WHAT'S HAPPENING? {first published February 4th, last updated on November 12th 2020}

There's a virus going around. It's causing a pandemic and it is very serious. It is officially called SARS CoV-2, and the disease it causes is named Covid-19. It's was also referred to as the novel coronavirus because it’s got cone-shaped things on it and it’s newly discovered. Here’s what it looks like:

Illustration of the 2019-nCOV ultrastructural morphology by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

It’s in the same family as the flu and the cold virus, and it has some similar symptoms. Doctors discovered this one in November 2019 in Wuhan, and no matter where you are in the world, and as we've entered a pandemic stage, it is likely that you might get it. Statistically, most of us will survive: the vast majority of people who do get the virus will heal. Devastatingly, there have already more than one million people who haven’t made it, and our thoughts are with their loved ones.

  • Originally, this outbreak has been concentrated in Wuhan and Hubei province, slow government responses locally in China failed to contain the outbreak in November and December 2019, and while strict lockdowns were imposed, the virus has spread to nearly every single country on the planet. The number of cases continues to climb quickly as different local and national governments are taking measures at different times, or rushing to "re-open" during the pandemic. As the coronavirus spreads, you can keep up with the latest reports in your area through the World Health Organization's daily situation reports. The key goal at the start of these outbreaks and subsequent "waves" is for each area to "flatten the curve" so as to not overwhelm hospitals and medical teams.

  • While the common flu is still a more widespread global health issue than this virus, this virus is *not* the normal flu and it's more dangerous and lethal especially to the people most at risk of all viruses: those of us who are already immunocompromised in some way -- older folks, people who are HIV+, and generally at risk of infections because of other illness, cancers, or chronic conditions. To anchor these numbers in context: it's estimated that there might be between 2 million to 21 million people infected in the United States alone, and while there are an even higher number of flu cases, the mortality rate for Covid-19 is much higher. And while vast majority of those who have died are over 50 years old, and many had some form of underlying condition, but just because the odds might be lower for you or someone you care about, it's important that we work together to take care to slow the spread as much as possible, for everyone's sake.
  • Here are some handy tips to avoid all coronaviruses, including 2019-nCoV.

    The best way to avoid getting sick (from any kind of virus that could cause the flu or cold, including this one) is to:
    - 😷 WEAR A MASK 😷 
  • - Avoid spending time indoors with other people in poorly ventilated spaces without masks on
  • - Wash your hands with soap and warm water, thoroughly and often. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works too, just make sure to also wash your hands when you can.
    - Don’t touch your face or rub your eyes

  • ---> If where you are has a very low case rate and is allowing folks to gather in person, remember to still always:
  • - Sneeze and cough into your elbow (not your hands) or a tissue, then throw away the tissues immediately. Don’t sneeze or cough into your hands (and wash your hands if you did, accidentally!) to avoid later spreading viruses to the things or people you touch.
    - Don’t stand too close to people who are coughing or sneezing, and definitely don't share drinks or dip your own chopsticks into communal dishes -- use a separate pair for serving.

  • ---> If you are in a part of the world that has more that 100 known cases, even if local or national governments allow it, it's a good idea to limit travel and avoid indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, if you can. Stay away from other people as much as possible! Wear your mask! Meet up outdoors! Each city and county is reacting differently, and while not all events are cancelled, it's likely that they will be, or should be. Don't wait for others to cancel or take it as a sign that things are OK if some events or work shifts don't get cancelled, especially if you or anyone close to you have existing health conditions.

  • ---> If you're in a place with few or no cases yet, know that cases will probably start popping up soon as people continue to move around the world. And even if where you are successfully avoided the worst, beware the second, third, and many more waves. If you're in a crowded space, like the subway at rush hour, do your best to not touch any (or too many) surfaces. If you have some say over your work environment, do what you can to make sure anyone who doesn't feel well knows it's OK to stay home. Hopefully one day soon, unlimited paid sick leave will be a normal thing, until then, see if your workplace can make an exception and at least let more people work from home if possible.

