In 1665, as the bubonic plague approached London, a local bachelor debated whether to leave town, as Daniel Defoe wrote in “A Journal of the Plague Year.” The man’s brother was departing for a retreat in the countryside that he had arranged for his wife and children, and tried to convince the bachelor to follow suit. With his mind “greatly oppressed,” the bachelor calculated pros and cons: it would be safer in the countryside, but there were no more horses to hire in the city, and the servant he had planned on leaving with had already fled. After a long, serious deliberation, the man decided to stay put and seek refuge in God only.
For those who have the option to relocate to a less affected area during a pandemic, the decision isn’t necessarily an easy one. In January, as the coronavirus broke out in China, Chris Tuazon, a copywriter from California who resides in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen with his wife, Laura, their two daughters, and his mother-in-law, faced a conundrum similar to that of Defoe’s bachelor. Seeing the increasing number of COVID-19 cases as the country began to shelter in place, Tuazon stayed awake at night, wondering if he should take his whole family back to the U.S. In the video above, Tuazon offers a visual journal of the eighty-odd days his family spent in lockdown, including their deliberations over whether to stay in China or travel to the U.S. His daughters are one and three; he has asthma, and his mother-in-law is immunocompromised. Flights out of China were still available, but availability was becoming limited—and what if someone on the plane had the virus? By the end of January, President Trump banned entrance to the U.S. for anyone coming from China, except for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and a few other exceptions; even if they had been able to find a flight and felt safe about travelling, Tuazon’s mother-in-law wouldn’t have been able to get in. The family decided to stay.
In a crisis like this, the option to pack up and leave is, of course, often a luxury—not everyone has property, family elsewhere, the means to travel, or other resources that provide additional security. As New York City became an epicenter of the outbreak, many decided to decamp to the suburbs and beyond. According to data from a geospatial-analytics company, the wealthier a neighborhood is, the more of its residents have left.
But the decision to leave a heavily affected region, or not to leave, is not entirely dictated by material circumstances. To some extent, it can also be a vote of confidence. “It came down to I did not trust the Chinese government as much as the American government in terms of taking care of the situation,” Tuazon reflected, on his earlier impulse to head for the U.S. His wife, who is from China, thought otherwise. As COVID-19 escalated to a global pandemic, hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese students scrambled to fly back to China. Tuazon showcased a few strict public-health measures taken in his neighborhood by way of contrasting the federal response in the U.S. By April, Tuazon and his family were able to gradually and cautiously resume a normal life—going to work, taking the kids outside for walks—as his family back in California had begun anxiously waiting for the time when it would be safe to be outside again. This time, “maybe, maybe my wife was right,” Tuazon said, chuckling, “which spouses hate to say.”