Although we are beginning to receive word that return (from cities north of Wuhan on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong) have been cancelled, nevertheless yesterday, the CPC Central Committee of Shenzhen announced that the city was not being locked down. Instead, these posts emphasized the measures that the city was taken to maintain the public’s health. Measures include mandating wearing breathing masks in public spaces and having your temperature taken when entering buildings and crossing borders in and out of the city. Nevertheless, the buses and subway are still running, supermarkets are still open, and as I write I can hear garbage being collected and processed.
I have turned to two books–Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag and Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health after an Epidemic by Katherine A. Mason–through which to understand the rush of information about the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus as well as the speed at which Wuhan and surrounding cities have been shut down. Sontag’s book is a classic that looks at the punitive and sentimental stories surrounding illness as if illness were a metaphor and not a physical state of being that all bodies experience. Sontag writes in order to elucidate these metaphors in order that we might treat illness physically and therefor those who are ill as fully human. Mason’s book looks at how the first global health crisis of the twenty-first century transformed the China’s public health apparatus from an effective if basic grassroots system into a highly modernized but not necessarily accessible to the grassroots system.
Over the next few days, I’ll be posting thoughts inspired by my reading within and against what’s happening around me–a kind of “ethnography on the fly” if you will. In part, I hope to track what is happening away from the Wuhan epicenter in a city where so many Wuhan and Hubei migrants have contributed to the city’s construction. In part, I’m trying to make sense of what is my third round of living in Shenzhen during an epidemic; I was here during avian flu (1996) and SARS (2003) epidemics.
I had been in Shenzhen less than a year, when the first reports of avian flu came out. I remember being struck by televised images of chickens and ducks in their coops as reporters tried to figure out how the birds became infected. At the time, I associated the hovering visual attention, the panels that were held to discuss the implications of an infected food chain, and news reports about other birds–especially roasted pigeons–with the O.J. trial in the United States. For a moment in 1996, our attention was diverted from the impending Handover and focused on our dinner plates.
I had been in Shenzhen for almost a decade when the first SARS case was publicly reported. My clearest memories of that time have to do with the appearance of soap in public bathrooms for hand washing and the general emptiness of the streets. In fact, that was the only time I remember an easy road trip to Guangzhou. I also remember people wearing breathing masks in public, but taking them off as they ate together in restaurants that we were constantly reassured had just been disinfected.
Anyway, these memories can serve as points of departure for subsequent readings, which are not only an engagement with the contemporary city, but also my engagement with memories of and research in and on Shenzhen.