A feverish fear …what began as a memoir, and a goodbye,
became a story of triumph against the virus,
and a lighthouse in the storm.
“Although not a traditional authority of any kind Kai proved to be an essential source of sanity and safety during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He truly is a warrior poet.” - Dylan Lane (ill Gates), bass music superstar
My name is Jorah Kai, and I was born in the year of the earth goat. I've traveled around, spreading mirth and revelry since I was a wee lad, a merry bard. My band, The Root Sellers, headlined festivals, played Olympics, and produced albums around the world, breathing fire and breaking hearts for two decades. I was a full-time detective in a mythical part-time city, solving existential mysteries for lost and weary travelers. You may have heard of me.
One day I disappeared and wandered until I found misty mountains that shrouded the ancient Chinese city of Ba with a civilization along the mighty Jialiang and Yangtze rivers that stretches back 15,000 years. Today, it is called Chongqing. I am a married man, a teacher, and a humble writer, happily obscure, until a virus smaller than a . stopped the world in its tracks.
On the first day of the year of the metal rat, the beginning of a novel 60-year cycle, everything changed. Wuhan, a city the size of New York or London, was locked down in a failed attempt to control the spread of a deadly virus. The quarantine grew, but the virus, full of creeping, cosmic horror escaped and spread across the world. It used us as carriers for an invisible alien attack.
This is the story of the first two months of COVID-19, as I learned, day by day, what it was and what it could do. I tried to warn you it was coming, and some prepared, but many did not. This is the story of how Chongqing stood tall when other cities fell.
This is not how the story ends, but this is how it began.
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Saturday, 25 January
Day 1. We, along with much of China, have canceled our travel plans
and will spend our holiday at home in quarantine. It's not really a lockdown in Chongqing, more like a suggestion. We are a bit alarmed, but my friends are saying it's basically bad flu and not worth getting upset about. Some friends are on their way to Thailand and Vietnam on vacations, with their families coming from the UK to meet them. We don't want to get Shaolin's parents or baby Ethan sick, so we're happy enough to stay home for now and see how it goes. We sleep in until noon and have a lazy brunch.
Ben Ben has urinated in front of the screen door. He's an 11-year-old brown poodle with lousy hearing and cataracts and can't figure out the epidermal membrane of screen doors. I mop it up using a disinfectant. Everything has to be clean now.
Hachoo, our tiny black poodle, is about four but has good eyes and
a quick mind. She can zip outside and will use a puppy pad out there too.
Hachoo is the superior virus. Shaolin tells me people are worried animals
can get infected or get their humans sick. Some are kicking their pets out,
frantic, in fear for their lives. We decide we will keep the dogs inside until
Shaolin's mom asks us to come over, but we tell her it's too
dangerous to go outside and risk the taxi. Mama says it's not too bad; we
don't know any sick people. We try to explain it could be a health risk,
and we're trying to be careful. We video call instead.
I get a call from Jenny, the newsroom chief, "Pending stories, please
edit!" There's a superstition that you're not supposed to work on the first
day of a new year, but public health trumps superstition, so I check the
news. "Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 57 Cases in Total, Medical
Team Headed to Wuhan." We must be testing a lot of people to have 57 already. Medical crews and army support from all areas of China are
organizing to support Wuhan's struggling hospital system.
We get suited up with protective "Red Zone clothes," including gloves,
goggles, and masks. We grab a couple of stools and head to the parking
garage, where we can sit outside and get some sunshine for an hour or two.
It feels amazing. The poor dogs look so disappointed when we leave them
inside. I'm going to get some more dog treats as soon as I can.
A local friend, stuck outside of Chongqing, decides to make a
"Canadians in China" (all country) WeChat group and I meet Terry and
Patterson, two Canadians inside the Wuhan quarantine zone. They tell me
there are a couple hundred more that aren't in our group. We talk about
the lack of contact with the Canadian consulates and embassy. I guess
they're on holiday. Most of us Canadians aren't registered abroad, although I registered last year when we went to Europe. The Canadian embassy has sent me a few emails, but nothing helpful. They suggest I don't travel to Wuhan.
There's talk about an American plane coming to airlift the Americans.
