Surviving isolation

March 22, 2020

Life is not easy but we know the hardship is temporary

I remember the day I read the news on an international media website about a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan. At that time, I had no idea that in the coming months this ‘pneumonia outbreak’ will become the only news on media all over the globe.

I moved to Beijing last year in September to pursue my PhD. The first semester went smoothly. Besides, China is one of the safest countries for international students. What could go wrong? Many students, mainly European and Southeast Asian, went back to their countries at the start of the winter vacation. Some of us stayed back to enjoy the winters or to witness the lunar year celebrations. Some stayed back just because.

And then coronavirus broke out. It changed everything.

Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, was sealed off on January 23. No one could enter or leave the city. Chinese authorities took this much-needed step to contain the virus. In the next week, more than 12 cities of Hubei province were put into quarantine.

The situation was still not that bad in Beijing. It felt normal. Every year around the Spring Festival, Beijing stands empty as people head to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year.

Our university advised us to restrict our movement. The hostel administration started keeping an eye on us. They would check our body temperatures and keep a record of it.

No one knew what was happening. Scientists knew very little about the virus at that time. Each one us had our own stock of fake news to share in the evening with the rest. Eventually we stopped sitting together. That was the only way we could keep ourselves calm. But what were we to do about WhatsApp messages from Pakistan and the sensational media coverage about our condition in China? We were getting messages from family members and friends asking if we were okay or if we even had food. We told them the university was taking care of us and we were doing fine.

Students who are supposed to graduate in June are taking advantage of these restrictions. They have locked themselves in their rooms to focus on their research work.

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Two of my Pakistani friends subscribed to Netflix. Whenever I visit them, they recommend whatever they have watched. I watched some but could not for long since working on a PhD has its own pressures. I decided to write a research paper on COVID-19. My supervisor happily allowed it.

The hostel administration gives us five masks every week. Yesterday, a girl from Namibia distributed masks, gloves, hand wash and protective glasses among students.

Last week, the education bureau of Beijing directed universities to restrict the movement of international students. We cannot leave the campus at all. But we can go out of the dormitory for 30 minutes. We use this time to jog or run around.

It was problematic. The school market was also closed. A cafeteria remains open during the vacation but most of us cook our own food. The international students’ office told us about an app to buy groceries. All of us are already using online shopping platforms. Fruits and vegetables are much cheaper online. My department also provided some grocery items to its students living on campus.

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An Afghan student invited me to dinner last Sunday. He spent the whole afternoon in the kitchen cooking Kabuli pilaf. I took some fruit with me. Another friend brought cold drinks. This is how we managed to enjoy a fancy dinner in a restricted environment.

Living in isolation is not easy, especially when it is imposed. We know it is temporary. For now we keep ourselves busy in the hopes that it will end soon.

The writer is a PhD scholar at the Communication University of China. She tweets @tehreemazeem

Surviving isolation during coronavirus