COVID-19 phenomenology: a reflection

The novel coronavirus, now seared into our universal consciousness with the technical name of SARS-CoV-2, stalks us in every corner like a new plague. In attacking the way we breathe, when air (pneuma) is both life and spirit, this coronavirus and its variants are changing us. SARS-CoV-2, seemingly appearing out of nowhere in late 2019, eats away at the lungs of those who it chooses to kill. Unable to keep it out of our daily existence, the authorities are now resigning to the fate of universal infection, which will separate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. But sickness and death will not spare either of them when breakthrough infections and waning antibodies are scientific realities. 

The promise that those in power have given us is that through mass vaccinations, COVID-19 will become like the flu. Many will get sick; some will die; but most people are going to be okay. But in epidemiology, no one is actually sure that this situation of relative freedom, with some sacrifices of life, will be stabilised. What is certain, however, is that a global pharmaceutical governance will define our lives as we humans eke out our existence through vaccine boosters to counter our gradually fading immunity in face of the growing violence of the coronavirus mutants. Since that fateful day in late 2019, we are no longer free. Our Dasein is disease-being in the spiralling pandemic-endemic dialectics. 

Heidegger warned us never to equate being with security. Sein, in fact, is Gefahr. Through decades of being cocooned in technology, which are material extensions of our cleverness, our desires and our foibles, humans have forgotten that in olden times, the hunter also became the hunted. There has never been an absolute conquest. History always has the last laugh as the curtain falls on the stage of our vulnerability on earth. This is our fundamental ontology.


Pandemic in Apocalyptic Imagination

Besides war, nothing can disrupt socioeconomic order more than a pandemic – hence the fear of war and pestilence is ingrained in the collective psyche of human society. In cultures shaped by Christianity, this fear is symbolised, with great archetypal power, in the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from The Book of Revelation, which concludes the New Testament – pandemic, as pestilence, is attributed to one of the horsemen, although interpretations vary, as with anything to do with symbolic imagination in a cultural tradition. As conclusion, therefore, pandemics are associated with Endzeit: universal diseases decimating humanity as the historical fulfilment of time, believed to be divine-ordered. In essence, quarantine, despite its protective function (thus its securitisation) for the continuity of the human species, has a troubling link, as a transnational imaginary, with horror inspired by sickness, decay and death. In the apocalyptic imagination, bodily existence disintegrates, and this disintegration is also feared as being reflective of the damnation of one’s soul. Disease is hell; and quarantine, purgatory.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in advance: the quarantine of Eastern’s Chinese crew (December 1923-January 1924)

On a pleasant afternoon stroll down to the Wharf Precinct of the former North Head Quarantine Station today, I looked at and mentally greeted the zhaocai jinbao inscription on a rock wall full of European inscriptions, as I often do when I go past there. This time I was delightfully surprised to find that the Chinese characters written horizontally with a brush, just above the lid of the engraved Chinese-style clay urn, are now completely visible. (They first became partly visible in January 2015, and I sent a photograph of my discovery to the Quarantine Project at the University of Sydney.) Many of the words in the eight vertical lines of the Tang-style seven-syllable poem (qiyan lüshi), inscribed in the upper half of the urn, have become visible, too, but only partly, which means that they are still blurred and remain illegible to the naked eye. Painted over with crude strokes of black ink by anti-Chinese people in an unidentified period in the history of the Quarantine Station, the re-emergence of these Chinese characters, as the offending overlay that once silenced them is gradually wearing off through exposure to the elements, is historically significant for the memorialisation of Chinese culture in the history of human quarantine in Australia.

SS Eastern was quarantined on 23 December 1923, the same day it entered Sydney Harbour after travelling down the coast from Queensland. In the lunisolar calendar used by the Chinese, 23 December was the 16th day of the eleventh month of the guihai (癸亥) year, or Year of the Pig. In the zhaocai jinbao inscription, the date of its creation was given as the 15th of the last month of the guihai year, which, in the Gregorian calendar used in the West, fell on 20 January 1924. This was an indication that the quarantine of the Chinese crew had already exceeded the mandatory 18-day period stipulated by the Commonwealth’s Quarantine Service.

