Tuesday, June 16, In the Eye of the Storm (Fracturing Reality)
By Jorah Kai CHONGQING, CHINA
Day 146. I’m in the eye of a storm, looking out with awe, shock, and profound respect. I’m in one of a handful of countries that clamped down on the COVID-19 pandemic and rooted it out with a ferocious determination, and are now essentially clear of significant cases, to paint with a broad brush. Along with my current home base in China, Vietnam, Mongolia and New Zealand can claim to be mostly COVID-free. But as we open up again, invite ex-pats home, or import goods and foods, we find new situations in which cases can crop up: with Singapore, and it was the crowded conditions of migrant workers that causes a big second wave. With South Korea, it was dancing, clubs, and nightlife. Now both are doing “pretty well,” but can hardly say they are free of the virus. New Zealand now has two imported cases from citizens returning from the U.K., after almost a month of no open cases. No sooner have I penned this, then our situation in China has changed, and Beijing, the capital of China has just locked down certain areas again, after 56 days with no active cases of the virus in a city over 10 million people, roughly 100 people are now infected, and several thousand are quarantined and tested. How did a city with such extreme and so far effective protocols get these cases? There are two theories: one, asymptomatic cases were spreading in corners, and finally found a set of symptomatic recipients that showed respiratory problems and needed medical care. The second was that someone lied about their travel history, and was somewhere COVID exists…and brought it back to the capital. Both of those are being investigated but are only speculations. An investigation of a fish market showed salmon imported from Norway to have the COVID-19 virus in it: and now fish markets in Beijing are closely screened. How long can the virus “live” in fish is now pretty relevant, and since cooking it should kill the virus, we are on high alert and swearing off sushi for the moment. A shame, since it’s a big part of my diet, but probably a safe move to cook our fish at this time. So in the capital, masks are back, and in my city of Chongqing, we caught three more imported cases from Chinese people returning through our international airports, two from Bangladesh and one from Sudan. They were non-symptomatic when they got on the plane, but tested positive with the nasal PCR test when they landed, and the whole plane was quarantined for 14 days and will be monitored closely. So far, here, our protocols are holding firm, and we are unwavering in our determination to beat the virus.
Outside of China, it’s much, much more complicated. History has been a good guide so far, so the fact that people have tired of masks distancing and protocols by the fourth and fifth months of the pandemic is quite similar to the H1N1 pandemic of 1918-1920, aka the Spanish Flu. If last centuries trends are any indication, we can expect much higher second and third waves with exponentially more infections and deaths. We know this, yet, people have other priorities. It started with some weekends to the Ozarks in America, crowded lakes and pool parties, and a packed Trinity Bellwoods park in Toronto. Canada. What came next was long overdue, but I could never have seen it coming six months ago. For a while, this all played out like a simulation, and I, getting intel that was months ahead of the CDC and WHO felt like the smartest kid in the room. Now, it’s all so complicated, and I have no idea what will come next, or even, often, what to say, and so I have been quiet.
The world is burning, so I go swimming. I swim until it hurts, every day, and it cools me down, as every day is pretty much 38 degrees Celcius. The exercise tires me out, and I am sleeping well. The existential dread that was a normal part of my waking life is now a faraway memory. For weeks, maybe a month or two, life has been back to normal. I almost killed my dog, feeding him a bone that he swallowed and choked on, but alas, I saved him, and he’s fine again. My book, The Invisible War, is dead in the water unless I remove all of the artistry and literary elements of the title and agree to call it “Kai’s Diary,” a response to the critical “Fang Fang’s Diary,” that came out of Wuhan. The artist in me is crushed; but hey, it’s just the international release. I can rediscuss my original title for the North American publication in a few months, and this is the way to move the ball forward. Humility is not my strength but it is my area of improvement. Life in Chongqing, is still pretty normal, although the situation 1200KM away in the capital does have more of us wearing masks. I teach I go to the gym, I get haircuts, and we go out to celebrate for a nice dinner. I am in the eye of the storm.
