"The Epidemic in the Year of the Rat" By Yungdrung Gyurme

Work by the Tibetan Contemporary Artist Nortse

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a WeChat article by Yungdrung Gyurme that was published on February 29, 2020.
Yungdrung Gyurme gives us a valuable and insightful first person account into everyday life during the time when Coronavirus spread from Wuhan and came to central Tibet. By now, over a month since it was written, his account will sound all too familiar to most people around the world.
The piece refers to the only known case of Coronavirus in Tibet Autonomous Region, a man from Hubei province who arrived in Lhasa by train on January 24, 2020 and was named by state media as Zhang. 
Check out our previous translations of Yungdrung Gyurme’s work here on High Peaks Pure Earth, two poems and a prose piece.

“The Epidemic in the Year of the Rat”
By Yungdrung Gyurme

It was only today that I had a moment to think about the fragmented worries and managed to put my thoughts in order. The sun was warm outside, the sparrows were coming and going, spring was spreading everywhere.
Yesterday, in the restaurant where we could get some take-away food, the old lady behind the counter started complaining to me about the difficulties of doing business in this environment; “It is also not easy for you customers,” she sighed. If we compare the epidemic to a storm, we may not be in its epicentre, only at its fringes, but we can still feel the harsh wind on our faces.
This bitter encounter of historical dimension will undoubtedly leave its clear mark on human history. The year 2020 AD began with a virus erupting in the city of Wuhan that gradually spread across the entire world, becoming a big global public health issue. Because of cultural and national differences, every country deals with this calamity in a different way. But masks, disinfectant and ventilators have become scarce but urgently needed resources around the globe.
As tiny individuals, every one of us is participating in this epidemic in different ways. As for myself, before Spring Festival, and thus also before Tibetan New Year, I asked for a week of leave to go home and spend the holidays at home. On the day I was leaving, on January 22, the virus was erupting all across Wuhan, it was the day before the city was closed off from the outside world and a general feeling of tension spread across the entire country. As I was rushing to the get my train from Lhasa to Shigatse in the early morning hours, many fellow south-western Tibetans were dragging along their suitcases, helping the old and the young; small bags were plastering the way, but many did not make it onto the train. The train carriages were all decorated with Tibetan lanterns, it was the atmosphere of the nangma hall. Opposite me sat a father with his daughter from Amdo; he was dressed in Tibetan clothes but he did not look like an ordinary herdsman, maybe more like a retired worker; she was middle-aged and had an aura of maturity around her; from the bloodshots in her eyes and her dried wrinkles one could see that she was a hard working woman, she was not working hard in an office, she was taking care of her family day and night.
At this point, I was already fully armed–hat, glasses, mask. The whole range. Many people around me wore masks, but by no means everyone. But everyone was still relaxed and friendly, treating each other with respect and sticking to Tibetan etiquette of politeness. However, what surprised me were the two women wearing two-layered masks for the entire trip, not taking them off once. To my left there was an empty seat; after a while, it was occupied by a young guy whose mask was sitting on his chin; clearly, it was just an unnecessary thing for him.
When I got to Shigatse, I immediately began to shiver, the cold rains of the region paired with sand and dust made the air cold and grey. At this time of year, just approaching the 28th day of the Tibetan year, the city is exceptionally busy and crowded, full of the noise of new year’s shopping. I had to attend a primary school reunion in the evening for the first time since graduating, so I rushed through the new year’s markets. Originally, I wanted to enjoy this special new year’s feeling of the city, but I noticed that it had become almost the same as Lhasa. The market economy really leads to local culture becoming more and more unified. I left the bustling market and went into a pharmacy to buy some masks and ethanol. But masks were sold out. I eventually purchased ten in a shop for cosmetic appliances. Only the next day did I manage to purchase ten bottles of disinfectant at a different pharmacy. At the reunion, we would of course talk about what has been happening, but everyone eventually just laughed and said that it was not really that bad; we just had fun, drinking and chatting. It was a lively but also strange night.
