown couldn’t be learned by European. I feel also painful that all Chinese are witnessing the same happenings in Italy now. So many people are suffering from the virus and lots of doctors and nurses are infected because there is not enough protection.

I am glad that people now have a better picture of what is happening in the world. Germany has learned from Italy, its nearby neighbor, and has finally decided to lock down its cities.

3.    Why is it so important that we all reduce our social contacts to a minimum and simply stay at home? Is there a difference in dealing with elderly people in Europe and China?

M.F.: The trickiest thing about the coronavirus is its invisibility. The virus can be hidden in your body for anything from 3 to 27 days before you develop symptoms. This means that in densely populated areas like Wuhan it might be transmitted to more than 1 000 people before we even know it’s there. This is why the Chinese government advised people very early to wear masks. We assume that everyone could carry the virus with no awareness. It is the only way to avoid further spreading, especially to vulnerable people.

Another crucial aspect to me are elderly people. Culturally speaking, China is a society that affords elderly people the highest respect. There is an old saying that, “An old in a home is like a treasure of a family.” It is unbearable that many people are losing their parents and grandparents all of a sudden. In China most old people live with their children and grandchildren, which could explain why so many people got infected and died. This tragedy has traumatized the people of Hubei Province. People died within 2 to 3 days of developing symptoms and their families didn’t have the chance to say goodbye properly. In some cases, entire families were infected and were unable to support each other because they were isolated in different hospitals, hotels or apartments.

From my point of view, mainstream German society reflects the voice and experiences of young people. The media are reporting that children have no symptoms and that it is mostly older people who are falling ill. As a result, younger people feel very confident that their immune systems can deal with the virus. Reading the news from Italy and Spain, it feels to me that the loss of society’s elders is silently accepted.

In my view, at this very moment it is not so much individual freedoms that matter, but taking care of each other. For Chinese people, family is their “religion”. People will do whatever they can for their own household or family members. Because if there is a home, we always have a place to return to, a place of freeness and safety. That is why Chinese have bought protection masks from all over the world to support their country. Freeness is the freedom in community or network, not of the isolated individual. People cannot find happiness and calm in a state of pure freedom without being grounded anywhere. What people desire is to feel at ease and belonging within a network or group. In that sense, Chinese people practice another style of being in which actions are always based on collective needs, instead of individual needs.

4.    The proliferation of disinformation and myths about the coronavirus on social media has led the WHO to launch a counter information campaign together with Google and Facebook. Did something similar happen in China? Or did government censors intervene?

In the early stage, there were all kinds of reports about the coronavirus in WeChat, which is the biggest social media channel in China, with almost one billion members. Chinese people were very disturbed to see that local government bodies were holding back information to the public and creating the impression that the situation in Wuhan was under control and that the virus was not contagious. I noticed in early January that friends who worked at hospitals in Wuhan were starting to wear masks. I even saw people wearing masks at a New Years’ concert. The fact that SARS had returned in some form was already doing the rounds on social media after “whistleblower” doctors diagnosed a patient on 30 December and warned friends and colleagues of their findings. This quickly became common knowledge. Back then, even my mother talked with me on the phone about the “rumor” and many sensible people started to prepare themselves and avoided gatherings. It was not until 20th January that central government officials confirmed the risk of human-to-human transmission. Very soon after this the whole city was locked down.

In my experience, Chinese people tend to gather factual information through social media while relaying on  networks of trusted family members, relatives, friends and colleagues. “Official” media channels play a less significant role as sources of reliable information.

Information gathered through WeChat networks and groups also underpins the work of our support group. WeChat connects thousands of people (including family members, relatives, friends and colleagues etc.) and integrates all of the functions of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Amazon and Skype in a single service, making communication easy and efficient.

Our grassroots organization operates on the principle of “First-hand contact, first-hand connections, first-hand information”. In other words, by introducing only people that we know and trust, we can ensure that the information shared in the group is reliable. This first-hand principle enables us to gather reliable information more efficiently than news agencies. Because we have friends who are working for hospitals and within government, we are also able to share inside information.

