At the Yenching Academy of Peking University, my cohort more closely resembled the United Nations than a typical Masters program. The bonds forged in our time together are as tenacious as they are diverse. With peers and friends from all corners of the globe, the world had started to feel remarkably small. In only a matter of weeks, that would all change as macabre and tribalist predilections took centre stage.
Being in China when COVID-19 broke was somewhat of a prophetic experience, giving me a grim glimpse into the strictures that would soon catch-up with Australia. Overnight, Beijing went from being a bustling city of 22 million people to a ghost city from a post-apocalyptic thriller. An innocent cough in public was enough to send bystanders running back to their houses. As soon as classes moved online, I joined the expat Exodus and returned to Sydney. Unbeknownst to me, those of us who left China at this time were ‘ahead of the curve’ before ‘flattening the curve’ became the newest turn of phrase.
Australians have a reputation, for better or for worse, of being nonchalant and relaxed at all times. After suspending my life in Beijing, it was comforting to be back in a place where people still went about their daily lives without COVID-19-induced anxiety. Yet within a few weeks of returning home, it was clear I couldn’t outrun COVID-19 and my situation worsened for a second time. The number of new cases spiked, borders closed and rules came into force.
Whether bunkering-down in my Beijing hutong or escaping to semi-rural Sydney, I’ve consciously tried to avoid the new macabre fascination that attends most conversations. Days start and end with an update on the march of the virus, leaving no details spared in the daily tally of new infections, deaths and recoveries. One Chinese COVID-19 statistics aggregator, Dr Lilac, has reached over 3.8 billion page visits alone. The Australian Government Department of Health’s official Coronavirus page draws tens of thousands of hits per day. WeChat groups are ablaze with the newest developments and offer questionable self-protection advice. Unverified conjecture about the exact number and distribution of the virus from well-intending but often misguided netizens only fuels the apocalypticism.
Between the near-impossibility of international travel and the rising tide of xenophobia, the rest of the world suddenly feels very distant. Our faith in faraway global institutions like the World Health Organisation continues to erode, with many turning to local leaders for guidance and reassurance. But as we gravitate towards our respective tribes, international people-to-people diplomacy needs to prevail. Platforms like the Australia-ASEAN Youth Strategic Partnership allow us to traverse these new geographic and psychological divides while reminding us what can be achieved through international dialogue and collaboration. The enthusiasm and engagement of young people across the region to build networks like these are truly inspiring. Even though there’s no discernible end in sight, let’s not be so quick to sacrifice our global worldview in exchange for macabre reassurances and expedient tribalism.