In my home county it was even colder than in Shigatse. The cold wind wreaked havoc on the faded Tibetan prayer flags on the roofs of people’s houses. Livestock was scattered around the village entrance too lazy to move. Relatives were busy with New Year’s preparations. But of course, we were also talking about this epidemic; I emphasised to them how severe the situation was; my dad immediately went into the county town and bought some poor quality nylon masks.
First day of the lunar month: the family is gathering and enjoying a sheep’s head and sheep lungs, chatting in peace, drinking highland barley chang; this is the feeling of celebrating Tibetan New Year! No expectations for a crazy party.
Second day of the lunar month: the villagers sit in a circle in the inner courtyard of the monastery, watching the local Tibetan theatre troupe perform the opera “Nangsa Wobum”. Each family’s seat was set many many years ago and has not changed since, it has become a kind of social order. Even though this opera has been performed year after year, seeing younger actors taking over from the older ones, there are always a few subtle changes.
The third day of the lunar month: The village loudspeakers announce that a notice from above had been issued to cancel Tibetan opera events, people should not make their way to the venue. This is the first butterfly effect that the epidemic in the far-away Wuhan brought to our little village. The villagers are caught totally unprepared, they are shocked and disappointed. The tables and chairs in the monastery cannot be removed so quickly. But in the end, all events are cancelled. The next day, tea houses, restaurants, hot springs all gradually close. The operation is implemented swiftly and decisively.
The fourth day of the lunar month: I leave the village to go back to Lhasa. On the train, almost everyone is wearing a mask, people’s faces look concerned, I think they didn’t have a proper New Year and they may be thinking about the things that await them in Lhasa. The old lady next to me keeps asking me whether the virus is going to arrive in Lhasa; there are so many blessings from senior monks and Rinpoches, it should be fine, she says. I tell her that it probably will be ok, but also ask her what the difference is between Lhasa and the mainland and urge her to still protect herself as much as possible. In Lhasa, inspections at the station are strict, it takes one whole hour to get out of the station. They take everyone’s temperature and also ask us to register, noting down many details.
Tibetans all remember the distinct name of a person from Wuhan: Zhang XX.
Apart from blaming this Zhang XX for triggering this immense movement in Tibet, we should also thank this comrade, because he allowed Tibetans to experience close-hand the tension of the virus being right in front of one’s own door and thus allowed Tibetans to gain the valuable experience of knowing how to protect themselves against the epidemic. Otherwise, we would either just sit back and relax or fall into an apocalypse panic. It would be difficult to have a sense of scientific rationality.
The experience of the older generation regarding epidemics dates back to the last century.
My father once told me about an epidemic in the 1970s. A villager had been infected with a scary disease transmitted from a dead yak. He got a rose-like rash on his body and soon died. His family was in a horrible situation, no one dared to help them remove the body, they went everywhere holding out their thumbs pleading for help (Tibetans stretch out their thumbs when they plead for help). In the end, they buried the body in the soil; Tibetans, however, had been holding sky burials since the 13th century and believe that when you bury the deceased, it will bring disaster to the following generations. So they later started digging out all the bones and only felt at ease when the body was burnt.
A few days ago, Sawuche told us about a story his father had told him. Someone among his people had caught smallpox and was put into a tent in a barren area where no one would have contact with him apart from relatives who brought him food. One day there was no movement coming from within the tent, when they opened it, they realised that he had dug a pit with a waist knife and died inside. How brave and decent this is! As he was dying, he dug a pit to bury himself. What dignity!
Now, I take all sorts of precautionary and protective measures at work. When I am off, I just read. Now, the Tibetan New Year is more or less over. The new Coronavirus is wreaking havoc around the globe; Italy, Iran, Japan and South Korea have all become disaster areas. Those who die, die, those who are quarantined live in quarantine, what cannot be controlled cannot be controlled, now as much as before. In short, the eight immortals show their magical power, and the African locusts are not so terrible in the face of this highly infectious disease quickly taking lives everywhere.

February 29, 2020
Written By Yungdrung Gyurme in Lhasa

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