When Kevin Shea answered my call, he couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to anyone.
“I’m losing my mind here, Josh!” he told me, talking a bit louder than he needed, even if we were thousands of miles away. “Just hearing my voice! It’s so weird!”
If you aren’t in some state of lockdown now, you could very well soon be. Tens of millions of Americans are already told to stay at home, allowed only to exit for groceries or medications or maybe a run around the park, provided you stay six feet away from others hankering for a gasp of fresh spring air.
Kevin can tell you all about it. Arguably, he’s had it much worse. He and hundreds of millions of people in China have been locked in their small apartments for eight weeks.
A look inside Kevin Shea's small apartment in Nanchang, China. (Photo via Kevin Shea)
I reached out to Kevin through a relative. The 55-year-old Maryland man was teaching in what was supposed to be the first of two years at an elite Chinese high school when the Coronavirus crisis exploded.
We haven’t met before, but through the phone he sounded like the type of person who would strike up a chat waiting on a line at Disney World (if it were open).
A normally busy street in Nanchang, China emptied of people because of the quarantine. (Photo via Kevin Shea)
China is just emerging from a nationwide quarantine. When we talked Sunday, Kevin had just met some fellow teachers for drinks. They were allowed two hours, including the 45-minute walk each way.
This is what it’s looked like:
Those two hours are every two days. Before Sunday, it was strictly to the grocery or pharmacy — “to get essentials, no frivolous travels, no BS.”
Security (either government or the local building complex) makes sure, taking your temperature in both directions, swiping an app on your phone that records risk level. Any sign of fever, and you are taken away to an Orwellian-sounding “fever hospital” (so as to not make anyone else sick). If they suspect it’s COVID-19, it’s then a gauntlet of other tests and isolation. Defy it and you’re “rounded up.”
The app the Chinese government uses to record resident risk levels. (Photo via Kevin Shea)
Other than that, it’s stay inside or in the apartment complex. Kevin has been alone for a month. His wife couldn’t take it anymore and went to stay with family in Mexico a few weeks ago.
Oh, did I mention Kevin also can’t speak any Chinese? It’s been a blur of online teaching (which is really hard for drama classes), Netflix, push-ups and walks around the building. One regret is that he didn’t pack more books.
He may be going stir-crazy, but he’s alive.
“China beat this damned thing in just a couple of months, but they did things that the average American would puke over, that they couldn’t handle.” he told me.
We’re about to find out if we Americans can handle it. By the way strangers on Facebook reacted to one of Kevin’s posts, it’s not looking great. And that bodes ill for the drastic separation measures that experts say are needed to mitigate this deadly virus, which is far more dangerous than the seasonal flu and is already pushing our healthcare system to the brink.
Kevin isn’t much of a Facebook guy. But the other day, he saw some pictures from back in the US of America gallivanting in the time of quarantines that got him steamed.
“I see everyone partying and having fun like it’s an extended snow day, and I just shake my head, especially the playdates and slumber parties for kids,” he posted. “If the warm weather doesn’t kill this, the actions of a lot of Americans will make this spread to every corner of the country.”
He signed off: “Good luck to my beloved America, because you will need it.”
What prompted him to write was seeing what this virus could do. Before government censors cracked down, Chinese social media showed grim scenes from medical tents and hallways: doctors forced to leave some without oxygen, others to die.
It’s a story being told in Italy, too — and precisely the kind of trauma that officials are warning about befalling the US. Folks, to give you one small example, surgical masks and other protective gear are already in such short supply that medical staff in Brooklyn are being told about using coffee filters.
Kevin finished his Facebook warning and logged off for hours. When he checked again, he saw the comments — livid at how Kevin suggested the government restrict U.S. citizens in the name of public health.
There were curses. They called him un-American. They said it would be like Nazi Germany.
It was all too much. Kevin took down the post and the comments. But his warning from across twelve time zones still stands.
“When you’re not ready, and it starts spreading, it spreads fast - man. It moves quick.”
As I write this, the weekend of March 21-22, an alert came to my phone: Italy reports 793 deaths in a day, leaving more than 4,800 dead in that country. (There are 3,255 deaths in China as I write).
It’s easy to see the virus’ westward death march, headed our way. It’s harder to see how we in the US adhere to the strict isolation protocols Italy missed — not just for a weekend, when we can binge on Netflix and Monopoly.
Brace yourself, America. If we follow the path experts say is needed to preserve life, I’m talking about weeks, even months of this: where if we go outside, we aren’t playing basketball or climbing on the monkey bars — we are maybe walking in small groups of family members. Or alone.
Kevin says he doesn’t know for sure when his quarantine is over, but when we last talked he sounded somewhat chipper.
“It will pass,” he said.
He’s told that if he’s lucky, April 10 he can go back to work.
Meanwhile, he’s been admiring the haircut he got Sunday — his first in months.
Frozen bagels. This isn’t the time for bagel purity. It’s the time to stock up with something nourishing — then get out of the way of medical professionals.
For me, that’s been an insane number of bagels at my favorite local shop I bought when this started looking bad.
There was a big kerfuffle in New York about the heresy of toasting bagels before this virus made us realize there are bigger issues. And my bagel bonafides are impeccable anyway.
So here’s my suggestion. Buy a bunch of fresh bagels if you can. Slice em. Freeze them. Microwave; then toast. Schmear with cream cheese, butter, heck use olive oil. Just stay home if you’re not absolutely needed. And btw, bialys are better toasted anyway.
TRAPPED PARENT TIP
Re-watching movies. The second and third times around, jokes tend to get stale — for adults that is. But re-watching a movie with kids seems to unleash something I don’t mind catching: infectious laughter.
In the most recent case it was “Father of the Bride I and II with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. Lord knows I’ve seen them both before, but the subtleties in Martin’s facial expressions reveal nuances each time. I made popcorn. The kids laughed. I laughed. No cure needed.