Shared grief, suspicion and multiplying tensions have seized this nation. Since the central government takeover of China’s virus response last week, state media has broadcast a steady stream of inspirational reports about heroic Chinese people uniting to fight the unseen enemy, confident in the party’s leadership. Over and over again, the government repeats: Trust us. Be calm. Wash your hands. Stay home.

But offscreen, China’s virus war is grim. Silent cities sit in a white winter smog that blots out the sky, their silent, empty streets contrasting with the crowded hospitals where doctors and nurses break down because they lack equipment or rooms for the patients squeezed outside their doors.

Fear lurks in the background of even healthy people’s minds, inflated by the proximity of death, fragility of loved ones, and most of all by the unknown: where the virus comes from, how it changes, how it spreads, whether one has it or not, and whether authorities are providing the full truth. It is a country of fretful eyes peering out over surgical masks.



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