As the world waits to hear news from China regarding the coronavirus, one visual artist took to the streets to see the effects for herself. Nicole Chan has been living in Shanghai for the past six years and, for the American photographer, this Chinese New Year was like no other. Instead of the streets being flooded with millions of revelers, Shanghai remained quiet. The government has advised people to stay indoors and most businesses and schools are closed, which has transformed a city of 24 million people into a ghost town.
一个人城市 One Person City is a series born in the context of a crisis, one that allowed Chan to get a unique perspective of the city, as she was one of the few who dared step outside. Though not officially under quarantine, Shanghai’s population was not taking any chances, which is why Chan often found herself alone. Outside of the few janitors or security guards who remained on duty—hospital masks firmly affixed to their faces—there wasn’t another human being in sight.
For Chan, it was a surreal experience given the typically active nature of the city and the crowds that fill popular sites like Yuyuan Garden, The Bund, and People’s Square. What replaced the normally vibrant atmosphere was a fearful silence and emptiness that seems to mirror the solitude felt by those waiting out the virus. “My experience living in Shanghai during the coronavirus outbreak, and seemingly many others, is isolation,” Chan tells My Modern Met. “It is a Where’s Waldo? of millions of people. While there are many faces to the pandemic, for most it seems it will have no face at all.”
Chan’s is humbling work that shows how life in the city can change in an instant. Even at 429 miles from Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, Shanghai’s emptiness shows the gravity of the situation. Since it was first reported in Wuhan on December 31, 2019, the coronavirus has traveled to 25 different countries. Currently, according to the World Health Organization, 31,420 cases have been reported. All but 209 of these cases have occurred in China and 638 people have died from the virus.
What often first appears as a common cold can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death in the most severe cases. WHO recommends regular hand washing, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs as standard practices to avoid spreading the infection. They also recommend avoiding contact with anyone showing signs of respiratory illness, which is why many areas of China are under quarantine.
Researchers are still trying to pinpoint the exact cause of the outbreak, though a popular seafood market was implicated early as the origin. While a large majority of people infected early with the virus did come into contact with the market, researchers are still trying to piece together the puzzle of its exact origin.
In the meantime, Chan and others like her living in the midst of the outbreak try to move forward with their new reality. As China and other countries around the world struggle to get the number of new patients under control, Shanghai’s citizens sit, wait, and wonder when life can get back to normal.