From the editor: On the coronavirus beat

This issue’s long-planned cover story follows one researcher’s fixation on developing an AIDS vaccine. We could not have planned for what’s become a fresh global fixation, on the coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China. By late January, it had disrupted university-supported travel to China and had rejiggered the academic calendar at Duke Kunshan University.

The coronavirus beat has become a mainstay for Emily Feng ’15, the Beijing correspondent for NPR and a former Duke Magazine contributor. Her early reporting painted scenes of eerily calm, strangely deserted cities; overstretched medical staffs; and the official inclination to punish “rumor-mongering,” even as Wuhan’s mayor was “holding holiday banquets for 40,000 people and encouraging travelers to vacation in the city during the Lunar New Year holiday.” That was weeks after Chinese public-health officials had been deployed to investigate the new illness.

Feng also reported on a sort of pop-up hospital in Wuhan to quarantine patients; that project mirrored efforts to quarantine Beijing- area patients during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Such tales of parallel outbreaks resonated for those of us with long Duke Magazine memories. “Life in the Time of Plague,” a story sparked by SARS, ran in July-August 2003. The writer was Phil Tinari ’01, a former intern for the magazine, who had just returned from two years living and working in Beijing and was doing graduate work in East Asian studies at Harvard.

Tinari’s uncomfortably firsthand look at SARS came after he had been hired to work as a researcher and translator for The New York Times bureau in Beijing. On his second day on the job, he went with the Times’ two bureau chiefs to Guangdong province. They interviewed “snake and civet mongers” in the meat markets where the virus might have jumped from animals to humans. Later that week, “we were the first foreign journalists to make a SARS-inspired visit to the provincial capital of Taiiyuan,” he wrote, “snooping around the grounds of the Shanxi Province People’s Hospital that was feared to harbor the first cases.”

Tinari saw a harking back to Cultural Revolution groupthink. Slogans were unleashed appealing for solidarity (“In the face of adversity, the unity of the masses is an impregnable fortress”); discounting any emotion-driven panic (“Depend on science; overcome SARS”); and highlighting the heroes who would make it all right (SARS would be “conquered by the government and the Communist Party of China”).

SARS had fundamentally shaken, but not fundamentally altered China, Tinari concluded. “A few weeks would go by, and things would be largely back to normal. Another few weeks would go by, and I would get on a plane and go home, for good.”

That wasn’t quite the case. Tinari went on to become an expert in Chinese art—as a curator, founding editor of the Chinese edition of Artforum, and now head of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which, in addition to championing young artists, offered the first major survey of Picasso in China.

In late January, UCCA’s website was carrying a stark (English-language) message embedded in a big block of red: The center would be closed until further notice. “We are sorry for any inconvenience caused and our hearts go out to all those affected by the spread of the virus.”

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