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From China to the past: Waterford native to resume coronavirus coverage in U.S.

Journalist Julie Wernau, who covered the outbreak of the coronavirus from Beijing before being expelled by the government in mid-March, felt like she had traveled back to the past when she arrived safely in the United States this past Saturday.

Wernau, a Waterford native and former Day staff writer now working for the Wall Street Journal, is practicing social distancing while staying in East Lyme with her mother, Anne, for two weeks. She plans to resume covering the virus soon, possibly from this nation's epicenter in New York City.

Beijing, and all of China, was opening back up following two months of quarantine when she left. Returning to a country where stay-at-home orders are still relatively new, and cases of the virus are still on the upward side of the curve, was odd for Wernau.

"I just got done with this," she said in a phone interview. "We've been living like this for months in China. Coming back to the United States, it feels like going back in time, except I can understand what's going on, because it's in English. People keep saying things to me that I've already been through or said before."

Her advice to Americans is simple: "You need to learn how to live your life and protect yourself and follow the best practices, and that's really the only way to stop the spread of the virus."

Wernau never got sick in China, nor did anybody she knew. She considers herself an expert on social distancing and other safety precautions. She hasn't hugged her mother yet, and said they are observing the 6-foot safety rule, sitting on different furniture and not using the kitchen simultaneously. The whole family discussed whether it would be OK for her to stay in East Lyme while self-quarantining, and decided it would be OK with strict safety measures in place.

"When you get expelled from a country, you want to see your mom," she said.

Wernau had relished the opportunity to report on consumer markets from China and had made it her home over the past year, traveling throughout the region with interpreters to chronicle the country's explosive growth.

"It's a complicated culture with a long history, and it just felt like the kind of place that I could really, really sink into and not come out for a while," she said. "I really wanted to be able to explain this place to Americans at this point in history." 

She didn't want to say too much about being expelled, because some of her fellow journalists were still in transit from the Far East.

News reports of the expulsions indicate the American journalists were expelled two weeks after the Trump administration limited the number of Chinese who can work in the United States for state-run Chinese news organizations. 

The Wall Street Journal had covered the outbreak aggressively. Beginning in January, Wernau wrote stories about the disease's impact on travel during the Lunar New Year, panic buying and social media misinformation and how the country kept its stores filled with food, which she said was a critical factor in maintaining public order.

Wernau also wrote about the demand for face masks, noting their efficacy was disputed. She did wear a mask in public, and said she would continue to do so when she goes into the community. A mask, she said, serves as a good reminder that people need to keep their distance from one another.

On her Facebook page, Wernau chronicled her personal journey during the coronavirus, posting a video of herself putting on a mask and taking precautions as she traveled from her apartment to her office. On March 20, she posted a video of mask-wearing residents working out in a park following weeks of home confinement.

"Beijing is starting to come to life," she wrote in the post. "The pingpong tables are full and crossing the street once again involves dodging scooters and grannies doing their exercises in the bike lanes. The weather has warmed up and flowers are blooming on the trees. People are slowly coming outside and figuring out how to live life in this new normal. A sneak peek at the future."

She said she fears the United States will take longer to flatten the curve of the virus because the Chinese were able to enforce quarantine orders. When she arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport last week, she was surprised that nobody told her to go home and self-quarantine.

"In some ways it was a nice reminder that we don't live in a totalitarian state," she said. "In another vein, it was a reverse culture shock."

She said she has been impressed, though, with some of the safety measures taken here. What terrifies her, she said, is that if the economy collapses while the country fights the spread of the virus, more people will die from that than from the coronavirus. She expects to have her pick of available apartments in New York City, where people who are suddenly unemployed are packing up and leaving.

"Even people who make good money in New York City are one paycheck away from not being able to live there," she said. "It's an incredibly expensive place to live."

She said people should think about ways to support the economy if they are able, and to help out their friends.

Wernau said the government expulsions decimated the Wall Street Journal's bureau in Beijing, but reporting on the country is ongoing.

"We're still going to cover China, and it's going to be OK," she said.

Asked whether China had intentionally delayed publicizing the virus, she said the Journal had written some good stories about missteps and delays, most of which were associated with the way the government's top-down structure requires people to go through several layers of bureaucracy before notifying "their bosses' bosses' boss," she said.

As for the debate about the origin of the virus, she said the common belief remains that it originated in the wet, or fresh meat and produce, market in Wuhan as initially reported.

"There's a lot of politics going on behind the scenes, some of which we might not completely understand yet, but will in time," Wernau said.

k.florin@theday.com

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