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What we can learn from quarantine videos around the world

People in Wuhan and Italy have been making TikToks of life in isolation, and are showing the rest of the world what’s to come.

Daniel Ou Yang was in Wuhan for Lunar New Year when the city was shut down. So he made TikToks about it.
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Daniel Ou Yang landed in Wuhan on January 14th to celebrate Lunar New Year with his dad and grandparents, just like he always does. Life there felt normal: The atmosphere was festive, and restaurants were packed. On the evening of January 22nd, people stayed out late in celebration. Then, overnight, the city shut down.

The next morning, Daniel and his family heeded the quarantine orders of the government due to the coronavirus outbreak, disseminated on Chinese news TV channels and through social media apps like WeChat and Weibo. “Obviously the whole thing is serious and scary, but at home we just kept things as relaxed and fun as possible and just tried to stay positive,” he tells Vox now. While holed up at home with his family, he spent most of his time relaxing, eating, drinking, and playing mahjong, and about a week in, bored and with hours of newly free time, he turned to TikTok.

The video he made, of himself driving around the city showing empty streets, sidewalks, and grocery store shelves set to a popular song on the app quickly racked up more than a million views. Later that week, he made two more about life under the Wuhan quarantine, offering viewers a look at the then-unprecedented measures the city was taking due to the novel coronavirus.

At the time, Daniel’s videos were a firsthand account of a citywide crisis — supportive comments poured in from around the world, offering prayers for what was hoped to be a contained outbreak. Nearly two months later, however, they read more like a warning of what’s to come for the rest of us. TikTokers in China have been documenting quarantine for months, and their content is more relevant than ever now that coronavirus has spread globally and many cities have enacted shelter in place laws and lockdowns — all while the US government continues to fumble its response.

Consider Megan Monroe, an American who went to Wuhan a few weeks before the coronavirus outbreak to work as an English teacher. They began making TikToks on day three of the quarantine of trips to the grocery store, their role as a delivery volunteer, and saying hello to street cats. Megan’s videos have been steadfastly upbeat; they told BuzzFeed that “I mostly just want people to know it’s not scary, and that I’m a real person and I’m living here and I’m just continuing on with my life.”

Both Daniel and Megan’s content remained measured and calm, even as Wuhan approaches two months under quarantine and could be facing a second wave of imported cases. They’re similar to how American teens are now documenting the drudgery of their new normal: history classes via Zoom, learning complicated dance moves out of sheer boredom, and squabbling with siblings.

As an Australian citizen, Daniel was able to board an evacuation flight out of Wuhan, where he was taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island to stay in mandated quarantine at a detention center for two weeks (“It was alright, we had food delivered to us every day. I was with complete strangers but we made friends and could socialize if we wore masks, he says). Now, he’s back in Sydney, where the coronavirus outbreak is only just starting to look like a national emergency, and is bracing for yet another crisis.

“People are going to gatherings and getting close with each other, thinking that it can’t happen to me because there are only 100 cases here,” he says. “No one takes it seriously unless it happens to them.”

More countries are serving as warnings to the rest of the world. Videos from Italy and Spain show quarantined people leading workout classes from their apartment complexes, playing window tennis, singing from their balconies, and otherwise adjusting to life under the new normal. Experts have warned that the US’s trajectory is roughly in line with that of Italy, where cases have outpaced the government and healthcare system’s ability to test and treat them.

This is why the most sobering viral video from the coronavirus epidemic thus far may be the one that shows Italians filming a message to themselves 10 days earlier. Milan-based creative collective A Thing By published the Youtube video on March 15th, and filmmaker Olmo Parenti says that he created it because “my friend group and I (along with the majority of the country) really underestimated the issue; we were almost mocking the few people who believed the issue was serious from the get-go,”

In the film, Italians offer warnings to their former selves (“I know China is far away, but this virus is faster than you think,”) as well as words of comfort (“You’ll live moments of unity you would’ve never imagined, like yesterday when we all got out on our balconies and the whole neighborhood started singing. Everyone was singing their own song, but somehow we were all one thing.”)

It’s an affecting video, of course, not least because places like the US are still drastically ill-prepared for Covid-19 testing and until recently the UK’s chief science advisor proposed the dangerous suggestion of allowing the coronavirus to spread in order to build “herd immunity.” Young people are still flocking to bars for spring break or St. Patrick’s Day, while many older people remain difficult to convince that they are indeed more vulnerable. Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote about how American exceptionalism has failed in the wake of coronavirus, that the demonization of government by the Republican party over the last few decades has made it far more difficult for it to address the public’s needs. The idea that the US should be leading the fight against coronavirus, Boot argues, is outdated.

Meanwhile, Daniel is far less worried about his family back in China. “Everyone’s good in Wuhan. They’re not out of quarantine yet, but society has found a way to work with it — they have people delivering food and groceries, people volunteering to help the community,” he says. “It’s very safe, the cases are slowing down, so I think China will make a recovery a lot quicker than people expected.” Infections in China have declined in recent weeks and the country’s travel and business industries are steadily recovering, though analysts predict that progress will likely be halted by the stalling global economy.

Australia is a different story. “I worry about other countries, especially in the west, where we don’t have the kind of government authority or the power to just respond as quickly as China did. A lot of people over here are saying I’d be better off staying in China because it’s safer there than it is over here.”

It’ll likely be a long time — months, and possibly even years — before things begin to seem normal. The videos we’ve seen of how coronavirus has affected society all over the world now feel like an artifact from when the crisis could seem far off to people living in countries where the virus hadn’t yet spread. It would be easier to say things like, “If only we’d known what it would be like,” if there weren’t so many first-hand accounts on video, all readily available online.