January 2020

When I first heard about the current pandemic, I think I was resting in bed.

You were browsing news on the laptop by the desk and told me a kind of virus seemed to be found in Wuhan, with two people infected. The first cases were found in a seafood market. It seemed to originate from some untested food (animal). No human-to-human transmission was found. When you said that, you were still reading on your laptop without turning back.

I think I didn’t take it too seriously those days; neither of us seemed to have taken it too seriously. Before you took a nap today, we already knew that the virus could be transmitted from human to human. You also said people from Wuhan were now being demonized and some cities (in China) even put up slogans and asked those from Wuhan to “get the f*ck out.”

The virus then spread, and it now has an official name: coronavirus. It is all over the Internet and media, and it is now in the United States, Korea, Japan…I said to you, last time SARS also originated from China, do you think the world woill be very angry with us? You laughed and said: some netizens even said that SARS was a conspiracy that had been intentionally transmitted to China by other countries, do you believe it?

One rainy night, we got off the plane. The taxi we took was stopped far away by two medical staff wearing white coats and white masks, waving their hands at the exit of the expressway. They asked where we were traveling from and if we felt unwell for the past few days. They also gave us a temperature measurement. The official test results: neither of us had a fever. I breathed a sigh of relief. The whole thing felt so unreal.

Now, rumors say that the intermediate host of the virus in the Wuhan seafood market was the illegally-sold snakes. I remember the serpent in the Bible:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. (Genesis 3:4)

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:6)

My mother sent me a message saying: don’t go anywhere, stay at home. Indeed. This morning, we went for a walk downstairs with masks on; the often-bustling city streets were now so empty.

February 2020


The local Center for Disease Control and Prevention sends me text messages every day, saying that “now is the critical period for the prevention and control of the coronavirus.” The community where I stay in is implementing a lockdown; one needs a certificate to go out and also needs to register their personal information and get his or her temperature measured. There’s a control over the number of people allowed to leave (one per household) and the times (twice per week) one can go out, too. I heard that the nearby food stores were all closed for the moment and the roads were partially closed.

My original plan to quit smoking after the Spring Festival was now disrupted by the pandemic (perhaps just an excuse for myself). The situation is making everyone depressed and panicky; how could there be no cigarette for the moment? Now again, the cigarettes are almost finished, and the store I frequently visit is locked. Maybe I could ask the apartment security to help me get some cigarettes. There aren’t any restrictions on him going in and out. The ground coffee is also running out, and the cafe is closed. Yesterday, there was even no meat on the table, because—I’ve said it already—it’s very inconvenient to go out. Indeed, the people of the country almost get mentally ill in this endless quarantine.

When we can’t go out, we go for a stroll on the rooftop, talking about the pandemic, writing, and family matters while walking. There are good and bad aspects to walking on the rooftop. The bad side: the space is very limited, sometimes my head feels dizzy in the continuous walking-round, while only a few hundred steps are displayed on the mobile pedometer. And the ground is uneven, which makes walking difficult. Various clothes are hanging on the rooftop to air-dry and sometimes touch our heads as we pass by. The good side: the air is fresh on the top floor, and there is a view; we look at the distant mountains, the sky just above our heads and the quiet community opposite.

One night, we were walking on the rooftop, the moon above us was emitting bright, white light, and the clouds were dark. When the wind blew and the clouds quickly drifted across the moon, we then saw a thin layer of shadows looking very mysterious. At a glance yesterday morning, on the eve of the opposite roof, I saw two black birds landing. I didn’t’t know what kind of birds they were.

Fortunately, we are both freelancers and work from home most of the time, so our life in the pandemic isn’t much different. But we are still experiencing some financial stress this month; the pandemic has disrupted some work plans.


Early in the morning, I had a dream that I got infected by the coronavirus.

I got to a clinic with lots of people. It didn’t look like a hospital, instead like a place where tourists gathered, or a restaurant. There were many people there, noisily coming and going. The patients were all lying on stone reclining chairs. Those chairs looked cold. Sometimes, two or three stone chairs were connected, and the whole family lay on it, old and young.

You sent me to the clinic, and I said to you: you should go now. Then you left. In the dream, you didn’t call me even once after you left. I felt very scared and sad. I took out my cell phone to call you (it was a narrow and long clamshell phone, looked like one made in Korea) and tried countless times, but the line couldn’t get through. I felt so sad. Just when the phone finally worked and I recited your number in my heart, I was awakened.

It turned out that at the end of life, what I couldn’t let go of most was love. That dream felt so real; when I was in it, I didn’t know that I was dreaming. I just felt very scared and sad.

Last night, I read about a Wuhanese girl named “Little Hang (小杭),” who wrote in her diary:

…This disease is terrible. It puts people in total isolation and keeps them out of contact with others. In the fear and despair, you cannot hold the hands of your closest family members and friends, you cannot get a hug…

We all know that it is a kind of contagious disease; in theory, one needs to be isolated from others once infected.

