Concerning Coronavirus

In 1997, the year that I was born, the H5N1 virus in humans was first reported in Hong Kong. Almost 20 people were infected while 6 died. This would not be the first time the “bird flu” virus descended on Hong Kong.

In order to contain the 1997 outbreak, the government ordered a ban on chicken imports from China and then a mass slaughter of chickens; around 1.3 million birds. According to a CNN article from 1998, “Hong Kong’s chicken killers haunted by guilt,” the slaughtering of chickens was a deeply traumatic event for workers in the Agriculture and Fisheries department. Many of these workers were religious and did not want to kill birds; some could still hear the cries of the murdered birds when they went to bed at night. “Hong Kong Destroys Its Chickens,” a Washington Post article published in December 1997, goes into more detail on the killings:

More than 250,000 chickens were killed with carbon dioxide gas in the first day of an operation that involved thousands of government workers from a half-dozen agencies as well as private vendors, who also slit the throats of the birds and dropped the carcasses into plastic garbage bags. Yellow dump trucks and earth-moving machines made huge piles of poultry remains at three large landfills….. So massive is the job that the government did not have enough salaried workers and ended up hiring day laborers to kill chicken and geese for one Hong Kong dollar — the equivalent of about 12 cents — per slaughtered bird.

Although the public was assured that you could not catch the bird flu by eating chicken, this did not stop restaurants from removing chicken from their menus or the government from ordering the slaughter. My favorite poem by Chung Kwok-keung is 家務 “Housework” (translation forthcoming in Circumference Magazine later this year). The first time I read the poem, I teared up. It tracks the speaker’s relationship with chickens from his childhood to adulthood, as he watches chickens go from being creatures of love and affection to the faces of a fatal virus. I won’t share my full translation here yet (message me if you want it), but here’s the last stanza:

Is that love? I see a thin fluid flow from your beak like tears
Is that the flu I see a whole city of people with long faces
Between rainy and sunny days, I learn to wear masks and hazmat suits
Deeply raking the mud, doing that never-ending work
Oh-oh, I hear again that voice that voice stopping and going
Mouths sealed in every stuffed black plastic bag
Is that love, for the children we removed you from the cookbook
Is that love, for our own sake we piled up your bodies
Like houses crowded together in the morning at night in a shut-up city
I hear that voice that voice is nearby is at my feet
Without understanding it that language is buried like the days

Original text here.

I mention the bird flu because it is the first influenza that took place in the timeline of my life so far. Since then, there have also been SARS (2003), H1N1 swine flu (2009), Zika (2015), etc, listed here. And now: COVID-19 (2020).

How do infectious diseases shape cultural and personal memory? I have been thinking about the influence of diseases such as SARS and H5N1 on HK’s history as I translate some of Chung’s poems, a number of which touch on these diseases. I have also been thinking about how I am personally reacting to COVID-19, which is the first serious pandemic that I am experiencing as a functioning adult. Now is certainly the first time I am making decisions surrounding personal health in a place other than HK, in times of a virus. This distancing in some ways makes homesickness all the more acute.

I actually have distinct memories of the SARS era, or so I believe. What I remember is not SARS, however, but a blissfully long chunk of time spent at home; piecing together puzzles on the study room floor; making art with my mom; reading. It’s absurd to think that while this deadly virus was proliferating in Hong Kong, my artistic interests as a child were also proliferating. When I remember SARS, I remember staying at home (school was cancelled) and thriving off tons of playtime. Only years later did I realize that it was a totally different narrative for my parents. For the city.

Trauma, grief, and disease create voids in our life of different magnitudes. 1.3 million chickens eradicated from the face of a city. A misremembering of months spent away from school. Cancelled conferences and international gatherings. A 3,000+ global death toll.

This Thursday, I was supposed to attend AWP, the largest literary conference in North America. On Saturday, the largest physics conference in the world (to draw 11,000) was cancelled 36 hours prior to the event. AWP is supposed to host 12,000 writers. To make matters worse, the CDC released a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend in San Antonio, and said patient immediately went to the mall, a food court, and a hotel near the airport. Yesterday, the mayor of San Antonio declared a public health emergency. He later claimed he did so purely to seek legal leverage. He would later publish a letter saying that San Antonio is as “wonderful as ever,” encouraging others to visit. The co-executive director of AWP (now former director; she resigned this morning, long story) sent mixed messages about a potential cancellation through her personal Twitter account; writers panicked; misleading information was tweeted; planes and hotels were cancelled; and then came the announcement that the conference is still on.

Rumors, proliferating rapidly alongside the virus, are powerful vehicles for self-fulfilling prophecies. People hear that supermarkets are running out of rice, so they go and buy all the rice; next thing you know, the supermarkets are out of rice. People hear that a conference is cancelled, so they cancel their hotel reservations and registration; next thing you know, the lack of attendees in-effect cancels the event.

Crises always expose flaws that are already inherent in a system, and the institutional issues that have arisen since the COVID-19 outbreak remind us that our world is, at its ugliest, a place where xenophobia can run amuck; where decisions about public health are set aside for profit; where fear can drive irrationality.

Now is the first time I’ve thought about how a pandemic can affect the publishing industry. The London Book Fair will soon experience the same lack-of-attendance woes as AWP is now, for example. Small presses who shelled out to attend the conference will take an economic hit. This is the first time I have seen so clearly a combined crisis of health and governance in the literary world. In his takedown of AWP in the LA Review of Books, former AWP executive director Matt Burriesci wrote: “How can this board restore the organization’s health when they don’t seem to even acknowledge the sickness?”

There is a lot more about the virus that I want and need to think through, but perhaps not on this platform. Years later, when I look back on this time, I wonder what I will remember.

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