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I Was A Firsthand Witness To The Early Stages Of The Novel Coronavirus Pandemic In China

I had the unique experience of being in China during the now infamous coronavirus outbreak. It was a trip I had planned months before the (officially named) novel coronavirus or, 2019-nCoV, that has taken the world by storm. It was an experience unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Before departing for China, some coworkers had asked if I was worried about getting sick the last day of school before the Lunar New Year break. I laughed and said not at all. There were only 579 cases globally by the end of Wednesday, January 22nd according to

Boy, did I underestimate the severity of the situation at hand. My flight to Shanghai from Seoul was on an Airbus A350. These beautiful commercial jets have a seating compacity of 311. I was sitting in row 12 on the two hour flight to Shanghai. Rows 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 were completely empty except for me. Seeing as this was my 21st country and I fly a lot it was really weird. I found it odd at the time but didn't realize it was an eerie precursor to something much bigger. When I arrived in Shanghai, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Lots of people were wearing masks but that’s quite standard in East Asia.  I went to the famous Shanghai Skyline picture hotbed called, “The Bund” to grab some photos of the city skyline. It was pretty empty at the time but that was definitely due to the rain.

Shanghai's skyline from across the Huangpu River. The Oriental Pearl Tower can be seen through the low lying clouds. The world's second tallest tower, the Shanghai Tower, is hidden behind  the cloud cover.

After getting some stunning photos of Shanghai's world renown skyline, I went to a local bar to meet up with my friend and some of her friends. The virus was a topic over some of the drinks we had. The atmosphere wasn't too concerned. The following day we woke up early and drove three hours south of Shanghai to a small village called Moganshan. It’s a famous mountain village in China. Again, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

*Confirmed novel coronavirus cases by January 24th, 2020: 844*

When we arrived at our Inn, the owner checked us in. She did ask us if we had been to Wuhan (the epicenter of the coronavirus) recently.  The next two days were followed by a lot of rain in Moganshan so we went for short walks around the village and had very limited interactions with the locals. 

*Confirmed novel coronavirus cases by January 25th, 2020: 1,312*

*Confirmed novel coronavirus cases by January 26th, 2020: 2,015*

Finally, on Sunday, January 26th, the panic and concern had set in. The number of reported cases went from 844 to 2, just two days.

We checked out of our Inn in Moganshan to find that the road was blocked by a big blue dump truck.

The town of Moganshan had blocked off the main road into town with this big blue work truck

The sign on the truck said the road is closed until further notice. We turned around and attempted to go back. We came across an extended family mulling around their glass door so we politely attempted to speak to them about the closed off road and they shut the door on us before we even got a chance to ask and stared at us from the inside. We returned to the inn to ask the owner what we should do. She drove us to another town exit road which has a barricade up and two policemen watching waved us through. We were going to check out the city of Hangzhou which has a number of popular tourist attractions but thought it best to return to Shanghai as quickly as possible. So we did.

Along the way at one of the toll booths I was able to snap a photo of police checking drivers’ temperatures.

Drivers being check for temperatures at a toll both on the way into Hangzhou from Shanghai

Later I also caught a photo of the empty freeway back to Shanghai. Normally it would have been much more crowded. There were hardly any cars on the road. It was a bit eerie. 

Chinese New Year and panic over the Coronavirus provided us trafficless roads back into Shanghai

Once we returned to Shanghai we decided it best to just hangout in my friends apartment due to the rapidly increasing severity of the virus and the fact that the Chinese government had closed all tourist attractions, effectively giving me nothing to see and do in Shanghai. 

For the following two days we watched movies and played drinking games. To eat we ordered food on a food delivery app. The only times I left the apartment was to go to the grocery store, to go to the local convenience store looking for a mask and hand sanitizer and for dinner at a local bar. 

*Confirmed novel coronavirus cases by January 27th, 2020: 2,801* Masks and hand sanitizers were sold out everywhere. It was becoming a big part of the discussion surrounding the viral outbreak and the unprepared nature of the Chinese government.

In an amazing sign of friendliness I went to a local convenience store and they too were sold out. The young man working there saw me looking and came to speak to me. I don’t know any Chinese. He didn’t know English but I assumed he was asking about masks. I pointed to his. He pointed to the empty shelf. He then went back into the back and gave me one. I went to go pay for it and he waved me off. It was a very friendly gesture. 

On January 28th I went to leave Shanghai. On the metro ride to the airport there were less than 10 people on my entire train. I snapped a photo as I imagined in a city of 24 million people, this is incredibly rare.

Line 7 on the Shanghai metro was mind blowingly empty at noon on January 28th

At the airport, the board for domestic flights showed a bunch of cancelled flights around China. 

Chinese Airlines were starting to cancel flights around China as more and more worry set in

Once I returned to Incheon International in Korea I filled out a health form and they checked my temperature when I got off the plane. 

*Confirmed novel coronavirus cases by the end of January 28th, 2020: 7,816*

It was something I'll talk about for the rest of my life. An absolutely crazy experience. Certainly one I never thought I'd witness first hand.

I did not fully grasp the gravity of it as it was unfolding.

I hope everyone understands the immense bravery of the health professionals around the world battling to save those infected by the virus. There are not enough thanks to go around for those doing everything they can to fight the spread of the virus as it continues to be the main topic of the global community.

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