Throughout human history the three major causes of human population decline have been war, famine and disease. However, whereas wars can be avoided by diplomacy and the effects of famine can be reduced through cooperation, aid and technology, a pandemic is hard to detect at the outset. By the time we notice, we are often deep into it and need to pay a high price to get ourselves out. Throughout the last 18 months, a great many of us probably felt intimately how fragile the world suddenly became. The global pandemic opened our eyes to how much our sense of normalcy exists in delicate balance.

Since 2020, the world has been shrouded in the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a travel blogger, I’m currently experiencing the most cumbersome working conditions of my career, with travel precautions being understandably complicated and unreliable from country to country (and even then, from day to day.) Recently, I embarked on a trip to Asia and spent 5 months in Seoul, Tokyo, Phnom Penh, Beijing, Chengdu, and a few other smaller cities along the way (family in China helped me get a Visiting Relatives visa – one of the only ways to get into China now as a foreign national). Living through the various prevention and protection policies on my travels gave me a new understanding of how Asia is combating the pandemic.

For better or worse, and despite recent political sensitivities, I have to say I was most impressed by what China does to keep its citizens safe. I can’t imagine the logistical challenge the government faces in a country with such high population density, and to deal with it successfully at that.

By now the world is familiar with China’s strict contact tracing and quarantine system. And no, before you get on my case, it’s not the draconian nightmare Western media tries to make it out to be. While it is occasionally inconvenient, it is also sensible and humane.

What struck me most was the attitude towards these measures held by the average people I talked with in China. In Europe and America it seems there’s always a side that is “for” something and one that is “against” the same issue. It doesn’t matter what it is. It seems a matter of some foolhardy principal that there’s always someone against whatever someone else says is the best thing to do for the community at large.

In China, it’s different. There’s a no-nonsense attitude toward what the public at large must do to control the virus. This is not all a function of public policy, but it is certainly a reflection of the government’s influence and integrity in the eyes of the population. Regardless of how one wants to frame it, the sense that this is a community effort and that everyone from top to bottom must pitch in and do their part is palpable.

I keep thinking about that word – “community.” I used to think our community in the West was pretty strong, but now I’m really not so sure. During my time in China, I saw all members of the community pitching in and, yes, making sacrifices where required. Schools were closed nationwide during the height of the pandemic here, and still close locally on occasion if a cluster of cases is detected. In-person religious services at temples and churches were suspended because they were obvious places where large numbers of people gather together and could easily spread the virus. Even travel for Chinese New Year, China’s most important holiday, was discouraged with many events canceled to reduce crowding together on trains and airplanes.

After each flareup is resolved – things go back to normal. Schools open, religious services resume and people travel. People here understand these are temporary inconveniences that are for the long-term good of the community. Do they roll their eyes when asked to show the Health Code on their phone for the 10th time in one day? Sure. Do they cry and scream like a tired toddler when asked to wear a mask? Absolutely not.

This trip to Asia left me with many conflicted emotions. I got to experience life in a different cultural context (which is the point of travel, right?) and see how other countries are tackling the same problems we face at home. In many ways, it was frankly better. While I missed the familiarity and comfort of my country, I felt safer throughout my travels in Asia and was left wondering why I couldn’t have that feeling at home.

Why do I need to travel halfway around the world to find a community that cares?

Tags: Travel, community, quarantine, pandemic, China, Masks, Health, Asia

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Phil Hart