It’s January 2020 and Carly & Andrew have travelled to China for a friend’s wedding. Andrew is best man although he has never met the Bride. They plan to be away for about 3 weeks so that they have time to see a bit of the country as well – a common arrangement when travelling for an international wedding.
They are in Beijing about halfway through the trip when they start to hear whispers about some kind of virus. Stories are coming out on the news and social media. The Bride who is Chinese, gives them updates from the Chinese media, but the reports feel kind of hazy like they are coming from behind a veil and it’s hard to gauge the seriousness of what’s going on. Especially so when you don’t speak the language. Generally, the news isn’t particularly worrisome – both Carly and Andrew have had experience with the emergence of “new” viruses while living as Expats in Asia previously– they were both in Korea when swine flu was a thing and Carly remembers being in Hong Kong many years ago when avian flu was around. COVID seemed no different, and like the previous viruses it seems unlikely that it would cause major issues outside of China.
With their past experiences, viruses and mask-wearing does not seem completely out of the ordinary this time around. Carly and Andrew are accustomed to seeing people wearing masks not only to prevent the spread of sickness but to filter out the pollution that so often accompanies big cities. So when the Bride hands out masks to both of them to wear on their domestic flight from Beijing to Mianyang – sure, it’s inconvenient, but perhaps not completely unexpected.
They arrive in Mianyang just prior to Chinese New Year and the whispers are starting to get louder. Out at a bar that night they hear that another wedding guest has decided not to come to the wedding because they don’t want to risk crossing from one province to another and getting stuck as a result. Maybe, just maybe this virus is actually a real thing? – although still, no one appears particularly concerned about contracting it. Instead, the increasing uneasiness seems to stem from what the Government may do in response, such as locking down certain areas or prohibiting travel between regions, which will cause problems for people traveling internally not only for the wedding but to celebrate Chinese New Year. It is only the Groom’s parents who show increasing signs of worry, even though Wuhan is an entire province away – some 8 hours by high speed train. They are concerned, not only about getting the virus, but also potentially getting stuck in China.
The wedding party and various family members are all staying at a fancy hotel in a small town outside Mianyang where the wedding will be held. Carly is hanging out with the Bride getting her nails done, doing normal pre-wedding stuff. On Chinese New Year’s Day, somewhat hungover from last night’s fireworks and festivities, Carly and Andrew head down to the hotel’s private dining room where the entire family is unexpectedly in attendance for lunch. It’s a feast, the food is traditional Sichuan-style, there is plenty of wine and the guests take their places around the table. They are enjoying the meal when the announcement is made. The wedding has been postponed. The lavish meal they are eating was supposed to be for the wedding banquet celebration. Family and friends within China have said they cannot come – the risk of people not being able to return home or to work after the wedding is too great. A small boy enters the dining room and plays ‘Ode to Joy’ on his violin. The decision has been made. There will be no wedding this year. The Bride’s parents are disappointed but the Groom’s parents contact their travel agent straight away to reschedule their return flight and they depart the following day.
Plans changed, Carly and Andrew head back to stay with the Bride & Groom at their apartment in Mianyang. Shops and restaurants are starting to close and the air around the city is getting weirder. The apartment complex is secured and the guard takes their photographs before they enter “for the virus.” The Government wants to make sure they know where everyone is – virus or no virus. Audio speakers masquerading as garden rocks yell out directives authoritatively in Chinese – “stay at home” and “avoid public places.” The streets are almost empty and the group stays in the apartment. They are watching movies together when the Bride looks up from her phone abruptly – she and the Groom were scheduled to fly back to Beijing but their flight has now been cancelled. The highways are closing, train services are being shut down, and the Bride becomes increasingly worried that Carly and Andrew may have difficulty making it to the airport for their flight. Her concern is contagious and prompts Carly to call a hotline back in Australia. She asks about changing flights to an earlier day but it is fruitless. The voice on the other end tells her that China is not considered a “red” country so if they want to change their flights they’ll have to pay themselves. It’s not a realistic option – the cost will be exorbitant.
Their flight date is only a few days away now but the Bride recommends that Carly and Andrew stay in an airport hotel in order to reduce the risk of being unable to get through due to highway closures. They take a taxi to the hotel on an almost empty highway before encountering a roadblock. Officials in Hazmat suits point gun-like thermometers at their heads before allowing them to pass. Carly and Andrew hole up in the dodgy airport hotel for 2 nights in a haze of Ramen noodles and wine to await their flight, doing their best to self-isolate, venturing out only to restock their food and wine supplies. In a nearby shopping mall, Chengdu pandas smiling cutely as they pass, they encounter Darth Vader: a guy in a full gas mask rasping his order to the servers at Burger King.
They must transfer domestically in Guiyang in order to connect to their flight to Melbourne. The flight is cold – the Chinese airline does not provide them with blankets and food service is limited. Masks however are mandatory. The flight is as full as any normal international flight however and passengers are typically irritable. There is a sense that the mask requirement and lack of blankets is nothing more than an overreaction from China or perhaps an attempt by the country to make an impression on the world stage.
Landing on the tarmac in Melbourne passengers are directed not to leave the plane. A team of Australian airport workers dressed in PPE boards, and marches up and down the aisles handing out pamphlets which describe what coronavirus is. Once the pamphlets are distributed, the PPE-clad workers disappear and the passengers are permitted to leave. They clear customs and collect their bags, looking around warily for the next instruction but there is nothing. There is no temperature check, no police or army presence and no directive to self-isolate. They exit the airport and remove their masks in Melbourne’s open air. All is calm.
They stay the night in Melbourne with a friend. They go out to a bar, Andrew drinks a corona and the customary joke about coronavirus is made. Here, it’s business as usual. Except that is, for that quiet echo similar to those earlier whispers that can be heard amongst the noise of the bar. A news announcement that night recommends that anyone who has just returned from China quarantine at home for two weeks. But then, after 14 days at home, Carly and Andrew head out to resume their usual lives. It will be another month, as whispers increase, before Australians begin to understand what lockdown actually means.
The postponed wedding finally takes place 12 months later, in January 2021, in China where restrictions have started to ease. Carly and Andrew connect to the wedding remotely along with many others around the world who would have attended in person only 1 year previously, but for whom traveling internationally is now not possible. They dress up, and drink wine, and watch the formalities from their living room.
At first, the virus really didn’t seem like a thing. But then somehow, quietly, suddenly, it was.