On the twenty-seventh day of the coronavirus lockdown in Chengdu, in southwestern China, five masked men appeared in the lobby of my apartment building in order to deliver a hundred-inch TCL Xclusive television. It was late morning, and I was taking my nine-year-old twin daughters, Ariel and Natasha, outside to get some air. The three of us also were wearing surgical masks, and we stopped to watch the deliverymen. I had never seen such an enormous TV; it arrived in an eight-foot-long box that weighed more than three hundred pounds. Two of the deliverymen stood inside an elevator with a tape measure, trying to figure out whether the box would fit. Otherwise, it was going to be a long haul up the stairs to the twenty-eighth floor.
By that point, the country was deep into the most ambitious quarantine in history, with at least seven hundred and sixty million people confined largely to their homes. The legal groundwork had been established on January 20th, when the National Health Commission designated the highest level of treatment and control to fight the new coronavirus, which eventually became known as COVID-19. After that, provinces and municipalities issued their own regulations, and the Chengdu government passed its first measures on January 24th. They were tightened seven days later, when it became clear that the epidemic had reached a point of crisis: during that week, the number of reported deaths in China had increased more than sixfold. By the end of January, there were a total of 11,791 confirmed cases, with two hundred and fifty-nine deaths.
My family rents an apartment in a nine-building complex not far from the center of Chengdu, where I teach writing at a local university. We chose the place, last September, primarily for its location: the apartment blocks are situated beside a pleasant, tree-lined stretch of the Fu River, and there’s a subway stop outside one of the side gates. But, after the quarantine began, the subway was deserted and both side entrances were chained shut. Anybody who arrived at the main gate was greeted by an infrared temperature gun to the forehead. The gun was wielded by a government-assigned volunteer in a white hazmat suit, and, behind him, a turnstile led to a thick plastic mat soaked with a bleach solution. A sign read “Shoe Sole Disinfecting Area,” and there was always a trail of wet prints leading away from the mat, like a footbath at a public swimming pool.