Amid the bewildering figures and contradictory political narratives, it is important to recall that numbers and governments are abstractions – whereas people actually live with and through disease. By fixating on the former, we risk losing sight of the human dimensions of epidemic life.
Under conditions of obligatory isolation and social distancing, common people invented new kinds of sociality and new genres of epidemic expressions. With COVID-19 now even more than SARS, the Chinese internet and social media offer a cornucopia of examples of epidemic communities brought together by heart, humor and creativity. Residents of Wuhan encourage each other while under strict quarantine.
One early set of viral videos surfaced in Wuhan just five days into the city’s lockdown. On the night of Jan. 27, residents shouted “jiayou” – literally “add oil,” meaning “hang in there” or “don’t give up” – out their apartment windows, in a spontaneous burst of solidarity. It was a demonstration of collective strength and defiance, of people’s refusal to be quelled by the virus and the quarantine, and their desire to cheer each other on.
Outside Hubei, other animal lovers likewise help those stuck inside the province look after their pets at home. These tales of animal caretaking, even in times of human crisis, can usefully offset perceptions of Chinese culture as simply one of cruel and unbridled animal consumption.
Another unexpected focal point for communal care is the face mask. Across China, masks have become a powerful vehicle for enacting goodwill, generosity and fellowship during the epidemic. In one viral video from Anhui, an anonymous Good Samaritan was captured on surveillance camera dropping off 500 masks at a local police station. As he hurried away, two officers ran outside to salute him.
This video in turn inspired the Hong Kong-based singer G.E.M. (Gloria Tang/Deng Ziqi) to compose “Angels,” a song that garnered nearly 600,000 hits within the first day of its upload. A tribute to ordinary people’s small acts of fortitude and kindness during the outbreak, the music video opens with the Anhui clip and then splices together other moving scenes, including a train employee gifting a mask to an elderly woman passenger and a man distributing free masks to travelers in an airport abroad. Chinese play mahjong with plastic bags over their heads.
As Manya Koetse reports from Beijing, these social media trends allow people to “mock neighbors, their friends or family, or even themselves in the extreme and sometimes silly measures they are taking to avoid the coronavirus.” But more than mockery, the very sharing of these memes is a constructive and healing social act. In times of high stress and distress, to sustain these virtual communities is to deliver shared recognition, concern and laughter.
This is not to say that China’s epidemic experience is solely lighthearted or affirming. Yet neither does life at epicenters have to be apocalyptic, defined by epic heroes and villains or horror scenarios of collapse and conflict.
Indeed, in other countries that have since become COVID-19 epicenters, social media offer similarly inspiring examples. Frontline health workers in Iran dance in hospital hallways to buoy their patients as well as themselves, and Italians in lockdown sing from their balconies to boost each other’s morale – in turn prompting a string of “Italy jiayou” videos from Chinese netizens.
Collectively, these chronicles attest to the idea of pandemic resilience – the possibility that disease outbreaks can be lived through with empathy, ingenuity and sheer human ordinariness.