    This virus gets transmitted from person to person, when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. This virus also appears to be airborne, spreading when people talk or even just breathe. Here's a great tool for assessing risk of gatherings and events, do what you can to reduce the possibility of transmission. If you do get a virus, it’s probably from being in close contact with someone who has one, and you may develop a bunch of these symptoms. You may also show no symptoms at all for the first few days and up to fourteen days afterwards, which is what makes tracking case spread so complicated. People might feel fine for two weeks and still be passing the virus to others, so if there are official cases in your area, that means the virus has been kicking around for weeks. This is why 14 days of self-quarantine are recommended for anyone who might have come in contact with anyone who has the virus. If you feel sick and have fever, cough and/or difficulty breathing, call the doctor! Seek professional medical help, they will be able to test and see if you have this particular virus and will recommend the best treatment to mitigate symptoms. As there is not yet a vaccine, there is no "cure" for Covid-19 right now, but there are ways people have found to help with recovery. There is still so much we don't know about the long-term effects of Covid-19, and many who have recovered still have lingering symptoms months later. 

  • If the number of cases is rising around you, like it has done at different times for us on the China Residencies team in parts of China, the US, and Germany, please stay take care not to spread it around further. Even if you feel fine and think it's not that big a deal, trust the experts: it is a big deal! Especially for people who really need to be able to get care right now, which includes anyone who was already sick or gets into an accident and also needs access to the emergency rooms.

  • It's not just for our sake, but for everyone's sake. And keep washing those hands <3

  • Viruses aren’t xenophobic or racists. Be like viruses!
    Like we said, you’re likely to get the virus from being in close contact with someone who was in close contact with someone who had it. There is nothing about a person’s appearance that can tell you if they have recently been in contact with someone who is sick. Wuhan, where this novel coronavirus was first discovered, is home to over 11 million people, and many thousands more pass through there who have no roots in the city. Discriminating against people from Hubei province doesn't do anything to stop the outbreak since so many people traveled through there on their way to other places in mainland China during the lunar new year. Wuhan is one of the country's four main major transit hubs, which is one of the reasons the outbreak spread around the country in January along rail lines and connecting flights.

  • Also, it’s not the food anyone ate. Many viruses that cause illness are zoonotic, which means they originally come from animals (remember Mad Cow disease? or rabies?) but the exact source of this particular coronavirus is still unknown. It's thought that both this novel coronavirus and SARS originated in bats, then maybe passed on to another animal like the adorable, endangered pangolin and then eventually to us human animals. The first recorded cases of the outbreak were people who worked in a fresh food market, and handling raw meat and fish always has its risks, but right now, the virus passes from human to human.

  • It is the year of the rat though, and the fact that all of this broke out over the lunar new year makes things much more complicated, since so many people were traveling for the holiday.

    After the news broke, the government in China didn’t handle things well at first. After initially covering up and reprimanding the doctors who tried to sound the alarm within the medical professional community in November, the virus has spread much more widely than if the early reported had been acted on quickly. Now, in order to keep the virus from spreading, lots of people are stuck. Entire megacities and small villages alike were cordoned off for a few weeks, and the holiday was extended until February 8th. Labor laws state that the extended leave should also paid, so don’t let bosses take advantage of a crisis!

  • Different cities and industries across China are deciding when and if they deem it safe for people to go back to work, many people are encouraged to work from home if possible. Schools came back in session by April, and many switched to remote online learning plans in the mean time. Most public events were cancelled, and many travel restrictions are still in effect at land and sea borders. Airlines have stopped or greatly reduced flights between affected areas. This means people stayed put and stayed indoors, and everyone did the most to stop the disease from spreading. This means many, many of our friends and relatives hadn't left their houses for more than eighty days... While many parts of China are now letting people circulate again in limited areas where there haven't been new cases, and the Wuhan lockdown officially ended on April 8th, cities in China remain ready to close down again if Covid-19 case numbers rise.

  • Now, hundreds of other countries have gone through the same wave of crises, and how each government responds will impact how quickly we all recover. Expect lockdown measures to also be put into place elsewhere, sometimes several times, like Italy has done, to slow the spread, and if where you are isn't affected yet, know that this virus really doesn't care about borders and will likely be coming to your part of the world at some point in 2020 if it hasn't already.

  • Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff are working day and night to take care of those who have the virus. Scientists are figuring out the best treatment plans, and are working hard on developing a vaccine, hopefully in time for next year.