Meanwhile, hundreds of cities around the world are on fire. It’s a complete 180 from the winter, where China was locked in quarantine, and the world around us was blissfully normal. Now it’s the rest of the world that is like a wedding cake of chaos. India dealt with a problematic massive storm evacuation during a lockdown, and many migrant workers are falling ill and dying while trekking hundreds of kilometers on foot to get back to their villages, for the big cities have no work for them. In many African countries, both anti-lockdown riots and pro-lockdown riots work in concert to paralyze the already fraying social systems. And then there’s the USA.
It’s been a couple of weeks since it started when George Floyd was murdered in America, on video, for all to see, by a police officer who ignored his cries for help, his clear message that he couldn’t breathe, and knelt on his neck for 10 minutes until he was dead. We’ve seen it before: loose smokes, a backward hat, a hooded sweater. Moving at a brisk pace, hell, even jogging, can be deadly. It doesn’t take much to get murdered in America when you’re black, and I don’t think it ever has, and after the Amy Cooper UberKaren expose; where she cried wolf to get the police to rush and arrest or maybe kill a black man who had the nerve to ask her to respect leash laws in a public park; we realize how insidious and corrupt systemic racism in America, and by proxy, Canada, the U.K., other colonial countries and in fact, much of the world. We have seen countries around the world examine their racist roots, remove statues of slave owners and racists, and march in solidarity of Black Lives Matter. Many argue of what to do with these historical statues, but I think there is a clear solution: if it’s a matter of historical value, put it in a museum, where it can be studied by the academically curious, in context. A city street is nowhere to glorify oppressors. Let us begin 2020 with a fresh, clear vision for the future, and a chance to save the planet before we doom ourselves to collapse.
The collective growing storm we see now from coast to coast in America and proxy events in Toronto, London and many other cities is evidence that enough is enough and that if the judiciary doesn’t boldly declare and recognize that black lives matter, that the people are willing to burn the police precincts down. Trevor Noah said it very well that society is a contract, an agreement, and if the police and government are not honoring their side of the bargain, don’t ask, “why should the rioters loot target,” but “why shouldn’t they?” All of this comes at the heels of months of financial strain, lack of resources, work, and security. Years of Donald Trump’s white nationalist agenda has strained the cracks that glued America together to a breaking point, and it’s a scary place, the world is a precarious place today. But I know some people have hope. We hope that the failed capitalism experiment can be canceled, and something more equitable will result. We hope that the failed social hierarchy perpetuated by colonialism and neo-colonialism will be destroyed, and a genuinely fair and representative system of government will work for all people and for all nations, not certain powers raping, robbing, and pillaging the rest for resources. We hope that we can quit digging dinosaur poop out of the ground and burning up the atmosphere before the environment crashes by 2030 (as our best experts say it will), resulting in as many as five simultaneous disasters in some regions; imagine trying to deal with a hurricane and a flood during a drought and power blackout while isolating from a global pandemic and then add wildfires or bat tornados to the mix. It sounds like hell on earth, and it’s headed our way.
