An Wuhan Diary
In the Eye of the Storm
nuary 23 was the day the city went into lockdown, one day before Lunar New Year’s Eve. It was still dark outside when I woke up, just after 4 a.m. I reached for my phone and saw a message from Xiaohuo, a former schoolmate, sent just an hour ago from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. He was about to board a flight to Cambodia. “Take care,” he wrote, “I’m off.” He had also forwarded a news announcement: “Beginning at 10 a.m. today, all of Wuhan’s public transportation systems, including buses and subways, will discontinue service. The city’s airport and train stations, as well as other methods for leaving the city, will also be shut down.” The announcement had been released at 2 a.m. There were quotes around the subject heading: “City Lockdown”.
By Liu Lutian
This wasn’t entirely unexpected, but still, it felt very sudden. The word had been spreading for a while about a mysterious type of pneumonia. On December 31, when I was still in Beijing, a colleague named Xiaogong from Shanghai sent over a screenshot. It was an urgent notice from the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee, issued the day before, stating that there had been patients with unexplained cases of pneumonia streaming in from the Huanan seafood market. One theory posited that the virus causing the pneumonia-like symptoms was similar to SARS. But on January 2, the state-owned television network CCTV reported that eight individuals in Wuhan were being investigated for “disseminating rumours” about the epidemic. My uneasiness grew when I read in the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao that Hong Kong was putting precautionary measures into place. In the domestic media, Caixin was also reporting confirmed cases of infected patients in Thailand and Japan. At the time all of us referred to it as “Wuhan pneumonia”.
When I asked my parents in Wuhan about the situation, they dismissed it as a rumour. Maybe a handful of people have gotten sick, but that’s all, they said. Instead, they were eager to know when I was coming home for the holidays. Later, they forwarded the following viral message: “The rest of the world supposes that China is the so-called ‘epidemic hotspot’; the Chinese suppose that Wuhan is the ‘epidemic hotspot’; and the residents of Wuhan suppose that the city’s Hankou District is the ‘epidemic hotspot’. Meanwhile, the residents of Hankou are cheerfully getting groceries, busily preparing for New Year’s Eve dinner, and they can’t be bothered to respond.”
1I left my job at a media company in Beijing just at the end of last year. The plan was to travel to Indonesia with Xiaohuo during the New Year holiday, and interview the local ethnic Chinese population. I would take the train back to Wuhan on January 14 to spend time with my parents, then get on my flight to Sihanoukville on January 24. My train home was dropping me off at Wuhan’s Hankou Station. The station was just a few hundred meters from the Huanan seafood market, so I asked my father not to come and meet me. Still, he came and waited for an hour. This was before the peak of the New Year travel rush, so the train station wasn’t too crowded, and nobody was wearing facemasks. The subway was the same. It all seemed just like every other year—along the street, hanging red lanterns decorated storefronts, festive fruit baskets for purchase were on full display, and hot steam emanated deliciously from the stalls selling hot dry noodles and glutinous rice fritters.
Up until January 19, the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee’s reports had indicated no new patient infections, stating only that “limited human-to-human transmission” of the virus was a possibility. At his first briefing about the outbreak, the deputy mayor declared that the situation would be “limited and controlled”. The National Health Commission expressed the same message. I woke up that morning with a slight fever, and figured it was just a cold. The three of us in my family decided to go to a seafood hotpot buffet, thinking it would be nice to fill up with something warm. I put on a facemask, but couldn’t convince my parents to do the same. They had complete faith in the official message, that the virus was being “limited and controlled”.
In the afternoon of January 20, Dr. Zhong Nanshan appeared on the news, and what he said was in startling contrast to what we’d been told up until then. Based on the latest information about the “novel coronavirus”, he explained, “now we can say that it is certain it is a human-to-human transmission phenomenon.” He added that fourteen medical personnel in Wuhan had already been infected. Soon after, reports of President Xi’s instructions regarding the virus were all over the Internet. “Guess it must be serious if even Xi has said something,” my father remarked. He had finally decided to stay home instead of playing mah-jong with his buddies, which he had been doing every day. I told Xiaohuo that I had a slight fever and cough, and wouldn’t be joining him in Cambodia. Take care, I said to him.
That was when the ridicule began piling on, as people around the country dug up local news articles in Wuhan. On January 18, the front page of Wuhan’s local Chutian City News featured a New Year’s “Thousand Family Potluck” in Baibuting, a Wuhan neighbourhood with over 100,000 residents. A few days earlier, a Wuhan resident had been asked by a journalist whether she would wear a facemask. “No!” she exclaimed. And why not? “Trust the government!” was her reply.
