Yangxin, Hubei – I thought it would be the usual once-a-year happy journey home for my family when we boarded the high-speed train to go to my hometown, Wuhan, on January 20.
We knew there was this outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan that had killed about 10 people, but there was no warning at all and it was mostly seen as another flu virus.
The temptation of the Spring Festival family reunion was just too irresistible for us, so we decided to wear our masks and go home.
When we arrived at Wuhan station, we found there were thousands of travellers like us. The station was totally packed and there were long queues at every boarding gate, the typical festival travel rush scene you see every year. Only a few travellers were wearing masks like we were. Most had decided not to bother or had not even thought about it.
As planned, we changed trains in Wuhan to go to our final destination – Yangxin, a small county about 180 kilometres (112 miles) away from Hubei’s capital city and home to my parents-in-law.
Everything was festive: the laughter of my kids and in-laws, the familiar feast of hometown food and playing mahjong after dinner.
However, things started to change overnight. Within days of our arrival, it felt like we were dropping from heaven to hell.
On January 23, the Hubei provincial government announced it would seal off its capital, Wuhan, as the outbreak got worse.
Soon the lockdown had been expanded to Yangxin, the county where we were. Then we heard that most provinces and municipalities of China had activated the highest level of alert to tackle the spread of the new virus.
Officials at the train station sent messages telling us our pre-booked train back to Beijing on February 1 had been cancelled as part of the government alert escalation. Teachers at my daughter’s elementary school and my son’s kindergarten in Beijing contacted me, asking for details of my family’s whereabouts, including where we were staying, when did we live in Beijing and when we had arrived in Wuhan and so on. We were asked to report on our temperature and health conditions every day. Then the community workers from my apartment in Beijing called me to ask for similar travel details.
My father-in-law, a retired doctor, brought everyone together for a family meeting. Everyone agreed to stop all visits to public areas and stay home: An unexpected self-quarantine had become a special new year “gift”.
Our planned family dinner in a restaurant, the biggest feast of the year, was cancelled, and we cooked at home instead.
Everyone kept a close eye on the updates about the virus outbreak and we shared what we read among each other. But rumours started to fly on social media, like WeChat.
Reports like “Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang was fired as punishment for his poor performance of controlling the outbreak” went viral on social media, before quickly being exposed as fake news. The rumours highlighted the anxiety and anger of people on the internet. Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, was being blamed for its slow reaction and its mayor was facing calls to resign after he confessed on national television that the city “didn’t have sufficient warnings” about the epidemic.
One night, people on Wechat started saying that the price of vegetables in the supermarket had tripled. The next morning, my father-in-law rushed to his favourite store only to find most vegetables were pretty much gone. He came back in shock: “I have never seen this in my lifetime,” he said. The manager of that supermarket assured him that there would be more vegetables the next day.
On January 25, President Xi Jinping called the outbreak a grave situation and urged more effort to tackle the problem. It reminded me of what happened in the SARS outbreak in 2003. I was a junior student then and forced to stay on my isolated campus for three months: I knew stricter measures would soon follow.
It came as no surprise to me that a day after President Xi’s remarks, we heard that all private cars were being banned in public areas in Wuhan, adding to previous measures to cut off the city. In Yangxin, all the highway entrances were sealed off and bus and train stations shut down, No one could leave without special permission.
‘We blocked the road’
What does surprise me is how people in the countryside are geared up for such an outbreak. Many have blocked the roads leading to their villages, refusing to allow outsiders to visit for fear of the virus spreading.
When my mother-in-law called her brother to say we would not be going back to the village to visit them this year – the visit, or “bainian” in Chinese, is a very important tradition during the Lunar New Year – she was surprised by her brother’s response.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said over the phone. “We understand. You can’t get in anyway, because we blocked the road to our village.”
The battle against this coronavirus looks like a long one but, compared with what I experienced during the SARS outbreak, people seem more confident and my family remains optimistic for now.
“The lockdown screwed up our festival plans, but it is the most effective way to get rid of the spread,” my father-in-law, a veteran Communist Party member, said after watching CCTV’s main news programme on President Xi’s speech. “If everyone follows the Party’s arrangements, we will win the battle soon. No matter what, safety comes first.”
My brother-in-law, a dentist who worked in his hospital to tackle the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, believes that China is now better prepared with medical facilities and a quicker response. It has also made more progress scientifically.
“SARS killed more than 750 people in China and it took a few months for scientists to identify SARS virus, and this new coronavirus killed about 50 people so far and we already know its gene structure,” he said. “It’s not a battle as hard to fight as SARS,”
Being cut off does worry people like me who are trapped here because I will need to go back to Beijing to work, even if that means a further 14 days of self-quarantine ahead of me. What’s worse, there is no timetable for this massive lockdown, which means the self-quarantine here could go on for much longer than I can imagine.
Going back to Beijing from Wuhan has been a fairly easy and enjoyable trip for my family in the past, we could have breakfast in Wuhan, then take a 4-and-half-hour high-speed train, and have dinner at home in Beijing.
But at this stage, it’s looking like mission impossible for us.