I believe news are being manipulated everywhere in the world in many different ways and it is difficult to summarize this phenomenon for a huge country like China. During the Coronavirus Crisis, I witnessed how WeChat groups and networks acted as a decentralized “Fourth Estate”. The Internet and digitalization are helping the development of Chinese democracy tremendously. People were disappointed official news channels because of the way the initial phase was handled. As a consequence, people place their trust in “opinion leaders” such as the Wuhan-based author FangFang, who writes a public diary about the crisis and shares important insights with the outside world.

Local government has realized that it is impossible to hide anything nowadays. They will have to learn how to cooperate with mass social media, instead of blocking it. This will be a challenge for some conservative and undeveloped regions, but local governments in major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou are already much more open and transparent to citizens.

5.    IASS research aims to support broad transformations towards more sustainable societies. Is sustainability an issue for the people in your home country?  

Many of my friends are sharing the videos showing how animals are returning to the cities and wandering on the empty streets, people are woken up by singing birds, calmness has been back to life etc.. I believe they are all kinds of touching moments in such difficult period, reminding us to cherish simple happiness in our life. It is a sudden and sharp pause for the whole society, while it is a kind reminder to reflect our way of being as well.

There are many phenomena showing to me that people would clearly like to change their behavior patterns following this because of the disaster, but I am not sure how far this will go. Let’s see.

Right now the whole province and all the cities are still processing the emergencies and recovering from this emergency. The focus is still on saving lives and getting life back on the normal life track. There is still so much mourning to be done and grief that needs to be dealt with and so much sadness has to be expressed. All this takes time.

Right now I am supervising a volunteer group which is psychologically supporting citizens who have been traumatized by the crisis. I am experiencing great suffering and sadness with all these volunteers. We have realized that the sadness resonates to each individual, to our community, to our whole society, meanwhile it also resonates with the state of the entire earth.
We are sharing the suffering like our earth is suffering.

What we could learn from the crisis, is to feel the suffering and admit that we are vulnerable, to admit that we need help. It is the compassion from ourselves to others, and also the compassion from human beings to all species in the world, and also the compassion from living beings to the planet.

The vulnerability is now emerging after we have fought for survival almost two months, because it is the endless war with no one and we are all exhausted. In our reflection, we started to realize that the virus is helping us to expose our softness. As human beings, we could cry and be sad when we are vulnerable. We are growing when we are acknowledging and appreciating those vulnerabilities. At some point, we felt save after we cried and we started to allow ourselves to be helped. Because of exposed vulnerability, we are connected and feel safe in group and community.

The disaster provided an opportunity to expose our vulnerability and humility.

We are deeply into the mood of sadness and helplessness, just like our earth is feeling. It could be another enlightenment for our global citizens that we aware the happenings and respond to all the challenges in a compassionate way.

It’s not about the power. It’s not about winning. It’s not about fighting.

It’s about being soft. It’s about being connected. It’s about surrendering to nature as it is.

6.    What else would you like to say about the coronavirus?

In a recent German-Chinese online dialogue we noted that this crisis, coronavirus would likely bring about change for different countries in different way. Chinese are starting to take responsibility as global citizens and actively participating in volunteer roles to support people and countries around the world. For people in Wuhan, at the early stage when the official declaration on coronavirus was ambiguous and absent, at the same time, while all hospitals were overwhelmed by the patients, all the citizens and staff in the hospitals started to ask for help from the outside, which shows a big change. Because people have learned that we cannot simply rely completely on government to manage everything as before, we have to take the initiative.  

Many Chinese have been waiting for the German government to take swifter action in the early stages of the pandemic. Now many other Chinese and myself appreciate that finally the German government is moving from gently suggesting certain measures to taking stronger and stronger actions. By witnessing this, I have also learned how important it is for decision-makers here to be patient enough until most of citizens have realized the potential danger and would agree with the governmental actions, otherwise government would face strong criticism and opposition.

From my point of view, German society is sacrificing efficiency for societal consensus, whereas Chinese are sacrificing some freedoms for safety. I believe both countries are making their best choices that reflect their own realities and can learn a lot from each other in this crisis.

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