But this was how I’ve always thought of the people of Wuhan. There’s a phrase in the local dialect, buxingxie, which communicates a defiant scepticism. Unexpected predicament thrown your way? Why, go right up against it, see what happens, and deal with the consequences later. It’s no coincidence that Wuhan is the birthplace of punk bands like SMZB and AV Okubo, as well as the famous Vox Bar, a performance stop for all of China’s touring indie bands. The port of Hankou was established during the Qing dynasty, so the culture of the wharf has been hundreds of years in the making. During the Reform and Opening Up, the shops in the Hanzheng Street Market were run by the country’s first wave of business pioneers, people trying to carve out better lives, putting in their sweat and labour from three or four in the morning until midnight. I was eight years old during the floods of 1998. My memories consist only of splashing happily in the rain with my umbrella. The additional element of fear was only tacked on much later, when I went back to read about it as a piece of history.
What was abundantly clear, however, was that this instance of sceptical buxingxie wasn’t merely an expression of the local spirit, but rather a consequence of the basic inconsistency of the information we were receiving.
2The news of lockdown came from the Epidemic Prevention and Control Command Center (EPCCC), an ad hoc organization quickly scrapped together by the city. As for contingency plans, or what residents should do in the case of transportation complications, or supply shortages, we weren’t told anything. There were only eight hours between the time of the announcement and the actual lockdown. Crowding formed at train stations and cars rushed onto the highways. My mother saw the news when she woke up around 6 a.m., and by 8 a.m., she was scrambling to the nearest grocery store to stock up. At the entrance, customers were having their temperatures taken, one by one. There was a long line to the produce section, which was already nearly emptied out. The checkout area was packed, too. In the end, my mother hadn’t been able to get any fruit or vegetables, but she filled two shopping baskets with eggs, milk, and staples. As she was leaving, she ran into a neighbour, who stood in dazed bewilderment—even all of the shopping baskets were gone.
Everything seemed, at the same time, alike and completely unalike every other Lunar New Year’s Eve. Absent were the festive booms of firecrackers. Only the sound of rain was coming in from the outside. In actuality, I was simply sitting at home, but somehow, it was the world illustrated on my phone and on the computer that seemed far more real, that seemed like the only place where I could try to grasp the reality of the situation.
48 hours after lockdown, Wuhan was a desolated city. And not just in the physical sense. Wuhan is separated by the Yangtze and Han Rivers into three large districts: Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang, which are further divided into thirteen smaller communities. Between the registered population and the migrant population, we are 14 million people. The shutdown of the city’s public transportation made it near impossible to get anywhere. During this period, the EPCCC issued eight separate notices, informing of the shutdown of the Yangtze River Tunnel, the enclosure of each individual district, and the launch of donation banks for resources and supplies. These donations could only be made through the Red Cross or the China Charity Federation. There remained still no word on how residents were meant to get by each day, nor did we know who to talk to. In this way, the citizens and the government were situated on two parallel lines, never intersecting.
Problems quickly emerged. Medical personnel without their own cars couldn’t get to work. Hospitals were in desperate shortage of the supplies necessary to prevent transmission. Right away, asymptomatic, car-owning local residents formed volunteer teams in their districts, and shuttled workers back and forth. Hospitals printed posters asking for donations of supplies. Volunteer groups began quickly forming over WeChat, with names like “Lumolu Rescue Team”, “Blue Sky Rescue Team”, “Glimmer of Light Rescue Team”, “Wuxin Aid”, and “Doing Something”. In addition to driving patients and medical personnel, these volunteers also collected donations from all over the country and delivered them directly to the hospitals. It wasn’t until that night that the EPCCC issued a notice about dispatching 4,000 taxicabs to be distributed among the various community centres.
3A growing number of requests for help from hospitals were appearing in WeChat groups and WeChat Moments. These requests were aggregated into public and Weibo posts. The severe shortage of supplies was dispiriting. Protective suits were in such scarce supply that doctors skipped meals, because stripping off the suit in order to eat would necessitate putting on a new one afterwards. Facemasks were being reused for five days. As masks ran out, people simply covered their mouths with their hands. Someone who identified themselves as a worker at a Hankou funeral parlour claimed that, based on the number of bodies they were receiving, the actual number of deaths was likely to be many times the official count. A video appeared on Weibo International showing three bodies draped in white sheets in the middle of a hospital corridor. On both sides were people, sitting and standing, wearing facemasks. The woman capturing the video, in a voice choking with tears, said, “We can’t get through the line to the mayor, but nobody is taking care of these dead bodies. The doctors can’t keep up, and the hospital directors can’t be found.”