    As new infections slow, the number of cases has started to peak in mainland China, it's important for everyone to learn from the places that took the proper precautions to contain the virus quickly, like in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

  • Until all governments and communities worldwide take this seriously, this a still going to big problem for a lot of people as it keeps spreading.

    If you're in China or another heavily affected place, staying put is the best plan at this point. Keep indoors, and check in on your loved ones digitally. Do you best to make sure the most vulnerable of folks you know -- your neighbors, colleagues, etc -- have access to groceries and any medication they might need. Keep in touch with folks since isolation is harsh on the mind! Read books, watch movies, call your friends, grow your WeChat sticker collection, draw, sing, make the best of it. We've complied a whole long list of online exhibitions, radio streams, and video series, and refreshed our VPN recommendations.

  • If you are able to and do decide to leave, be careful in transit (wear your mask & wash those hands!) and know that you’ll likely be quarantined for 14 days when you land elsewhere to make sure you’re not spreading the virus yourself. Even if it's not mandated, you should impose a quarantine on yourself just in case.

  • In countries that don't have strict lockdown measures or clear guidelines, here's the levels of precaution to take:
  • - Social distancing means avoiding indoor gatherings and contained public spaces (offices, public transit.) If there's more than 25 people, don't risk it, but you can still walk around, go to get food and groceries, ride your bike, go sit in a park... just make sure you wash your hands after you touch anything that other people touch, and stand two meter (~six feet) away from others
  • - Self-isolation means staying away from others when you might be sick, so if you have symptoms of any virus, stay home and don't touch or stand too close to even the other people in your household, to avoid getting others sick
  • - Quarantine is staying in even if you're not sick at all but *might* be, because you came in contact with someone who was sick, or came from a place where a lot of people were sick


    If you had plans to go to mainland China or another affected area, chances are your travel plans have been cancelled. If not, be very careful. If you’re going to a part of the country that hasn’t been too severely affected, be cautious. Try to stay in one place -- now is not the best time to be traveling around the country, you don’t want to be a super-spreader. Many cities, neighborhoods, and villages are cordoned off and not particularly keen on welcoming outsiders, even with a temperature check, so getting around is going to be extremely difficult.

  • If somewhere has had more than a few cases and even a single death, there are likely up to a thousand other cases in the region.


    Since we first started writing this guide, we've hoped that will likely pass in the next few weeks as people take precautions to stop spreading the virus, and those who have it heal. It's now going on for about a whole year, and while we want to remain optimistic, a true pandemic like this one might is going to take a very long time to resolve, especially in light of governments putting "the economy" before people. The most worrisome is that the lasting effects of the fear are going to take even longer to pass. We’re most scared of deeper discrimination against already-marginalized folks who have absolutely nothing to do with this, especially people of Asian descent worldwide. The outbreak is already creating ripple effects on the economy as well, disrupting workers livelihoods as supply chains shift. It's a terrible time for small businesses that don't have months of cash on hand, like many local businesses in Chinatowns all around the world.

  • And while we welcome a slowdown on capitalism and reduced emissions, sudden shifts in places without strong universal social safety nets always cause harm. In China, this means scores of migrant workers from the rural countryside, who count on being able to make a living in now-restricted bigger cities, are facing extremely uncertain futures. In the US, it means disaster: exacerbating centuries of deep racial and socio-economic inequalities in a country where few have access to healthcare, housing stability, and an adequate social support system.

  • Things are also already getting harder for artists too -- film festivals and art fairs and performance venues are all cancelling or postponing events. When this epidemic was concentrated in China, we shared all the creative coping mechanisms: artists found new ways to practice, learn, and be together, appart. Many are broadcasting online, like our friends at the Shanghai Community Radio who invited their guest DJs to stream from home instead of coming into the studio. We hosted a cloud party and started cloud conversations to keep up with the artists and residencies we work with in China, and while we postponed all our 2020 projects and research trips back in February, we're now working to publish resources like this and care for our creative community worldwide as best we can. We set up and disbursed emergency funds and will keep sharing resources of all the ways to help those impacted by this pandemic.


