Diary of a Wuhan native: A week under coronavirus quarantine

A teacher from epicentre of deadly outbreak describes the growing anxiety under lockdown and anger towards government.

Wuhan, China
Officials in protective suits check on an elderly man wearing a facemask who collapsed and died on a street near a hospital in Wuhan on Thursday [Hector Retamal/AFP]

At least nine million people in Wuhan were put under quarantine on January 23 after the authorities decided to seal off the entire city. The order was later expanded to the entire Hubei province, affecting nearly 56 million people. Now a week has passed. What does Wuhan look like under quarantine? How has the city’s population been handling it?

I have been in touch with a few local residents since the beginning of this outbreak, and here is one of the stories of all those people living in the epicentre of this epidemic. The storyteller is a teacher. He has requested to remain anonymous.

Story as told to Shawn Yuan on January 30

My city has been ill for over a month now, and it has been sealed off for a week. Millions of us have been put under quarantine for seven days now, and all of this still feels surreal.

These days, I have been doing the same things over and over again: eat, sleep, eat, and the cycle continues.

All entertainment shows have also been cancelled by the government, and that leaves only the news about the virus playing on a loop on TV. Every aspect of my life is constantly reminding me of a single fact – the virus outbreak is still very real.

Coronavirus: Walking around Ground Zero

Last night, I looked outside of the window of my apartment – absolutely empty streets, eerily quiet neighbourhood, some flickering streetlights, and one giant LED screen playing the public service announcement, advising people to stay indoors. All of this almost feels like a scene out of a zombie movie.

I try to distract myself and keep my mind fresh: I read books, I make podcasts, I watch films, trying my best to make sure this whole mess doesn’t get me. But sometimes, in this repetitive daily routine, we start to forget what we used to and aspire to be. This epidemic has taken a toll on all of us.

The memory of waking up to a city completely sealed off remains fresh. “Dumbstruck” is probably the best word to describe how I felt. This had never happened – not in my life, not in my parents’.

Fear and anxiety

Having seen what the SARS outbreak did, this still is the first time we all became nervous. That’s also when I realised the situation had gone way beyond what the official facade looked like. In the first days following the lockdown, I was overwhelmed, but more afraid, I guess.

The morning of the lockdown, many private cars were trying to get out of Wuhan. But all my family is in Wuhan and it made no sense for me to leave. Instead, I rushed out to get more masks, but at that time, the supply for masks had already dwindled significantly – many pharmacies had run out of them. That’s when I first started to freak out – what if I couldn’t get them? What if I or someone in my family got infected?

Luckily, I managed to get some after a few tries in different pharmacies. And that was the last day I was out of my house for more than one hour during a day. Almost hourly anxiety took over me during these past seven days.

I went out yesterday to go to a supermarket. Food was running out at home, but also because I really needed to get out. I was going crazy – it’s ironic that when I was working, I always wanted to stay at home and rest, but now that I am spending almost my entire time at home, it feels like torture.

Luckily, food is still readily available, and the price wasn’t ridiculous, either. There were a lot more people than I expected at the supermarkets. Waiting outside of the market to get temperature checked and using hand sanitiser before going in have become the requirement for all the markets.

‘Eerily empty neighbourhood’

Yesterday I saw the video of people singing the national anthem and shouting from their homes to each other to keep the morale high.

“Add oil! You can do this!” It really made me smile and want to cry at the same time. It’s a tough time but I have always thought Wuhan is a place full of potential and energy.

Today is the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, so according to traditions, we are supposed to go to temples and pay tribute to the God of Wealth today. Most of the businesses should be open today, too. But I took a walk around my neighbourhood this morning – just like the past seven days, it’s empty – eerily empty. But at least the weather is getting better.

Wuhan, China
Medical staff at a hospital in the city of Wuhan carry meals for patients and other hospital workers on Friday [Yuan Zhang/EPA]

I took a photo of my dad today standing on the pavement of a park. His quarantine life, like so many others, has been eating and sleeping and eating again. No friends to talk to, no relatives to visit, and no TV programmes that he loved to watch nowadays. The only little “entertainment” for him is to take a look at this empty road and do nothing.

Whenever I get bored and start thinking, which happens quite often these days, the feeling of anger started to boil inside of me – why did this local government keep hiding the truth and even arresting the eight people who initially shared the information?

I had already known the situation wasn’t as rosy as pictured by the government at that time, but I never for a second thought the scale of the crisis had reached a level to warrant a city-wide lockdown.

‘An incredibly difficult time’

The Lunar New Year couldn’t have come at a worse time, either. My family had already planned some trips during the week, and we’re supposed to go to my grandmother’s. Of course, all of this has been cancelled, but the thought of what this could have been is making what this ended up being even more unbearable.

On New Year’s Eve, my dad went to sleep early because the Lunar New Year has been ruined – no visiting family, no drinking with them, no entertainment, but more importantly, a constant fear looming the entire family and the city.

I saw him turning off the light before 10pm – this is the first time I saw him turning off lights on New Year’s Eve. He always told me that we should leave one light on for New Year’s Eve. I guess a new year like this has made him forget about all the rituals.

The gala hosted by China’s state television angered me even more. The entire country was struggling to cope with the virus outbreak and thousands of people were getting infected in Wuhan alone. But there was almost no mention of Wuhan during the gala except for poetry recitation.

“Wang Qiang defeated Serena Williams during the Australian Open, so that means we can defeat anything,” one host said.

Wuhan, China
Wuhan Yangtze River Tunnel is blocked with a barrier following an outbreak of the new coronavirus and the city’s lockdown, in Wuhan on Saturday, January 25 [File: China Daily via Reuters]

That only made me angrier – their response to how we are going to defeat the outbreak is this completely unrelated analogy? I guess, after this crisis, people’s trust towards the “Big Brother” will be more fragile.

It’s an incredibly difficult time for this city, but I’m so very proud of my city: everyone is trying their best to make sure the city continues to operate as normal – something we desperately need right now.

But still, Wuhan will be forever changed, and now we are just anxiously waiting for the epidemic to end so we can start getting used to whatever the shape new life will take.

Years or even decades from now, how are we supposed to tell this story to our next generation? Can we really realise what it means to be a “citizen” of the society?

The only thing I hope now is that our generation doesn’t fail the next. At least I know I will keep this memory fresh.

Source: Al Jazeera