Birmingham-Southern College student Griffith Hawk did not intend to leave China so abruptly, but when the pandemic started to make its way across the country, he didn’t have a choice.
Studying Mandarin Chinese in a college in the southeastern city of Guilin, Hawk was on winter break, visiting Beijing, when coronavirus got real for him.
“At the end of January, I was given a notice, basically by the people who are organizing the language program I was on, and my school, that I had five days to get out of the country,” he recalled. “So I had to get back to my dorm in the south part of China, from the north, in a day and pack and then get home.
“At that point I was told I would be able to return. But it became pretty quickly apparent that I was unable to return.”
Hawk made it out of China without getting infected by COVID-19. And although he got back home unscathed, his experience gives a glimpse into how China changed quickly into a country in lockdown as the virus began to make inroads — before it changed the lives of people around the globe in such a dramatic and evolving fashion.
Hawk, who majored in business administration with minor concentrations in political science and Mandarin, already had garnered enough credits to graduate from BSC last fall when he got an opportunity too good to pass up: transfer to a Chinese university for a language immersion study in Mandarin for his senior year.
“I arrived right at the beginning of September and I was supposed to stay there until the beginning of June,” he said.
“I was in China for the whole first semester with no issues whatsoever with health or any concern about that. And then I came back to visit my family for Christmas. And so I arrived in the United States around December 15 and stayed here until January 1 before I headed back to China,” he said.
“And during that time, I heard some mentions on news stories of a new disease that they found — and they didn’t exactly know what it was — in China at that time. But it was very sparse coverage of it at all,” he said.
He returned to China in January, to local news coverage about political tensions between the U.S. and Iran. But the focus of the news would change quickly.
“Over that next week there began to become increasing reports of this new virus in Wuhan,” he said. “But still, very little had changed as far as day-to-day life.”
By mid-January, Wuhan was under quarantine orders, with immediate ripple effects across the country, Hawk said. First, people started secluding themselves. Then, the face mask situation began to change, which was odd, because, as Hawk pointed out, people in Asian countries already frequently wear face masks.
“Masks, and especially the nonmedical masks, are very much a part of life in China on kind of a normal basis,” he said. “If you’re sick you wear a mask. … It’s kind of viewed as unclean to ever cough and have that kind of floating around.
“There are a lot of nonmedical masks available and we were able to buy several very cheap. However, they get nasty pretty quick so I probably went through like 20 or 30 during the course of the last 15 days I was there.”
In time, though, face masks became harder to find, as did gloves, Hawk said.
Chinese state media was broadcasting a message of calm. “It was very much …, ‘We’ve got it under control. We’re working with it but we need the people to cooperate,’” Hawk said. At the same time, Chinese authorities were taking stronger measures to control the spread of the virus.
“They were locking transportation increasingly down, which was a bit of a problem as I was in the north part of China at that point because I was on that winter break from my school,” Hawk said. “I had gone up to visit a few different cities in the northeast of China, including Beijing. But at the time I arrived to Beijing — this would be January 20 — they had basically shut down all tourist activities across the country. While I had hotel bookings and flights, I was more or less kind of confined to just walking around empty streets and looking at the tourist activities from the outside.”
China enacted countrywide restrictions, which meant that even people hours away from the first known outbreak in Wuhan were affected. Part of the reason for the swift restrictions was apparently the approaching travel season, Hawk said.
“During the time when this outbreak was first being noticed (it was) the Spring Festival in China and this is the largest human migration time period in the world because it’s like a huge family holiday,” he said. “So people who work in the cities return back home to more rural areas and provinces in China that they grew up in or have family, relatives in. So there is this huge influx of travel from every part of the country during this time.”
An outbreak in Wuhan, one of China’s largest cities, threatened to cover “the fullest extent of the country,” he said.
Hawk described the situation as “weirdly frightening,” adding that news coverage was scarce. “At the time there was so little known about it and I was reliant on the Chinese state media at the time … . There just wasn’t any realistic coverage of it. I was able to get the CNN affiliate that operates in China occasionally and they had to flee Wuhan right before it shut down. So there was no real information coming out about it other than the Chinese government mandating everyone wear masks and imposing slight travel restrictions.
“But I think the (U.S.) State Department and other people got wind that there would be mass restrictions on travel coming and that was basically why they got as many U.S. nationals studying abroad out of the country with as much haste as they did because it would have become increasingly more difficult for me to get out of the country as time went on.”
He made it out of China, only to return home to a 17-day quarantine. Hawk said his father has a health condition that put him at serious risk if he should contract COVID-19. “We were very worried about the potential of me bringing it back and harming him,” he said.
Friends he left behind in China described living under a lockdown that he described as “pretty drastic.”
“All public spaces were closed down and enforced. Of course, China and the United States are obviously very different countries in how they enforce policies. Where here, I think, it’s more of a suggestion with some ability to enforce, they (China) have total ability to enforce …
“It was enforced with threat of arrest and heavy fines if you violated any form of the quarantine orders. So people were staying at home pretty much entirely, and not leaving, and stockpiling a lot of food and cooking in the house,” he said. “I have a Chinese friend and she said they basically didn’t go outside for almost the entire month, because they had stockpiled so much food to not even have to go to the grocery store.”
Neither Hawk nor anyone he knows here or in China has been diagnosed with coronavirus. When he returned to the states, Birmingham-Southern got him into a Chinese class — which he had to finish online because BSC shut down shortly after that — and now he’s just waiting for his degree.
He knows things could have been worse and that they are worse for some than they are for him.
“To a certain degree, I’m in a very privileged position where I get to stay home and take online classes and not have to worry about interacting with the outside world as much as people who have to actually participate in the economy … especially health care workers and people who keep the world running while college kids sit at home and just practice Chinese,” he said.
But Hawk still takes the threat seriously.
“I am definitely worried, and I think we all, to a degree, should be. But I don’t think we should panic out of hopelessness because there is obviously a light at the end of the tunnel, however far away that is. We don’t know. But we should be careful and focus on what we can do to keep ourselves and those we love safe,” Hawk said. “I’m worried, but I’m not terrified.”