My story from Wuhan, the epicentre of Covid (and a rant about facemasks)

Written by Jason Scarse, 27.

I started writing this article with the intention of having a rant about the use of facemasks in the UK, both the lack of emphasis on their usage in the wider public domain and the mentality of the British people as a whole in not wanting to wear them. I realised though it might be far more intriguing to tell you my story, of someone who was literally at the epicentre of the crisis, and my experiences since. I hope you find it interesting and it opens your eyes a little to life in China in general.

That leads me nicely into where I start this adventure (for as you will see, it has been).

Having spoken to a lot of people about their own experiences of the pandemic, I think I would be qualified to say the vast majority of people looked on from the UK at China in a similar way to Ebola: a deadly virus which was worlds away. Something that was awful but that was not, at that stage, a threat to everyday life as we know it.

I was teaching in Wuhan, China, from September 2019. It was exhilarating and challenging, I was loving every second of it

On December 31st, I, like most people, was celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends. You may note this was also the day which China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, which went on to be identified as the virus we know today, Covid-19. The twist in my New Year’s celebrations story comes though in that I was celebrating 40km away from the epicentre of a virus that has, to date, killed over 400,000 people (and is certainly not finished). I was in Wuhan.

A little context for you: I had only very recently (September 2019) moved to and was working as a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher in Wuhan, China. Wuhan was a city going through what I dubbed uber-development, an accelerated growth of infrastructure, technology and societal upheaval that is truly unexplainable without seeing it first-hand. Every day there was something new being built or finished, one day you would walk down the road and it be little more than gravel and the next it was full functioning with rose bushes and trees donning the median of the road. It was exhilarating and challenging, I was loving every second of it.

I remember the first time that our Chinese colleagues alerted us and warned us to stay safe over our winter holidays (the Chinese don’t celebrate Christmas as we do and they reserve their time off for closer to Chinese New Year as you would probably expect), wear facemasks and make sure that we practice good hygiene. I won’t lie, the majority of my international colleagues and I brushed it off and joked about wearing face masks. The arrogance, I’m sure we all realise now, was deafening.

Roll around to the 16th January and we still hadn’t fully appreciated how much this virus was taking hold in Wuhan. My girlfriend and I were set to depart on holiday to Cambodia. We obliviously packed our bags for the beach and the amazing weather, not anticipating that we would not be able to return, even to this day. We took the metro all the way to the other side of the city in order to take our flight, even stopping on the way for some chicken sandwiches for the journey.

Cambodia was amazing, truly. A place I would have liked to spend more time in rather than the 10 or so days that we did.

It was all overshadowed on the 23rd January when the unthinkable happened. We received word that Wuhan had been quarantined and our flights home had been cancelled.

It’s a very odd situation to be in, being displaced, and I think I am still struggling now coming to terms with what it has meant for my life. Maybe ask me 6 months from now and I’ll have a coherent answer for you. It’s safe to say that it was a big shock, particularly because we hadn’t taken things very seriously before we left for our holiday. For my girlfriend and I, it meant not being able to return to our homes. We did not realise would still be the case now, 6 months into the pandemic.

In some ways we were relatively fortunate. Our flight to Wuhan had been cancelled but not our transfer into Shenzhen. We were also very fortunate that some teachers who worked for the company that I did, had elected to not continue their contracts in Shenzhen and were returning home, freeing up their apartment for us to stay in. Why not return home you ask? Well spoiler alert, we did, but sadly that meant I returned here to the UK and my girlfriend returned to her home of Iran. Both countries have gone on to record a significant number of cases of the virus and significant number of deaths. We elected to stay in Shenzhen because we were blissfully optimistic that the virus would be brought under control soon and that we would be able to resume our normal lives.

We elected to return home after around 3 weeks for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there was concern from friends and family as to our safety in China. For those that don’t know, Shenzhen is a very large city in the South of China that borders Hong Kong. Very shortly after our arrival in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, which would have been an optimal route for us to travel internationally out of China and back home, introduced a mandatory 2 week quarantine period for anyone crossing over the mainland border from China into its territory. Stricter measures were also being introduced simultaneously in Shenzhen and the rest of China as new cases continued to grow.