Over the summer, after Wuhan opened back up and successfully had the COVID-19 outbreak under control, we interviewed a Wuhanese doctor who fought COVID-19 from start to finish. They provided insight on a timeline of what actually happened in Wuhan, what Wuhan did to fight COVID-19, as well as the medical, emotional and cultural implications of COVID-19 on Wuhan. This interview is translated from Chinese to English by the interviewer. Personal details have been deleted to protect the doctor’s privacy. 

China Residencies: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your specialty?
Doctor: I attended undergraduate and graduate school in Wuhan specializing in 中药 (traditional Chinese herbal medicine). I have been practicing in Wuhan ever since, and I currently live with my spouse and our kid.
CR: Can you give us a timeline of COVID- 19 in Wuhan, according to your personal experience? What are the important turning points during the pandemic in Wuhan?
Dr: In mid-December, I was away at a conference when I heard my colleagues in Wuhan talking about a mysterious lung disease spreading around that was similar to SARS. When I got back to Wuhan a few days later, my colleagues and I started having conversations about this new disease, since it shows up differently than normal lung diseases under the X-ray. Still, none of us knew what it was, and we were unsure about how to diagnose it. Wuhan has never been a hotspot of a pandemic before, so it did not even occur to us that it could be the start of a global pandemic.

In early January, the doctors realized that the disease could be transmitted from person to person. Prevention of interpersonal transmission was still a big issue, since the virus spreads fast among crowds and the hospitals are extremely crowded. It did not help that late-December and early-January was the flu season in Wuhan, and concerned patients all rushed to the major hospitals with the worry that they have contracted the mysterious virus instead of the regular flu, which caused further cross-infection. The fever department in major hospitals was soon completely overwhelmed by the number of patients. To accommodate the patients, hospitals had to put every other department on hold and train their doctors to diagnose the new lung disease with the highest degree of emergency. Without enough expertise and time to diagnose and treat, all patients whose X-rays exhibit the symptoms of COVID-19 were treated as a COVID-19 patient.
In early February, 5 specialty hospitals for COVID-19 patients, called 方舱医院, were built in major exhibition centers and other empty pieces of land. Case numbers started reducing in mid-February. By early March, most patients in Wuhan had recovered.

One major turning point occurred in February when top epidemiologists from around China were sent to Wuhan to establish a tracking system for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan. They investigated the size of each community (社区) in Wuhan, and tracked who the diagnosed patients had been in touch with, within their communities. The epidemiologists developed a multi-layered system for patient treatment. They tested everyone who had been in contact with the diagnosed patients. Those who had mild symptoms were sent to the special COVID-19 patient hospitals, while those who had more serious symptoms were sent to major hospitals appointed to treat COVID-19 patients. This made sure that everyone got tested, diagnosed, and treated in the most timely manner, which is key for COVID-19 treatment.

CR: Why do you think COVID-19 caused so much fear among Wuhanese people when it started?
Dr: I think there is a sense of helplessness among both doctors and patients. Of course, there was the factor of facing a virus that is completely new to all of us. I think that one thing that is unique to COVID-19 is its unpredictability. My colleague had an elderly COVID-19 patient who was put on a ventilator and was doing great. After a four hour break, he came back and found the patient gone. There were countless cases like this.

CR: As a doctor who specializes in traditional Chinese herbal medicine, what was your role in fighting COVID-19? What were the respective roles of Chinese herbal medicine and Western medicine?
Dr: It is funny because Chinese herbal medicine was not popular in Wuhan before COVID-19. Until mid- February, all patients were treated with Western medicine, and we did not have that much say in treating patients. In February, forty thousand doctors from around China were sent to Wuhan due to the doctor shortage. A lot of them were Chinese Traditional Medicine doctors, and their treatments proved to be extremely efficient in mitigating symptoms, and that was when Wuhan started adopting herbal medicine in COVID-19 treatment. Eventually almost 90% of the patients were treated using a combination of herbal medicine and western medicine. Traditional herbal medicine is that it does not directly kill the virus, but instead reduces one’s fever through boosting the immune system. Instead of giving everyone the same western medicine, we were lucky that we had enough doctors to prescribe herbal medicine to patients on a case-to-case basis, based on their symptoms and their other underlying health condition. So, in some sense, COVID-19 revived traditional herbal medicine in Wuhan.

