Jerry Lee is on the other side of the world, 15 hours ahead of Kamloops on the clock and several weeks ahead on the pandemic calendar.
The former Kamloops resident lives near Wuhan, China — ground zero of the global pandemic, which saw the first known case at the end of 2019 — where he teaches English at a university in Huanggang.
After two months in isolation, the 64-year-old came out of his apartment this week as restrictions ease in the Hubei province.
At a time of great uncertainty in Kamloops, Lee can perhaps ease some anxiety, as he said he is confident life will go back to the way it was pre-pandemic.
“Yes, in time, Huanggang will get back to normal, as will every place in the world,” Lee said.
“We’ll just have this piece of time in our history and, hopefully, some great stories to tell of the courageous people in the medical profession as they risk their lives for us all.”
KTW reached Lee in China this week for an email interview. He lived in Kamloops for more than two decades and went to China to experience a different culture.
He liked it so much he decided to stay. He is in Huanggang, a large city with millions of residents located about an hour drive from Wuhan. He was last in Kamloops two years ago and his daughter and son still live in the Tournament Capital.
Lee detailed his experience to KTW from the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, which has since swept the globe, and provided advice to the Western world, now grappling with the pandemic.
Lee said he spent the past two months in his apartment, “sheltered” inside since Jan. 25, until only a few days ago. According to a Jan. 23 BBC article, Wuhan had more than 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 18 deaths at that time and lockdown measures were taking place across the Hubei province to try to control the spread.
In Huanggang, bus and rail services were suspended, people were encouraged not to leave the city and cafes, theatres and exhibitions were being shut down.
In addition, tens of millions of people were confined to their homes. Inside his home during that time, Lee said he felt “disbelief.” He spent a lot of time in front of his computer, reading news from around the world, including Kamloops This Week, binge-watching old television shows and keeping up with his students on social media.
“We were asked not to leave our apartments. Pretty simple restrictions,” Lee said.
“My students kept sending me messages to not go out, as I think they were worried that my Western sensibilities might be inclined to ignore the rules.
“Leading up to that date, I think a lot of Westerners believe there was a big coverup, but I think it should be understood that, at first, they [China] really had no idea what they were dealing with.
“As I watch the news from around the world, I see many countries, even today, not realizing what they are truly dealing with and waiting until the virus is out of control before implementing sheltering in tactics. At no time have I believed that the methods employed by the government were Draconian. Necessary is a better word.”
Lee said community groups were set up in neighbourhoods around the city.
“These groups have leaders and such and they took control of their areas,” he said.
“They made sure we had food by going to the supermarkets for everyone in the community. We ordered the food and could walk to the gate to pick it up. Nice to get out for a walk, even a short one.
“They were also in charge of making sure everyone complied with the sheltering in restriction.”
Lee said he lives in a gated community; therefore it was easy to enforce the rule.
“Elsewhere, they would blockade streets at both ends to keep the people in and out,” he said. “But in the end, everyone that I know and was in contact with stayed inside to be safe and ‘defeat the virus,’ as it was known.”
He said police conducted the blockades, effectively shutting down access in and out of the city. Lee said Huanggang has more entryways and exits than Kamloops.
“It is very similar to when the Kamloops police do their roadside checks for drunk driving,” he said.
Restrictions have only eased in recent days, with each day a step toward normalcy, Lee said.
According to a March 27 ABC News story, roadblocks have opened, allowing trucks and cars through for the first time in two months.
A train left Huanggang, carrying factory workers to Guangdong province, which is the centre of China’s manufacturing industries, the article said, with physicians aboard to monitor passengers. The article also describes restrictions in the province, including in Wuhan, Huanggang and other cities in Hubei, as the “most intensive anti-disease controls ever imposed,” with 700-million people covered by orders or requests to stay home and limit activity across all of China.
As of Monday, Lee said people are not yet back to school nor work, noting karaoke bars, sit-down restaurants and other places where large groups congregate remain closed or restricted. Some businesses are starting to open, but Lee said he has no current sense of the economy. People are allowed to leave their apartments, though, and Lee has been out walking.
“I think now maybe we know how our grandparents and great-grandparents felt as they went through two world wars,” Lee said.
“The sacrifices they made for the greater good, and maybe some of the same sacrifices we have to make now, are all necessary to get through this pandemic. And I feel fine. The time spent under the stay in apartment restrictions were just necessary and I was happy to do my part.”
As restrictions ease in China, Lee continues to watch from afar through media coverage as other countries now grapple with the virus. He said Canada and others are waiting too long to take the virus seriously, suggesting extreme measures be put in place immediately, as was done in Hubei.
“I think I saw news that the main health officer for British Columbia says that they’re not there yet to put in more Draconian restrictions. What is she [Dr. Bonnie Henry] waiting for?” Lee asked.
“The restrictions will have to be put in place soon, so why not now? This is a question many of my students ask me as they, too, watch the news and I have no answer for them. If I were [Kamloops Mayor] Ken Christian, I’d blockade the City of Kamloops and let no one in or out. Every city in Hubei province basically did that. Social distancing allows the virus to spread, isolating yourself will eventually stop the virus from spreading.”
Meanwhile, China has been criticized internationally for its handling of the outbreak. Media reports have indicated silencing of physicians and underreported deaths from COVID-19.
A March 6 story in The Guardian highlights discontent from Chinese residents and sheds light on state media trying to control the narrative in a country known for censorship.
“The true picture of life here now is one of cautious optimism,” Lee said.
“The streets are coming back to life and we are all hoping normal is here soon.”