Voices from Hubei, two weeks into coronavirus lockdown

A group of former high school classmates from Hubei spoke about the conditions for their families under lockdown.

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    Much of Hubei province has remained sealed off since the last week of January [Reuters]
    Much of Hubei province has remained sealed off since the last week of January [Reuters]

    Group chats counting the number of those infected and dead reflect the grim reality of life in the current coronavirus outbreak, which started in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and has spread to every province in China, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and at least 24 other countries around the world.

    In one such group, former high school classmates spoke to Al Jazeera about their conditions under government-imposed lockdown in Hubei for the past two weeks.

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    Much of the province has remained sealed off since the last week of January, as China tries to contain the spread of the virus by enforcing travel limitations and implementing quarantines that have affected an estimated 60 million people.

    As of Saturday, the total number of confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in China has risen to 722, with at least 34,546 confirmed cases. The majority of those infected are in Hubei province.

    "Here are today's numbers," Ms Hou, 32, who asked that only her family name be mentioned, wrote last week about the count of infected patients in Shiyan, in northwest Hubei where she lives.

    Most of the members of the group chat used to study together in Wuhan, and now work outside the city, returning to their hometowns in Hubei for holidays like the Lunar New Year.

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    As restrictions extended beyond Wuhan over the past two weeks, Hou described to Al Jazeera tightened controls on transportation and community-imposed roadblocks to stop private vehicles from coming in and out of her area.

    "We have not only closed the city, but even the community," she wrote last week, noting on Friday that she has been receiving groceries from the supermarket delivered to her gate.

    More stringent protection

    In other cities, including Huanggang in Hubei, Wenzhou in Zhejiang, and Zhumadian in neighbouring Henan Province, communities have put in place restrictions on how often members of each household are allowed to leave to buy groceries and supplies.

    "In fact, this protection system may be more stringent in our small cities," Hou said. "More about health and safety than human rights."

    Hubei, China
    A nurse works in the isolation ward for 2019-nCoV patients in a hospital in Wuhan [Yuan Zheng/China Out via EPA]

    Mr Zhang* who works as a lawyer in Wuhan, and asked his real name not be used, told Al Jazeera he is concerned about the conditions around where his parents live in Hong'an County, Huanggang. Huanggang is one of the cities adjacent to Wuhan that has been hit hardest by the virus.

    "The power of prevention and control is not as good as Wuhan, the medical treatment is not as good as Wuhan, and the economy is far worse," Zhang said.

    While Zhang said the quarantine has been inconvenient, he is more worried about how it will affect people in rural areas if they cannot use transportation to access medical care.

    "We can't go out. It's not that big of a deal," he said. "It's the farmers who are most affected."

    Volunteering inside Wuhan

    Adequate space and supplies were a problem in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei during the first two weeks of lockdown.

    Last week, Al Jazeera reported on how the Wuhan Red Cross came under fire for not distributing donated protective gear to affected hospitals in time, with reports of doctors being forced to reuse medical masks or create other forms of makeshift protection.

    One of the friends in the group chat, Lucas Liu, 28, an environmental consultant who remains inside Wuhan during the lockdown told Al Jazeera he has been volunteering to bring supplies to the community healthcare centre where his parents work, in Wuchang District.

    Wuhan, Hubei
    China is pulling medical resources from around the country to help the province, badly hit by the novel coronavirus outbreak [Yuan Zheng/China Out via EPA]

    The hospital is a lower-level facility responsible for triaging patients and sending those with more serious symptoms to the main hospitals treating the virus.

    China has been working around the clock to build new infectious disease hospitals to treat patients, with the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan hospital built in Wuhan in less than two weeks having started taking patients on Tuesday. Another 1,600-bed facility started taking patients on Thursday.

    Al Jazeera reported Thursday about facilities of varying sizes that have broken ground in at least five other provinces.

    Shut out by the quarantine

    Liu said the number of infections in the district where his parents work is lower than in others, and his parents are not overly stressed. But sorting patients by symptoms remains a big task.

    "At present, the entire hospital is working on one thing only, dealing with the coronavirus," he said.

    On the way back from making a delivery after the quarantine began, Liu said he picked up three nurses on the way to the hospital who had packed bags with them because they were aware they would not be able to return to their homes due to road closures.

    "It's true that there are big problems for medical staff to go to work," he said. On Friday, Liu planned to pick up a delivery of donated vegetables for the hospital's dining hall.

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    While some of the friends are stuck in the province at the moment, others who were supposed to return were shut out by the quarantine.

    Louis Lu, 27, who works in the finance industry in Beijing was supposed to return to his parents' house in Wuhan for the Lunar New Year holiday. The day before his train was supposed to leave, Lu learned Wuhan was blocked from travel. He diverted instead to Singapore where his sister lives and where he remained on Friday.

    Lu told Al Jazeera he did not expect the city to be completely closed off but that he was not surprised, given China's previous experience with SARS - an epidemic that resulted in more than 8,000 cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and 349 deaths in mainland China.

    "This kind of virus can be widely spread," he said.

    Lu has been working remotely from Singapore and plans to come back to Beijing on Monday.

    Another friend who now lives in Singapore told the group chat last week that he too did not go home to Hubei. He suggested meeting up with Lu, before the latter returns to Beijing.

    "Wear your mask," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News