The Current·Q&A

Journalist Ethan Lou on living through lockdown around the world

A Canadian journalist who witnessed several countries go into lockdown in a domino effect earlier this year says, at the time, he didn't expect COVID-19 to "engulf the whole world."

Lou was visiting several countries as COVID-19 began to shut the world down

Journalist and author Ethan Lou at the Beijing airport on Feb. 6. He witnessed the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in China, and later in Singapore and Germany. (Submitted by Ethan Lou)

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A Canadian journalist who witnessed several countries go into lockdown in a domino effect earlier this year says, at the time, he didn't expect COVID-19 to "engulf the whole world."

Ethan Lou visited his ill grandfather in China in January, just days before the country began banning visitors to seniors' homes and imposing further restrictions.

By the time he'd made his way to Germany, a string of flight cancellations left Lou grounded and he decided to ride out the lockdown there, rather than return home to Canada.

Lou has written about his experience in a new book, Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended.

He spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about what he saw as COVID-19 took hold around the world.

Here is part of their conversation.

Tell me about the scene that greets you when you arrive at the airport in Beijing.

That was definitely a surreal feeling. Like two days before I left, I was literally at a birthday party with lots of people, and when I arrived in Beijing, I saw just a sea of people wearing face masks.

There's a very lengthy barricade outside the baggage claim exit, so you see lots of people leaning on it, waiting to receive the travellers, and they're all looking at you.

It just dawned [on] me that I had entered a different world.

That airport in Beijing is ... a busy, noisy place. There's always a lot going on.

In a huge city like that, what did it sound like?

Lou estimates there were fewer than a dozen people on the subway when he was in Beijing earlier this year. (Submitted by Ethan Lou)

That day it sounded like any other airport. But when I was riding the Beijing subway a couple of days later, there was certainly a stillness there.

I go to China quite often and I can tell you unequivocally that I have never been able to get a seat on the Beijing subway ever. But this time, I think there were fewer than a dozen people on the entire train. And it just felt so eerie.

What did you see in terms of the actions that the Chinese government took to control the virus in those very early days?

It certainly happened very quickly. The day I landed, maybe two days after that, seniors' homes across the country, they started banning all visitors and certain intercity buses between.

Most people live in apartment buildings, especially in Beijing, because it's so densely packed — and you [had] to get a permission slip to leave. It's something quite different from what you and me would experience here.

Did you understand at the time, as these things are starting to come into place, how serious the situation was?

Yes and no. I definitely understood how serious it was going to be in China. I lived through SARS in Singapore, so I remember when schools were suspended. 

But I don't think, at the time, that I would have expected that it would spiral out of control in this way and it would engulf the whole world.

You leave China and head to Singapore. That's where your parents live. Tell me a little bit about what that was like when you got to Singapore.

Just a little before that, I was supposed to visit Hong Kong and then Hong Kong started quarantining visitors from the mainland. Flights were cancelled. Absolute pandemonium at the airport. So, I miss Hong Kong. I went to Singapore. And at first I felt very relieved because there was no virus consciousness there. 

At the start, I think just like here, the government was telling people not to wear masks. And I had a great time. But slowly, you know, you notice that the government is reporting daily infection rates. And I think just about a few weeks after I left, [there was a] complete lockdown in Singapore as well.

Lou says he knew the coronavirus would have a serious impact on China, but that he didn't initially think it would 'spiral out of control.' (Submitted by Ethan Lou)

You spent some years in your early childhood in Germany. When you get to Europe, what was the vibe like there?

The day I left [Singapore], Germany was still holding soccer matches with tens of thousands of fans, and the French president and his wife, they went to the theatre. And I don't think anyone had expected that the virus would come for them. But it all happened so quickly. I could be having schnitzels with a friend at a pub one day — it was a very rowdy pub — and the next, everything was closed and the downtown was a desert.

The federal government here in Canada was encouraging people to come home by commercial means — get on the planes while you can, before the flights disappear. You decided to ride it out in Germany. Why did you do that?

There were two reasons. One was that I ran into a lot of travel disruptions. My ticket back was cancelled three times. The first was because, originally, it was routed through the U.S. and then the U.S. started banning all flights from the EU. So the travel disruptions played a large part in that. And two, I felt that if I were to be back in Canada, it's basically the same. I won't be having in-person meetings with people. I won't be able to see my friends. So really, isolation in Canada, it's not that different from isolation in Germany. 

I grew up there, I [hadn't] been back in a while, and it was a source of comfort amid the chaos.

But isolation is isolation. And, presumably, it's a bit more complicated if you're not in your home country, isn't it?

Definitely. I was lucky I had a place to stay. 

A friend of mine, he had an empty apartment there. Because of travel disruptions, [he] was not in Germany at the time, so I had an apartment there. And although I left Germany when I was six ... I still spoke like rudimentary German.

I do think one big risk I took was that I didn't really have any health insurance in Germany. If I did fall sick there, that definitely would have been a big problem.

Lou decided to ride out the lockdown in Germany rather than return to Canada, after several of his flights back home were cancelled. (Submitted by Ethan Lou)

You're now back in Toronto. How did it feel when you came back home?

It was definitely quite a surprising sight, because I think when I left, everything was normal. 

I did experience lots of lockdowns in different places, but it was all away from home. And so, in that base and primal part of the brain, I did feel that the lockdown was a foreign phenomenon.

But I think seeing everything in person, that was definitely jarring.

You've done a lot of reading about past pandemics. How do you think this moment we're in right now has been shaped by things in the past?

I think definitely lots of people know this, that the word quarantine, it comes from Italian. It came from the measures to deal with the plague. And a lot of the containment measures, they are rooted in the past. 

There are people who write that it is the plagues that helped shape the modern state because, in the past, a medieval government, they didn't really have much to do with their citizens' lives. They just collected taxes, and if they fought, you know, they conscripted the men. But otherwise, they let them be. 

With the plague, they started safeguarding the borders more. They set up temporary health agencies that became permanent. 

You need more taxes to run that, we need people to enforce that, and scholars say that eventually shaped the modern world.

The title of the book is A Journey through a World Suspended. And it feels like we're still, in some ways, suspended. At some point in time we will be right back down to Earth. What do you think that is going to be like?

I don't think we will ever go back completely to the before times. We will eventually find a normal. We will find an equilibrium that we are able to deal with.

It's hard to say what exactly will happen, but I think what we experienced in January, like a birthday party I went to, I think those will definitely be fewer in the future.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.