It became clear that although many of the volunteer groups had formed and responded rapidly, there were some common problems. The groups’ efforts were fragmented, and administered on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, nobody was verifying the legitimacy of the requests, or the window of time for which the requested resources were needed. The endless influx of new volunteers was also flooding the communication channels with chatter; naturally, efficiency was much lower than if there had existed a centralized, coordinated plan. Some of these people also distrusted established organizations like the Red Cross and the China Charity Federation. They challenged the time spent on various operational processes, and wanted to personally ensure that their money was being put to good use.
The endless influx of new volunteers was also flooding the communication channels with chatter; naturally, efficiency was much lower than if there had existed a centralized, coordinated plan.
Through reports by non-state owned media sources, like Sanlian Lifeweek and Caixin, people were beginning to recognize the urgency of the situation. Because testing kits were scarce, confirmed diagnosis was difficult. Plus, hospital beds were full, and hospitals were turning away a portion of symptomatic patients. These deficiencies all pointed to higher rates of transmission.
In the week following lockdown, I began receiving hundreds of text messages from friends. A former colleague who had spent the New Year in Wenzhou told me that both of her parents had fevers, and their mouths tasted bitter. These were two of the symptoms described by confirmed carriers. My friend was on the verge of a breakdown. After her mother went alone to the hospital at three in the morning, the doctor asked only whether she had recently been to Wuhan, and whether she was coughing or had been in contact with live fowl. Then, he simply wrote a prescription for a fever reducer, and sent her home. Wenzhou was right behind Wuhan in its number of cases. About 180,000 businesspeople from Wenzhou worked in Wuhan, and 330,000 people from the Hubei province worked in Wenzhou.
A director I’d never met, who went by K, also got in touch with me that week. He wanted to discover the reality on the ground, and asked regular citizens to take videos of their lives, which he’d put together into a documentary. He contacted thirty-some participants from across the country. Many people spoke of their individual agonies. A photographer from Wuhan had taken a photo with two friends on January 9, and now, just weeks later, both of them were dead. In Zhaoqing, a young father described his wife, in Wuhan, going into labour and giving birth the day after the lockdown. Now he was anxiously waiting to get into the city. In Guangzhou, a high school student’s grandmother was critically ill, and he filmed his parents’ conversations. “We don’t need to be disseminating slogans and such, since it doesn’t count for much, anyway. We should be capturing reality, the things that are really happening.”
I was also chatting with a volunteer in Huanggang every night. She was a schoolteacher in Yingshan County. Initially she had simply planned to donate money to the hospitals, but then she began helping hospitals secure supplies, and soon she was delivering resources to fourteen different hospitals. All day she was in her car, while simultaneously making requests in WeChat groups for facemasks, protective suits, and thermometers. Most of the time she seemed anxious and distressed, because the other cities and prefectures in Hubei province outside of Wuhan seemed to have shrouded themselves in a false sense of safety, and she was never sure the necessary supplies could be secured. There was only one day when she seemed very happy. She explained that she had just gotten her hands on a permit for travel between Huanggang and Wuhan. No longer would she need to acquire a different permit for every section of her drive.
My friend Xiaohuo had also messaged to say that there had been a confirmed carrier on his return flight from Cambodia, and so he was being quarantined for 14 days in Wuxi.
4Due to the shortage of supplies, my family reduced ourselves to two meals a day. At 9 a.m., we ate breakfast, and at 4 p.m., we had dinner. In the beginning, we rarely spoke with each other about the epidemic. Instead we sat at the table, swiping away at our phones. Then later, as people we knew were falling sick from the virus, or dying, we began to report to each other, as we ate, which friends and family had perished from the virus. My father reported that a friend from college, who had served as a reporter for a Wuhan television station, died on the first day of the Lunar New Year. My mother said that a high school classmate one year below her, and who had only returned to Wuhan from the United States for the Lunar New Year, also died on New Year’s Day. Last year I had interviewed the heads of two distribution companies in Hankou. One of them lost his mother to the virus, the other his father. Both had died when their symptoms worsened while they waited for an open hospital bed.
The official narrative is always told from a larger scale, but the reality is embedded in the smaller details, on the micro level. It’s as though you’re witnessing the emergency activation of some massive system, and your ear catches the squealing of the rusty parts as they scrape and rub against each other.
Because resources and distribution were being controlled ever more tightly by the government, the things volunteers could do to help with supplying resources were diminishing. So, the volunteers turned their attention to helping the sick. On February 2, I signed on to two volunteer teams, connecting with sick patients who were in need of aid. On the night of February 4, 200-some volunteers set up 1,000 beds in the Hongshan Gymnasium, converting it into the makeshift Fangcang Hospital, which soon began accepting and assisting patients. Still, we constantly felt helpless. We clearly didn’t have enough beds. And all we could really do was continue to tell patients how important it was for them to get CT scans, to have nucleic acid testing done, to have their carrier status confirmed. That was the only way for them to get the treatment they needed. We told them to turn to WeChat for help when they were desperate, to make calls to their community committees, as well as the health committees and the EPCCC. And, we encouraged them to fill out every single form for assistance that they came across.