So it’s chaos now, or chaos later, and many of us will take the chaos now with the hopes to save the planet for our younger generations and their kids. This makes sense. But as I predicted months ago, although I could not see “this” coming, I knew social media would soon become a minefield. I’ve seen posts that say “if my white music collaborators don’t speak up I’m sending our their weak unfiltered vocal tracks” and I’ve seen more general cries for white people to speak up and not leave this a racial issue: it’s a good or bad issue, it’s anti-racists (the majority of us) versus the stubborn evil few, the fascists that want to perpetuate systemic racial abuse and slavery in the justice system. This is a more inclusive vision; many of us can get behind. Still, there is also a danger in seeing anyone speaker as speaking on behalf of everyone as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently warns in her TED talk ‘the danger of a single story,’ we must see every issue as layered. No one person can define it, that is to say, I think, we must make our own way even amidst the pull of the crowd. It’s well and good to encourage activism; I do it myself. I also went along with Seth Rogan’s legendary “flip off” session where he blocked, banned and told off anyone who wanted to argue that “All Lives Matter” was appropriate to say in a time when “Black Lives Matter” was the banner we marched to, our most urgent need to address. I banned some, blocked some, and felt justified for not letting racism slide. And then one morning, I woke up in my corner of the world surprised to see an acquaintance of indigenous roots tell me to “step off honkey” for saying that when we finish marching for black rights matter, as a Canadian, I wanted to see us truly address the injustices against native and first nations peoples. He told me he didn’t want my support. I told him that was his opinion, I don’t speak for him, sure, but as a Canadian, I choose to speak up against, to me, the greatest shame and stain upon my passport, for it was said that South Africa modeled apartheid laws after Canada’s treatment of our first nation’s people. Now, this is where things get squirrely, and I can understand why many choose to listen rather than speak when we worry about being taken wrongly. I accept his request that I don’t speak for him, but I do not accept that I should not speak at all if I speak from my heart, and I seek justice. I cannot perform calculus on my racial abacus as to how many likes and positive comments from indigenous friends and black friends I have this week versus the one or two that ask me to stay out of speaking up against racism, and leave it to them to fight, for when I start to do this math I realize this is a silly game of popularism, and when it comes down to it, the virtue I try to live my life with is not based on seeking anyone’s approval. That is to say, and I do not condemn racism because I like virtual high fives with my warrior-bredren MC ZULU. I speak my mind because that is who I am, and it’s what I do, and it doesn’t really matter to me if people like or don’t like it if I am trying to be a better person it is a path of self-discovery and doesn’t require a crowd at all.
To this, I turn to a guide for me, the ancient sage Seneca and his seventh letter to Lucilius, on the subject of crowds: “for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again.” (VII.1) What is he warning against? What is the peril of going with the popular crowd? “To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. … I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman because I have been among human beings.” (VII.2-3) Even well-meaning crowds can become unruly, and I think we must follow our hearts, rather than that of the crowd. In Seneca’s time, a time of great injustice, he might witness this on a walk through the square: “In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. … And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: ‘A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!'” (VII.4-5) Ultimately, I think it’s a futile path to try to go with the crowd, if we see eye to eye on an issue such as being pro-mask, anti-virus, anti-racist, pro-equality, pro-virtue, or pro-environment, then let us rejoice in our common cause, but I will not moderate my work on myself, my thoughts or my voice based on the whims of others, for like winds, they blow in every direction, asking me to speak, or not to speak, or to engage, or not to engage, and I would tie myself into knots before I pleased them all, only to find myself as the latest target set upon simply for existing. After a few weeks of blocking and fighting the overt racists, I fear social media is now turning on itself, seeking any statement that could be controversial or ill-expressed as an opportunity to isolate each other further.
I had an acquaintance just today ask me why I would give the bad advice, shared from a doctor, that anyone who argued against mask use today in the states was a fool. Of course, to support the use of masks, as I’ve done diligently for 144 days since the pandemic started. Then he said, well, what about those that can’t wear them for medical reasons? So I asked, which medical reasons require one to go around and spread a plague? But he could not answer this, instead, saying that he was, in fact, a big supporter of masks and that he only questioned why I myself would also … do what I’ve done daily for 144 days? I feel people are arguing simply for the sake of arguing, picking fights, and telling each other off without rhyme or reason. So, in this case, I remind myself that I am a fortress inside myself, resolute, and strong in my convictions. This man was a waste of my time, did not spark joy, and so I banished him from my thoughts and my online world with but a click; that’s all it took.
In the end, it’s important to remember that although crowds can affect positive change, we must be ourselves and not subject to the whims of the mentality of the mob, for popularity is fleeting, and public approval is whimsical and fanciful, but doing the right thing, digging deep and discovering yourself, being honest and honorable is your lifelong journey.