The first day of the Chinese New Year in the jiazi year, the Year of the Rat which immediately follows the Year of the Pig, fell on Tuesday 5 February 1924, which was 15 days after the zhaocai jinbao inscription was made. (In 2019, it will fall on the same day in February.) Were the Chinese crew, presumably detained at the Quarters for Asiatics, where P14, P15 and P16 were three adjoining dormitories crammed with bunk beds, still in quarantine then? Or had they already been released and were celebrating Chinese New Year aboard Eastern in its Hong Kong-bound voyage?

[work in progress]

23 December is the first day of my present sojourn at the former Quarantine Station. Unbeknownst to me until today, it was also the 95th anniversary of the 1923 quarantine of SS Eastern. After coming to stay here for nearly ten years, I am no stranger to the mysterious ways of North Head, a very sacred site of the Gai-mariagal people. May the primacy of their heritage at North Head never be forgotten. May the integrity of Asian heritage in Australian quarantine stations be honoured always.

“White” trajectories in discourse

Just as there is black history to Australian history, a “yellow”, or East Asian, history needs to be told in the spirit of full unconcealment in the aletheia of truth – while at the same time being aware of the interplay between concealment and hiddenness in our primordially existential engagement with the phenomenon of truth.

As long as there is human history, the story of truth can never cease to be told.

Only a few decades after the beginning of human quarantine history in Australia at North Head in the Colony of New South Wales in 1828, an East Asian aspect became interwoven with the mainstream discourse on public health that those in power tried to keep “white” – mainly in the form of the “Chinese question”, i.e. the admissibility or otherwise of East Asians into Australia’s Identitätsraum, an entity that is imagined and referred to in speech and writing, yet at the same time thoroughly, if not primally, visceral. Race talks.

This “whiteness” continues to this day with the established discourse on the history of public health in Australia, even if the norm in academia is that this “whiteness” is a reflective critique of past racist injustices. Yet in careful readings of the products of this “white” discourse, especially by “people of colour”, intellectual blind spots can be detected here and there. After all, a complete self-transparency in aletheia is, according to phenomenological philosophy, an impossible ideal. Regardless of one’s own cultural background and genetic make-up, one can only try one’s best – the moral imperative here is to admit one’s limitations in the methodology of one’s discourse and not to wield the power-imbued yardstick of universal truth, which can exclude and suppress voices of less social power.

Australia, it is time for a resourceful cultural and racial diversity in the established canon of academic and other forms of public discourse.

Chinese mariners in Liverpool, UK

Installed and revealed in Liverpool, UK, 2006, the following is the text from a commemorative plaque to Chinese mariners who once lived and worked in that important seaport city:

“To the Chinese merchant seamen who served this country well during both world wars, for those who gave their lives for this country – thank you.

“To the many Chinese merchant seamen who after both world wars were required to leave, for their wives and partners who were left in ignorance of what happened to their men, for the children who never knew their fathers, this is a small reminder of what took place. We hope nothing like it will ever happen again.

“For your memory.

“23rd January 2006.”

Here at North Head in Sydney, Australia, we do not even have a plaque to commemorate the lives of many Chinese mariners who transited through the North Head Quarantine Station and contributed to the significant maritime trade between Australia and Asia, while experiencing poor treatment in quarantine – racial segregation and inferior accommodation at the Quarters for Asiatics – and in society in general during the long years of the White Australia Policy.


Stuart Heaver, “Why did 300 Chinese fathers vanish from Liverpool in 1946 after wartime service in British merchant navy?” South China Morning Post, 4 November 2017., accessed 15 April 2018.

Sullivan’s Island Pest House (Quarantine House), South Carolina, USA

The racialisation of the other, with the view to segregating them and giving them inferior treatment, has a long history in the administration of human quarantine in the New World, given its colonial origins through British conquest.

An important publication on the history of human quarantine in America is Joseph Jones’ Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce, published in New Orleans in 1883. Dr Jones was President of the Board of Health in the State of Louisiana. His description of an incident on 29 May 1744, which took place on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbour in South Carolina, while America was still a British colony, reveals an early form of racialisation in human quarantine that later became commonplace in British settler nations such as Australia.

