Radcliffe Nichols made the decision to stay in China during outbreak that became a pandemic
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) swept across Wuhan – the epicenter of China’s COVID-19 outbreak – and neighboring provinces, Radcliffe Nichols made the life-altering decision to stay in Beijing and wait out what would soon become a global pandemic that has shaken the world.
Nichols, 30, a master’s student studying business management, has lived in the Thaoya District of Beijing since 2013.
He broke his silence over the choice faced by scores of international students, including some his countrymen, in an interview with Eyewitness News.
The first COVID-19 death in China occurred on January 11, after the Chinese government ruled out the possibility that the illness was severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.
The SARS epidemic had swept the country and globe in 2003.
At this time, Nichols said many of his peers began traveling home despite an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about the exposure while traveling.
But in Beijing, after waves of panicked shopping peaked, Nichols said there was an eerie quietness that settled over the normally bustling cities.
The Chinese government had advised residents to remain indoors.
“I really didn’t feel that traveling was the best option, like we were actually advised not to travel,” said Nichols.
“They told us our best bet was to stay where you are and bunker down and ride it out until things have cleared up.
“Also, a lot of the people were like they got through SARS and they also said the same thing, don’t travel and stay put — it’s going to be around for three to six months.”
He said: “Last time, they told it was six months for SARS, so they advised to stick around. I also have a dog too and I didn’t want to leave without getting them sorted out and it’s kind of difficult here to do that.
“A lot of businesses were closed too, so I wasn’t able to get it done it time, so I said I’m going to stay and ride it out.”
However, the death toll would jump to 17 with more than 550 infections less than two weeks later.
Nichols said he was still able to leave his apartment to get essential items, but those were the only times he ventured out.
When he did, he wore a face mask and was careful about touching high-contact points.
“I only really left the house to go grocery shopping, to pick up a few things — the grocery store is around 800 meters away, so it was not that bad,” he said.
The store became not only a lifeline for food, but also a welcomed break from the routine of being at home, he said.
“I would come back home and that was about it; the convenient store and back, and that was about it.”
Security personnel and police officers manned the apartment complexes in his neighborhood, scanning the temperature of residents coming in and out of those buildings.
Nichols said he was also required to carry around a temporary card that identified his apartment building and number.
There was was a similar process for entering food stores, with security personnel scanning shoppers’ temperatures and taking their personal information and identification cards in certain instances.
It was then, Nichols said, worry began to set in as he realized Beijing could suffer the same fate as Wuhan.
“I was really worried, but I also had to think that the way government put everything on control, did the social distancing, and did measures so quickly; that was what kind of helped the fear of it too, and how I was only inside mostly,” he said.
Overtime, Nichols said he began to adapt to the new normal.
Attending functions, working out at his local gym and socializing in person swiftly became foregone luxurious.
His new routines, particularly when returning home, involved immediately removing his mask, shoes, clothes, washing his hands and extensively disinfecting.
By January 30, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global emergency.
As the death toll climbed to 170 with over 7,000 confirmed cases in China, cases of the virus started popping up in the western hemisphere, including the United States.
That day, the government of The Bahamas implemented an immediate travel ban, restricting all travel from China to The Bahamas.
According to Nichols, it began common to see healthcare workers in hazmat suits.
At one point, health officials removed several people from a neighboring building over concerns they had contracted the potentially deadly virus.
Nichols said: “They were pulling people out when there were cases or what not; going through their apartment, and they were riding around in the back of trucks disinfecting the sidewalks and people’s cars.”
At night, some complexes locked their entrance gates to prevent access.
Nichols said he spent the time in isolation reading, working on his master’s thesis, and taking online cases.
He broke up the long, monotonous days with television and online calls to friends and family, who had wished for him to return home.
With popular western applications like WhatsApp banned, Nichols relied on Instagram video chat and email to stay in touch.
“My family was like you need to come home and hop on the next plane,” he said.
“I said it was a better chance of me staying and not traveling until they get a hold of this thing; let me just stay where I am.
“My Dad was upset and he [insisted I] should probably come home. He was like ‘why won’t you come’ and was all over the place. I just had a feeling that it wasn’t the best move and it made more sense to stay. It was kind of a gut feeling.”
On March 10, Wuhan closed the last of dozens of makeshift hospitals — a sign that authorities efforts to curb the virus was working.
In recent weeks, China has continued to report there have been no new cases of the virus — a stark contrast to the rapid spread in the western hemisphere.
Nichols said people are beginning to walk around more as the season changes, and businesses have slowly begun to resume, including the majority of restaurants.
However, he said people continue to wear face masks and in some cases gloves – a reminder of the public health threat that continues to strain health systems in dozens of countries.
Nichols said he plans to travel back home to The Bahamas to visit, but intends to work in China after his degree.
He last visited in December 2018.
He’s uncertain about his next visit as cases continue to spread across the United States, Caribbean and elsewhere.
As of Friday, there were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in The Bahamas and at least 30 people identified as social contacts of the original patient — all of whom have been under observation.
When asked what advice he had for Bahamians, Nichols credited his survival at ground zero of the global pandemic to the strict enforcement of laws, and increased awareness of preventative measures.
“Wash your hands and keep your hands clean; don’t touch your face,” he said.
“I actually sat down one day and recorded myself, like throughout the day, and you wouldn’t believe how many times I touched my face and didn’t realize it. It’s such a big habit. If you have to go around people, be aware of your surroundings. That’s an important part.”
At the time of the interview, the government had not activated emergency orders in The Bahamas.
The governor general declared a public state of emergency Tuesday.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis activated the emergency powers, which allow for detention and mandatory isolation; and a 9 pm to 5 am curfew, effective Friday.
The curfew will remain in effect until March 31, and could be extended.
The virus has infected more than 322,000 people worldwide and taken the lives of more than 13,700 people.
More than 3,200 of the deaths have occurred in China, predominantly in Hubei.
Over 95,000 people have recovered from the virus.