It began in January as a trip to see his ailing grandfather. But while Canadian journalist Ethan Lou was in the air between Toronto and Beijing, China quarantined the entire city of Wuhan due to a new virus raging out of control. Lou landed to a new world. The COVID-19 name hadn’t yet been coined, but everything had nonetheless already changed. Like most of the world back then, Lou did not foresee how the coronavirus would spiral forth to every corner of the world. But he quickly comes to terms with how nothing will ever be the same.
Field Notes from a Pandemic appears at first a travelogue, taking readers through not just his days under lockdown in China, but also Singapore and Germany as they strain under the weight of the plague. Indeed, it is as a travel writer Lou particularly shines. Little details and personal touches draw the reader in, particularly Lou’s depiction of Asia and his time there, his stories of his grandfather, and his detailed depictions of local food from Singapore’s nasi lemak to Germany’s currywurst. Lou also delves deep into the histories of the places he visits, everything from Singapore’s independence to Holy Roman Empire politics.
Lou’s weaving of analyses with personal anecdotes and introspective observation reads effortlessly.
Yet underneath the color and detail are sharp analyses of how the pandemic changes the world, the new divisions to be formed and fresh geopolitical upheaval. Ultimately, the story of the pandemic is also the story of China and its place in the world, and Lou tells that tale well.
Some of the book’s statistics are already painfully—and perhaps unavoidably—dated, although Lou references data from as late as July. But the big-picture ideas Lou wrote earlier in the year are practically premonitions:
In crises, there are those who delve inward, who seek seclusion and removal. But there are also those who look outward at all the chaos around them and see opportunity.
So China bears down on Hong Kong, introducing a new security law while the world’s attention is divided, ramps up disinformation campaigns, and rapidly restarts its economy and goes forth on its “face mask diplomacy.”
That last point is particularly salient. As the West, particularly the United States, stands mired in in a chaos resulting substantially, if not entirely, from the pandemic, China increasingly sees a vacuum it can fill, a means to reposition its image as a new world leader, Lou writes:
China prominently publicized what it portrayed as aid sent to the hard-hit Italy. From Spain to France, and to the Czech Republic—the Asian country capitalized on the public-relations moments as well.
When the United States pulled funding from the World Health Organization, China stepped right in by upping its own contribution. There is a Chinese saying, Lou writes, “that when the tiger abdicates the mountain, the monkey reigns.”
Ultimately, though, Lou writes, it is not so much the pandemic’s causing anything as it is accelerating an already ongoing trend—and an evermore more substantial Chinese presence on the world stage is inevitable. And so China needs to be pressured to play a more constructive role in international affairs, to take on the leadership responsibility that comes with power, Lou writes. “That’s not entirely a new idea. But given how easily one’s problem becomes everyone else’s in this globalized world, the pandemic has made it all the more important.”
Field Notes from a Pandemic ends with Lou back in Canada. Lou’s weaving of analyses with personal anecdotes and introspective observation reads effortlessly and is the book’s chief merit.
Even in the most disinterested commentary, Lou does not let the reader forget that in the middle of the war against an invisible virus we do not see, amid talk of complicated science whose inner workings we barely understand, and beneath the calculated moves of countries and corporations we can little influence, there is the story of the individual.