One thousand pounds appropriated for Sullivan’s Island Pesthouse. No ship with negroes from Africa shall pass to town without the negroes staying ten days at the pesthouse, or carried on shore five out of ten days for purification upon pain of confiscation. No one from shore shall go on board said ship; and no one leave said ship under penalty of whipping. The captain, in passing Fort Johnson, shall swear conformity.

Between 1700 and 1775, 40% of the African slaves imported into America came through South Carolina and were quarantined in the four pest houses on Sullivan’s Island under conditions that were as dismal as those on the ships that they travelled on (Johnson, 2008). The sick were administered to by white quarantine staff (Miles, 2014), and those who recovered – from either yellow fever or smallpox – joined the fit ones to be sold to plantation owners who ordered them. An estimated total of 200,000 African slaves went through quarantine on Sullivan’s Island (Miles, 2014). It can be imagined that the picture was one of brute reality of human survival, when the racialised other was a mere commodity with no rights and destined to work until the end of allotted time.



Johnson, Jessica. “Fort Moultrie Seeks Comment on Slave Exhibit”, The Post and Courier, 24 January 2008. Johnson mentions African slave importation “between 1700 and 1775”, however, according to Sullivan’s Island historian Suzanne Smith Smiles, the first pest house, built of bricks and measuring 30 feet by 16 feet, did not appear until 1707, the year a quarantine act was passed in respect of the island, to protect the nearby Charles Town which profited greatly from slave labour. For example, as mentioned in Miles’ 2014 article, a smallpox epidemic in Charles Town between 1759 and 1760 saw an estimated 6000 became sick, over 700 of whom died. Quarantine was put in place to assist the growth of a highly exploitative economy based on imported slavery and displacement of Native Americans.

Jones, Joseph. Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce. New Orleans: E A Brandao, 1883.

Miles, Suzanne Smith. “Fighting Illness at Sullivan’s Island Pest House”, Moultrie News, 21 October 2014.

Zhaocai jinbao as an emblem of defiance

During the current Lunar New Year period celebrating the arrival of the Earth Dog, as an Australian of mixed East Asian backgrounds, it is all the more important that I write about a Chinese heritage emblem of defiance of Australia’s institutionalised racism in its public health history near the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station. It is none other than zhaocai jinbao, a Lunar New Year expression used for decorative purposes in a spirit of joyful auspiciousness.

With the four characters zhao, cai, jin and bao elegantly fused together to create the optical illusion of one character, yet at the same time clearly discernible as four different characters upon closer look, zhaocai jinbao literally means “Attract wealth, ushering in treasure.” Its interplay of unison and difference, calligraphically co-located on the same two-dimensional plane, makes zhaocai jinbao one of the most easily recognisable emblems of Chinese culture in mainland and in diaspora.

Haffkine serum against cholera and plague

Professor Waldemar Haffkine’s serum, although rejected by the medical establishment in his home country of Russia, nevertheless saw great success in India when he moved there in the late 19th century to tackle the severe challenges of successive epidemics on the subcontinent.

A contemporary article, authored by William T Fee, British Consul in India, describes the Haffkine serum as follows: “In vaccination for smallpox a living germ is dealt with, whereas in plague inoculation dead seed only are injected” (Fee, 1899, p. 2047).

Mutton fish: abalones

The dispossession of Indigenous Australians in the economic history of sustainable mutton fish (abalones) harvesting tells a twofold tale of colonisation by both British and Chinese settlers. In this aspect, Chinese immigration was, as far as Indigenous Australians were concerned, not much different in character from the British invasion in 1788 in the way it destroyed their traditional livelihood and disconnected them from the maritime environment of mutton fish harvesting. Both British and Chinese settlements were uninvited events in Australian history which saw the Aboriginals become displaced people in their own land.



Cruse, Beryl et al. Mutton Fish.

Exclusion: leprosy and mental illness

Although unrelated, social marginalisation in liminal zones of physical isolation was applied to sufferers of leprosy and mental health alike in the political design of exclusion during the late 19th century in Australia. An example of this can be found in the history of public health measures on the Moreton Bay islands near Brisbane in Queensland.