CR: What other factors contributed to Wuhan’s quick control of COVID-19, apart from the multi-layered tracking and treating plan you mentioned?
Dr: I think one of them is that the hospitals operated on a people-first system. All expenses of COVID-19 were reimbursed and all testing was free. A lot of people in Wuhan died with a lot of debt from their ICU stays in the early days, when people knew very little about COVID-19. The government was able to trace back their records and reimburse their families. Another factor is that doctors and health-care workers were very well-protected. Free hotels and food were provided to us so we would not have to go home and put our families at risk. Doctors older than 50 were not appointed to the special COVID-19 hospitals and doctors older than 45 can only make temporary visits to those hospitals. At first, we had a huge shortage of masks and protective gear, and at one point doctors had to wear trash bags as protection. The local factories in Wuhan switched from producing cars to masks and other protective gear to make sure that hospitals had enough supply.

CR: What was your experience as a parent and spouse during COVID-19, in addition to being a doctor?
Dr: I think I have found a new sense of community in the middle of all this madness. Over the past years, Wuhan had been growing fast financially, but people were also getting busier and had less time to participate in community activities. After COVID-19, I felt more like part of a community. When I was away, working in COVID-19 hospitals and staying in quarantined in hotels, my community took on the responsibility of taking care of my family. When there was a food shortage, my spouse and child were given priority for grocery shopping online. When online classes started, my kid received free tutoring from people in the neighborhood. That made me feel a lot better being away from my loved ones during a pandemic. People were also able to connect even in the special COVID-19 hospitals. Since they all only have mild symptoms, we encouraged them to be in a good mood and keep exercising to speed up their recovery. The patients formed little groups dancing, singing and doing taichi together, making friends and creating memories in the middle of a pandemic.

  • For more reports on life on the ground, you can follow Subtropical Asia's Wuhan Diaries, and photographer Wú Guóyǒng 吴国勇's "One Thousand Families."

  • For those elsewhere in China, life went on strangely, with movements severely limited. This meant staying inside in apartment complexes, with permission to leave every day or two to buy groceries, passing temperatures checks on the way in and out. It wasn't fun, but people kept busy, calling the shut-in time as a good occasion for 厚积薄发 -- time read and think.

  • At this point, there are horrendous first-hand accounts in so many places that we know to expect the worst. We can't share all the world's information, and we wrote this guide focused on China first, but please do your best to stay informed about your own community, and places that don't get written about as much in Euro-centric newsrooms, as the pandemic hit countries like Iran and indigenous communities worldwide especially hard.

  • Remember Dr. Li Wenliang, who was one of the original eight whistleblowers who was arrested for trying to spread the truth. He died of the virus on February 7th, and millions grieved and commemorated his life and dedication to caring. Dr Ai Fen shared her story to news early on too so the world could know what happened. Stay ahead of the propaganda, as politicians and agitators will try to rewrite history in real time, and remember, we're all in this together.

    Keep in touch with your friends virtually, it's not fun being in isolation but it's what we have to do if we can. Be glad we're in the age of phones and video chats! Stay calm, and for the 10th time: wash your hands, wear a mask, don't be racist. Share reliable information, and an occasional meme to keep spirits high. Do your part by spreading accurate advice :)

  • Join a mutual aid network in your area, check on the most vulnerable in your neighborhood and community, and if you have spare resources, donate if you can! Now is a great time to redistribute funds, access, and space. Support  your local small businesses, especially ones run by people of Asian descent who are probably suffering unfairly from ignorant fear-mongering, and in general, support Black-owned and immigrant-run businesses who likely have less access to relief efforts. And of course, thank and support the doctors, nurses, caretakers, volunteers, delivery folks, journalists, and everyone helping out during these difficult times. They all deserve appreciation, and most of all, fair pay, stability, health insurance, and everything they need to work safely during a pandemic!

China-specific links:

and the memes, always the memes:

Whenever we get more than ten people asking us the same question, we start writing a resource guide to share information and solutions as widely as possible. This guide was first compiled by the China Residencies team on February 4th 2020. We will update it when there is more news! We’re sending courage to all those affected, especially the medical staff and including everyone who is stuck, quarantined, worried about loved ones and affected by the many expanding ripples of this ongoing outbreak.