A Vashon Island High School alumnus who is studying and teaching at a university in China is on lock-down amid concerns officials have of the potentially deadly coronavirus spreading.
Alex Witherspoon, who graduated from VHS in 2014, has not left Hubei Minzu University since about Jan. 24, according to comments he made in an email interview with The Beachcomber. While he does not have symptoms of COVID-19 and is not under quarantine, he is following guidelines by the university, which includes not leaving the dorm unless needed, avoiding public transportation, wearing a mask if out in public and practicing good hygiene.
“I am not feeling stir crazy now, but I am bummed about all the projects and activities that cannot happen until the lock-down is over,” Witherspoon wrote.
He estimated the policies from university officials would stay in place for another month, even though, he noted, that the city of Enshi, where the university is located, has not been hit hard by the virus.
Witherspoon’s university, where he is teaching English and is working to obtain a master’s degree, is not far from Wuhan, where the coronavirus initiated last year.
Since that time, COVID-19 has made its way to the U.S., with the first confirmed case coming from a Washington man who had traveled to China. Within the last two weeks, Public Health – Seattle & King County has reported a total of 71 cases of COVID-19 in the county and 15 deaths. There are no known or confirmed cases on Vashon-Maury Island.
Witherspoon’s comments to The Beachcomber come as a hotel in China meant for quarantined coronavirus patients collapsed, resulting in 10 deaths (Stateside, the city of Kent is engaged in a legal battle with King County for the county to use one of the city’s motels as a quarantine housing facility).
Witherspoon has been living in China since 2017, after graduating from Evergreen State College, to teach English. After moving from Yangzhou to Enshi, where the university is located, he has continued to teach the language while earning a degree.
Interestingly, Witherspoon transferred trains in Wuhan to get back home the day before the city was shut down due to COVID-19.
“Things there were much calmer than one might be led to believe,” he wrote.
Since he returned to campus, Witherspoon has seen a lot less of the public — and mass transit — since hunkering down in his dorm.
“I live with my girlfriend, Xiaoyan, and we’ve been enjoying the extra time together. We are discouraged from visiting others, so I have only had passing interactions with other friends in the building,” he wrote. “Boredom is the order of the day in this building.”
Food supplies were dropped off outside the international dorm and divided amongst the faculty and students living there, Witherspoon said. Now, he and the remaining students are able to get food delivered from nearby grocery stores.
Witherspoon’s lack of freedom has made him reflect on the times that he could go out and about.
“I suppose one of the biggest perks about working here was being able to travel frequently and cheaply. Now, with that privilege taken away, I am feeling especially thankful for enjoying it usually,” he wrote. “I didn’t realize how important it was to me. I probably wouldn’t enjoy living here if I was especially tied down in one place.”
Witherspoon has, however, continued to teach a speech and debate course to his students — but only online, much like the University of Washington announced last week all of its classes would be conducted that way due to COVID-19 concerns.
“I’ll get paid and the students still will get their credits, but the fact remains that this is a course which really needs to be taught in person,” Witherspoon wrote.
He said others on campus are “anxious” for the lockdown to be lifted.
“Many of my Chinese friends and co-workers here are anxious to move on with their lives,” Witherspoon wrote. “There is, however, still public and official concern that ending quarantine protocols now could trigger a second mass outbreak.”
On that note, Witherspoon said in-person classes at the university could be canceled altogether because much of the student body comes from central or eastern Hubei, which was hit harder by COVID-19 than other places in China — and that could prevent students from returning to Enshi.
Though Enshi hasn’t seen a lot of COVID-19 cases, a level of government, called jiedao, has been particularly careful to make sure people in the area are healthy and that everyone who visited Wuhan has been accounted for, according to Witherspoon.
“Since I had transferred trains in Wuhan, I myself was registered and called by well-meaning, albeit somewhat forgetful, local apparatchiks every day for two weeks to verify that I had a normal temperature and displayed none of the other symptoms of the virus,” Witherspoon wrote.
In addition, he said, volunteers are guarding the campus’ gate, checking people’s temperature and making sure no one violates the lockdown.
Witherspoon said he is not worried about catching COVID-19 and hasn’t followed much of the news back home in King County — though he does keep in touch with his parents.
Witherspoon’s mother, Heidi Skrzypek, told The Beachcomber she feels better knowing the Chinese university lockdown and guidelines are in place.
“China is taking this virus seriously in that respect. As a result, his community (Enshi) has had a relatively low amount of confirmed cases,” she wrote in an email. “I know he is following all the hygienic protocols to stay as safe as possible, even teaching online. He is taking it in stride.”
Asked if he was worried about the idea of traveling to King County, which has been the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak for the last few weeks, Witherspoon said he was not.
“I am not extra hesitant about visiting home,” Witherspoon said. “I do, however, think it is okay to be cautious and am not offended by the travel bans some governments have put in place against residents of Hubei or China more generally. Should such a thing be established in Washington state, I would respect it.”