A friend who volunteered for the People’s Daily Volunteer Team quit after just three days. Her job had been to verify the information and status of those who had applied for aid. She made calls to each patient and asked about the development of their symptoms. Relative to the younger patients, especially those whose entire families had been infected, seniors 70 or older were often left off of priority treatment lists. Yet their feelings of utter helplessness came across over the phone. The last call my friend made was answered by the family member of an older patient. The sick patient had just passed away, and the family member had dialled the ambulance to come and provide a certificate of death. Only with the certificate could the family contact a funeral home. Even then, they still had to wait in line. Some people calling the ambulance were told there were 300 callers ahead of them.
5February 6 was the day Li Wenliang passed away, and it was the darkest, most excruciating day since the lockdown. Li Wenliang was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, and he was one of the earliest eight whistle-blowers censured for “rumor-mongering.” Li was also the only of the eight who agreed to a public interview with the media. That day, of the four severely ill patients I was trying to assist, three of them had yet to be accepted by a hospital. When I was connected to a new patient, all I could hear from the other end was heavy and laboured breathing. I called his son, who he told me about how his aunt had waited over ten days to be diagnosed, only to die in the lobby of the hospital. He said that a bottle of immunoglobulin tablets had skyrocketed to 600 RMB. He continued on, questioning how it was possible that his father had been diagnosed as a confirmed carrier on January 26, and accepted into the hospital only on February 6. Even then, his father was merely quarantined, as Fangcang Hospital was not equipped to provide even basic medical treatment. “Do you think we’ve been playing a game with costs that we can’t actually bear?” he asked me. I didn’t know what to say.
He told me about how his aunt had waited over ten days to be diagnosed, only to die in the lobby of the hospital.
Only later would we learn that the Community Committee was simply responsible for reporting patient information, while the Health Committee was only responsible for filtering that information, assigning beds, and connecting patients with hospitals. That chasm between the community and the hospitals served as a hotbed for similar unfortunate incidents.
On February 13, the Hubei Provincial Party Committee Secretary and the Municipal Party Committee Secretary were removed from their posts. On this day, an additional 14,840 cases were confirmed. CT scans confirmed 13,332 of the cases, and nucleic acid testing confirmed the remaining 1,508 cases. We were happy to know that a combination of a CT scan and infection symptoms was sufficient for confirmation. Another piece of good news was that 16,000 medical personnel from the outside were arriving in Wuhan as volunteers. Over a dozen colleges had converted buildings into makeshift quarantine locations, including my mother’s former school.
But with additional beds and the influx of medical staff, medical resources grew even scarcer. In many of the resource donation groups, people began talking about funds running dry, about not being able to secure reliable suppliers for facemasks and protective suits. Second-hand masks were emerging on the market. The state-designated manufacturer was selling protective gear to volunteers at ten times the government purchase price. As companies began resuming work, the reselling of thermometers became, like facemasks, a new business opportunity.
6On February 14, the city of Wuhan released even stricter lockdown restrictions for individual communities. Each community was allowed only one exit, for the exclusive use of patients leaving for treatment. Others would not be permitted to leave or enter. As for food, we had to rely on collective or online purchases. But the policies at JD.com and Tmall.com weren’t uniform, and the supply chain had also stagnated, so rarely did purchases arrive in time. Our community currently has ten confirmed or likely carriers, and one death. Yesterday, we all felt very fortunate when the community committee passed out two daikon radishes and two cabbages to each household.
As for the sick, new problems are arising. Those who are sick with something other than the coronavirus don’t know where to seek treatment. In the past few days, I’ve encountered about a dozen patients in urgent need of dialysis. But without confirmation that they are coronavirus carriers, very few hospitals are willing to take them in. There are also patients suffering from cerebral haemorrhage or cancer, or previously hospitalized patients whose hospitals were taken over as designated coronavirus treatment centres, thus forcing the patients out. Some simply can’t find a hospital with sufficient resources to administer proper treatment.
One local doctor, when talking about treating late-stage patients, said to us: “Only on the foundation of accepting life’s misfortunes can we have hope. Nowadays people take living for granted. In actuality, only illness and death are guaranteed.”
Yesterday morning, my family received another piece of devastating news. A friend of my father’s from Party school, the Hubei Film School director Chang Kai, had died from the coronavirus, and so had his entire family. After seeing the news, my father walked out onto the balcony. He sat in the sun, smoking a cigarette. Ever since the lockdown, the balcony is where my father has been spending most of his time.
Photos: Yin Xiyuan