Twentysomething has given me the opportunity to express myself and to be able to do so in my voice, not through the lens of traditional media

China has a distinct advantage in some ways to the UK in that it is virtually a cashless society and you have the ability to use your phone to purchase anything and everything (and I mean everything!). The infrastructure is also significantly developed around this being the case so it is supremely efficient and week-long delivery times are non-existent (unless they have to ship something in from overseas). I found this had a significant effect on how safe I felt entering establishments in comparison to the social distancing that was implemented here in England.

Shortly before my return to the UK my friend, who works for his local news website, wrote an article about my stay in Shenzhen - some of you may have read it. It described some of my experiences on the ground in Shenzhen during the peak of China’s handling of the virus. You may wonder then why I have decided to write more about it. I suppose in some ways this is my truth, not that the article written about me isn’t, but that Twentysomething has given me the opportunity to express myself and to be able to do so in my voice, not through the lens of traditional media. I also wanted to reflect on the comparative use of facemasks in the UK, and in China. The effectiveness of virus transmission and containment through the wearing of a mask is still debated, though significant positive impacts have been shown by countries enforcing the wearing of face coverings.

Why is it still not compulsory to wear facemasks in ALL enclosed spaces in the UK? I'm talking supermarkets, shops, shared workspaces? Yes, it was recently announced that it is now compulsory to wear a face covering on public transport, but I see very little evidence of enforcement where I live in Essex.

Only around half of the staff working in the shops I entered were wearing coverings or masks

I was sceptical when “social distance” became the norm in our society. Not because I was fearful, like the conspiracy theorists that governments around the world were using the virus as an excuse to curb our freedoms, but because during my time in China, social distancing was not employed as a strategic way to stop transmission of the virus. Now, don’t get me wrong. A society which has access to the type of PPE required for this type of virus like China, is in a far better position to be able to distribute facemasks and the like to the population - and demand that face coverings be worn in the environments I discussed above. Of course many of you will recognise that the UK had a distinct lack of PPE when the pandemic hit us in the early stages. The question I have now, is that since PPE procurement issues have been resolved and widespread information on creating your own covering is in the public domain - why are we not wearing them regularly?

I went to my local shopping outlet just the other day and perhaps 30% of people were wearing some form of face covering. Only around half of the staff working in the shops I entered were wearing coverings or masks (which includes Boots the chemist, where they're selling 50 surgical masks for £30...madness!). When it has been recommended now by the government that on public transport people should wear coverings because appropriate distance isn't possible, why is the same not applied in settings like supermarkets and other retail stores that have just begun to open?

Face coverings should be relied upon if we are to release from lockdown on the 4th July

Whilst I was in Shenzhen, 'social distancing' was not ever something that was enforced, not in supermarkets, not in shops. A big reason I believe for this was because it was mandatory to wear facemasks in those settings. There has been a lot of research conducted as a result of the spread of Covid-19 and a report by Jeremy Howard and his colleagues, released in April states:

Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low. Thus we recommend the adoption of public cloth mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies” (2020).

If what Boris Johnson has said about loosening restrictions is going to work then it is going to rely on transmission being stemmed in the community. Face coverings are a way to do that and should be relied upon if we are to release from lockdown in the way that he is saying we will on the 4th July.

My experiences since returning have been the norm for lots of people I would imagine. My company cancelled our contracts and whilst I have been putting together some PowerPoint presentations for the school, I have technically been unemployed since that time.

Will I be able to return with my girlfriend to China or not? Will my contract be reissued when things get back to normal? My future is so uncertain - but it will certainly be a good story to tell in a few years time.

This contribution was written by Jason Scarse, 27. Visit his profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.


Howard, Jeremy & Huang, Austin & Li, Zhiyuan & Tufekci, Zeynep & Ždímal, Vladimír & Westhuizen, Helene-Mari & Delft, Arne & Price, Amy & Fridman, Lex & Tang, Li-Han & Tang, Viola & Watson, Gregory & Bax, Christina & Shaikh, Reshama & Questier, Frederik & Hernandez, Danny & Chu, Larry & Ramirez, Christina & Rimoin, Anne. (2020). Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review. 10.20944/preprints202004.0203.v1.