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From Beijing to Boris

3 April 20 words: Chris Ainsworth

Having lived in China for ten years, Chris Ainsworth returned to Nottingham in January with the impending threat of COVID-19 looming. Here he shares his thoughts on how the two countries are dealing the global health crisis differently...

Returning to England after having lived in China for ten years, I easily slip back into my old routine. The local radio station hums away in the background; tea is made at a speed; and a Nottinghamshire dialect to rival Carl Froch’s resurfaces after years of keeping it in check. Though it is surprising how quickly I readapt to British life, it isn’t the most surprising aspect.

I had already done my fair share of travelling around Europe, and in 2012, I fancied going further afield to Asia. China had always interested me, so I decided to do a few months in the capital I originally flew to Beijing with the intention of staying for three months, but those three months soon turned into six, and before I knew it I was living there almost a decade. With the corona virus starting to pose a serious threat in January, I decided to fly back to the UK to be on the safe side.

I have seen first-hand the vastly different approaches taken by China and the UK in dealing with this virus. Walking through Nottingham’s city centre only four weeks ago, I was taken back at the manner in which British people calmly moved around. Though this was at a critical point when the virus had already claimed its first lives in the UK and was well into its thousands in Italy.

At the same time in China, people were under total lockdown as the then newly-named COVID19 was wreaking havoc. Quarantine, scheduled temperature checks, and punishments for the non-compliant were welcomed by natives, albeit somewhat reluctantly. ‘But that’s where the virus started’, you say, ‘...they should take it more seriously!’ You’re half right.

While Trump bickers over where this virus began and when the US economy should bounce back, Boris Johnson has contracted the virus himself, seemingly doing his bit for the now discarded ‘herd immunity’ policy.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, one thing is almost certain: the Chinese government has finally managed to slow the contagion, and people are returning to work - for now.

With China playing its cards close to its chest it will prove tricky to pin down the exact numbers regarding the corona cases. Yet, in spite of the initial confusion in Wuhan, the speed in which it was subsequently contained cannot be denied.

Contrarily in England, when the virus had first started to spread I observed very little change in social behaviour. No masks, no social distancing, and no ‘draconian measures’. We, the British, aren’t such fans of draconian measures. But what exactly are these limitations on our freedom, and must we adhere to them? Having observed what happened in China, self-isolation seems to be not a question of adherence, but simply a small price to pay to ensure our loved ones survive.

While it is self-evident both the UK and China have very different legislation, I do wonder in a time like this if safety and freedom are mutually exclusive.

Speaking only yesterday with a friend in Beijing, we discussed the very different ways in which our governments were dealing with matters. I expressed annoyance at Boris and his advisors for handling the situation so nonchalantly, to which my friend candidly agreed:

‘Our government officials would never have said what Boris said about loved ones dying...’ my Chinese friend stated in disgust, ‘...that was way too insensitive and would probably be a death penalty’. I might add that this comment was offered without irony.

While it is self-evident both the UK and China have very different legislation, I do wonder in a time like this if safety and freedom are mutually exclusive. Should a government enforce draconian measures - measures so far proven to work - in the free society that we know and love?

In this information age it is all too easy to view media platforms as overtly sensationalist, enticing readers with hyperbolic click-bait.

Unfortunately, this scepticism can prompt people to view the virus as overblown, especially based on the current evidence which suggests if you are young, healthy and lucky, you may well recover from it.

But it is still too early to know all the facts. By the time this is uploaded, there will be new information available: new laws may have been enforced or relaxed; COVID19 may have mutated, though I doubt the science will have changed overnight (sorry Boris, that’s not usually how it works); and the British public may have realised that we soon face a similar fate to Italy.

It goes without saying that now is not the time for complacency. Nor is it time for libertarian protest against laws which can help the British stay safe. While optimism is always welcome in a pandemic, a healthy dollop of pessimism never goes amiss either. This is clearly a time to hope for the best but also prepare for the worst.

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