We're not sure if that means consular officials only or all American citizens stranded inside the quarantine zone. We wonder if Canada will come to help our Canadians in Wuhan and how the people will make it to the airport with roads closed off. Those of us around China wonder when the virus will come to us and if we will be quarantined too. Would Canada help us if we are?
This would be a great time to finish my novel, but the mess of my
150,000-word manuscript haunts me. I had so much going on, so many
stories intertwined, so I want to take the story back to the beginning.
What is the first story I can tell? My story is about a Chinese boy named
Amos from my city Chongqing. He's a boy about 10, who goes through a
family shakeup and uses his creative imagination to turn a trip into rural
Chongqing into a magical adventure full of wonder that gives the space
and time to cope with his reality.
I write a lot of ideas down. Later, we watch Criminal Minds. We miss the gym, it's closed, until further notice. Maybe we will play some Just Dance on my projection screen or Shaolin's Korean dance aerobics
in the living room. We stay up late. Shaolin adores police procedurals, but
by season four of Criminal Minds, we're getting a bit burnt out on all the
psychos and murderers. We should switch it up tomorrow.
My school tells us to come back by the end of the week. Within two
days, they've done a 180 again and decided all foreign teachers are not
to come back. A few of my friends are on vacation and wonder how long
they can manage to hover around Asia and what they should do. Some
want to shelter in place. Others are canceling their vacations and flying
home to their countries. My friend Alessia is considering flying back to
China, but we tell her to go home to Italy if you have the chance; it's safer.
Monday 27 January
A Trip to the Market
Day 3. We sleep in late, no reason to rush up early with not much to
do. It's our third day of self-imposed full quarantine from other humans
and staying in our flat.
Our news headlines read, "Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 35
Newly Confirmed Cases Reported, A Municipal Medical Team with 144
Staff Went to Hubei." My coworker, Mikkel from Denmark, makes a map
of Chongqing's downtown districts and rural areas, including the current number of infected in each area.
My district has one to five people infected so far. It's a vast area,
though, so these are still relatively low numbers.
We decide to go shopping at the local market on the street and get a
There are only a few people on the street, and we all keep our
distance. Everyone is wearing a mask and walking quickly. Outside of the
bakery that makes my baguettes, a man is sneezing and coughing, with no mask on.
We stop, look around. A couple of other people freeze too. I feel
We cross the street to avoid him.
At the market, where we can shop from the street, we feel comfortable, it's not indoors, but we keep our goggles and mask on. I've lent Shaolin my clear safety goggles, so I'm wearing shaded rainbow swim goggles. Everyone else wears a mask, but most people have their eyes exposed. I feel safe in the precautions that I take. It's uncomfortable to wait in line. I'm so close to everyone.
At home, the decontamination procedure kicks in. We try to stand in place by the door. We keep the dogs back. We take off our gloves, our jackets, our hats, and our goggles. Then we wash our hands for a minute as hot as we can stand with lots of soap. The spray is too intense, and I get some water bounce back from my contaminated hands to spray me in the
face. I can feel it in my eye.
Is this how I become a zombie?
I hope it was a dry run. No virus yet.
You never really know when you're fighting an invisible army.
There are no dress rehearsals for war. Shaken but not stirred, I take
off my two masks. The sun will disinfect them, so I can wear them again.
I take a shower.
Today, Shaolin is excited about her club, Salsa 5. They are going to
broadcast a class with two new instructors from Venezuela.
The day passes quickly, writing and chatting with friends online.
She's happy to move around, and dance and I try a little bit. I'm glad to get some exercise.
That night, Shaolin abruptly starts to scream. I rush over, but she's inconsolable. Her arm is spasming in pain, but she can't explain what happened. I determine that she's stuck in her sweater, got her injured shoulder extended the wrong way. I help her get the sweater off and dry
the tears off her cheeks. I give her a shoulder and arm massage with a
balm. We're both a bit freaked out by how much pain she's in.
I worry about what would happen in a medical emergency where we
are sacred to call for help or to go to the hospital.
I stay up all night listening to WHO and the Center for Disease Control
(CDC) briefings, Canadian news, American news, European news, the British press, podcasts from doctors and specialists. I start listening to "city preppers" that discuss how to survive "grid down" situations. The sun begins to peek through a break in our heavy curtains, and I turn my phone off. I get a couple of hours of restless sleep and terrible dreams.