Hang’s family lived less than 500 meters away from the seafood market in Wuhan where the first pandemic cases were found. A few days after the outbreak, her mother became infected. Her father took care of her mother, then he became infected, too. Hang’s parents both died a few days ago, and now Hang herself was infected.

I also read that two other infected patients in Wuhan had jumped off a building/bridge, committing suicide out of despair and the fear of infecting their families. There was even an old man who couldn’t get a mask (sold out in many places), so he walked on the street without a mask on and was punished by the local police. Later, he still couldn’t get a mask, so he found a tree and hanged himself.

I already don’t know who to blame. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. I am saying silently in my heart: my Lord…Amen.


Gradually, it seems that we are getting used to this kind of life (in a pandemic time); both your physical and emotional reactions and my depression are partly relieved. But I’m a little afraid of getting used to this situation.

We’ve learned to look down at the street view downstairs when we reach the small window at the end of the long corridor, like cherishing some old memories. In the afternoon today, I saw from the small window that a white car slowly crossed the empty intersection. We’ve learned to laugh while wearing a mask; although our raised mouth-corners can’t be seen, we’ve learned to read the smile from the other’s eyes. Our masks lightly touch each others’, like we are kissing.

This disaster is like a science fiction movie, we are all acting in it, but we don’t know who will see it. God sees it.

So make yourself an ark of cypress [the meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain] wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out…Noah did everything just as God commanded him. (Genesis 6:14-22)

March 2020


Recently, my city’s Health Commission sends me a message every day, saying that with the joint efforts of the general public, the pandemic control has achieved significant results, but we still need to continue our efforts. On the other side, the virus is now spreading worldwide and is even reaching its peak. As a Chinese, the regret deeply lingers in my heart; I feel sorry for the world. But some of my people don’t feel the same. A recent article from The Economist says that the pandemic would seem like a time for the world’s two biggest economies to set aside their differences and work together. Instead, relations are nearing their darkest point since 1989. There are rumors that a Chinese TV host who urged China to apologize to the world was fired by his TV station.

Some Chinese media are arrogantly reporting how the governments of other countries are doing a poor job fighting the virus, so lots of overseas Chinese are buying high-priced air tickets and swarming back to China. A widespread news headline claimed that the air ticket from London to Shanghai had soared to 180,000 RMB. In another widely circulated video, an Australian-Chinese woman in Beijing insisted on running in a gym without a mask on, regardless of the quarantine requirements. Her work visa was cancelled by the local court and she was asked to leave the country soon; some netizens seemed to see her as the epitome of “overseas Chinese.” Late at night, my mother sent me a supposed government announcement, saying that the media are strictly prohibited from using vicious words against fellow Chinese overseas.

I used the word “supposed” because that is indeed the case. In this pandemic time, all kinds of “supposed” news is being blasted out on via the media and social media all day and night. No one knows exactly whether a story is true or fake and can only rely on one’s own knowledge, experience, and instinct to take a guess. It’s really absurd to think about this.

I contacted several of my friends in London and in other countries (on the 17th); they all said that they were doing okay but coping with things, hoarding some food, and working from home. I was told that London was basically functioning, and the public was not as panic as some media claimed.


Last night (the 24th), we heard that by early April, Wuhan citizens who have all been quarantined since late January would be allowed to leave the city; I don’t know whether this is true. And this morning you showed me a story saying that the Roche pharmaceutical company has announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has formally approved its phase three trial of Actemra in severely ill coronavirus patients who have been hospitalised with pneumonia. Like people all over the world, I sincerely hope this is a portent of good things to come.

In the city where I am staying in, the quarantine seems to have been largely lifted. Although quarantine checkpoints are still in place at the gates of every community, they are more formalities at this stage. Concierges sit there and chat with each other, nod off, and no longer really do or ask things. In the past few days, more people went out on the streets. At the nearby historical spots, tourists began to queue up to buy tickets. More and more people took off their masks, although without an official announcement yet.

One night, we were taking a walk in an alley, nobody was around, and I suddenly took off my mask, too. The long-lost outdoor air was particularly pleasant when I took the first breath; it had a slight coolness. Spring was already here and the weather was warm. I felt very comfortable walking in the night in a thin sweater.


As I hear from Matt Forney (the 29th), the editor-in-chief of Terror House Press, that he is publishing this piece, the latest big story I read was that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain has developed his own mild symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus, but promised to continue leading the country. In other news, some senior figures (and countless ordinary people) in foreign countries are also infected (the global total infection number is over 600,000 people as of today).

I feel true grief, not only for this pandemic catastrophe itself, but also that Britain was the country where I lived for 13 years; when I was in London, Boris was the mayor of the city.

In the field of mental illness, I know that many doctors don’t talk about “cures”; instead they encourage patients to “live with illness” and try to carry on a normal life, because it is difficult to eradicate any kind of mental illness. Some medical experts now believe that coronavirus will not be eradicated in the short term and may co-exist with humans for a long time. Maybe I should say—at least for what we see now—try to dance with the wolf and carry on.


“In the Time of Pandemic: Notes from China” is an excerpt from Xi Nan’s new memoir, Personal Life 2020. She has already finished writing Personal Life 2019.