From Wuhan to quarantine: a writer looks back

Why We Wrote This

Amid the pandemic, people around the world are experiencing the kinds of confusion and courage that Wuhan lived with for months. A writer looks back at the early days – and why it’s important to remember those sacrifices.

Ng Han Guan/AP
A resident gets a ride from her dog along a retail street in Wuhan, China April 9, 2020. After a 2 1/2-month lockdown, residents of the city where the coronavirus pandemic began are cautiously going out to the streets again.

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In some ways, January 23 was a normal winter morning in Wuhan: a little humid, sky still dark; the streets were wet, after a shower. Street lights were on, but there was no one on the street – just a few cars passing by. 

Friends and colleagues kept sending me messages: Can you get out?

It was the early days of the coronavirus crisis. A few hours before, I woke up to the news that Wuhan had announced a lockdown from 10 a.m. Visitors, like me, were racing to leave. I kept thinking of the overcrowded fever wards where I’d been reporting and what it might mean to be stuck here: no hospital beds, scarce supplies, no friends.

I made it out that day: first to quarantine, in a hotel hundreds of miles away; then to my parents’ house; and finally to yet another quarantine at home. Life has gradually gone back to normal, and even in Wuhan people began cautiously heading out last week.

But I keep thinking back to what I saw there, and the stories that emerged after I left. I’ve wondered if my decision to leave that morning was right. As China and the U.S. start a blame game, it’s important to remember the sacrifices each individual made.

There are traffic jams in Wuhan.

Normally, that wouldn’t be news. But after a nearly 11-week lockdown that stilled the city, Wuhan is gradually going back to normal. Intersections are busy again. People are cautiously heading out, equipped with hats, gloves, and masks, though others are still at home, afraid. Residents must scan a personal code on their phone and take their temperature before entering or leaving their neighborhoods. Some are mourning their dead – and a newly revised death toll puts the city’s estimate 50% higher than previously thought, with 3,869 people having lost their lives.

Still, it seems so different from the Wuhan I visited in January – the Wuhan I barely left in time. 

***

I woke up at 5 a.m. on January 23, looked at the pop-up message on my phone, and felt my mind go blank.

The government in Wuhan, the Chinese city of 11 million at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, had announced a lockdown from 10 a.m.

“What?” Unable to believe it, I opened up WeChat, a popular messaging app. Reporters were already fleeing after the announcement a few hours before.

The night before, it had been hard to fall asleep. I kept thinking of the overcrowded fever wards where I’d been reporting: hundreds of patients packed in the waiting hall, waiting five hours or even longer for consultation, and people with fevers commuting from home to the hospital every day, because of the shortage of beds.

It felt out of control, and I’d already planned to leave that morning. But could I?

I packed at top speed and rushed to the lobby, trying to call a taxi online. No answer.

It was a normal winter morning: a little humid, not chilly, sky still dark. The streets were wet, after a shower. The road was wide, with street lights on, but there was no one on the street – just a few cars passing by. 

Friends and colleagues kept sending me messages: Can you get out? 

One week before, my editor had called, asking if I wanted to go to Wuhan, where the first few deaths had been reported. Instinct guided me: Yes, I’ll go. It might be the biggest news of the year. As a reporter, I should be there.

I didn’t know there was a possibility I couldn’t leave.

By 7 a.m. I’d made it to the train station, packed with passengers in masks. Some 5 million people managed to leave Wuhan before the lockdown, the mayor later estimated. I’d seen so many scenes in the hospital, and knew what being caught here might mean – no hospital beds, scarce supplies, no friends. 

The decision seemed so arbitrary. They said the lockdown started at 10 – but they could change it to 7, just like that. I wouldn’t know if I could really leave until the moment I climbed on the train.

But I made it on board and the train slipped away, speeding toward my small hometown. Outside raced by scenery like writer Peter Hessler describes in “Oracle Bones” – “patterned as wallpaper: a peasant, a field, a road, a village.” But that day, there were no peasants.

Arek Rataj/AP
People wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province Jan. 28, 2020, shortly after the lockdown began.

The further we got from Wuhan, the less cautious boarding passengers were. When I asked one man in his 60s why he didn’t wear a mask, he said he didn’t know why people should. He’d never heard about the outbreak.

Surgery masks were useless, my taxi driver said, when I finally got off the train to transfer to a bus. He wasn’t wearing one, either. “The one you wear is just for psychological comfort,” he said. “You should wear a gas mask.” 

Not a single passenger was in the waiting hall of the station. The smell of disinfectants dominated the air. I boarded a bus to the small town where my parents live, and started quarantine: 14 days in a hotel.

Time flies fast during quarantine. I followed news from Wuhan and my anger reached new heights as I read about the chaos. Patients were asking for help online since they couldn’t find space in hospitals. Doctors and nurses were crying as they worked without full protective gear, and saw people die every day. Even going to hospitals became a problem for patients and doctors alike, as the city stopped public transportation. A photo went viral, and infuriated many, in which several doctors stood in front of a desk, celebrating the Chinese New Year with only instant noodles as their dinner.

It just seemed as though there had been no preparations before the lockdown, I told a friend. When SARS broke out in 2003, she remembered, we asked how much we’d have to sacrifice. Here we were, 17 years later, still asking the same question. In decision-makers’ eyes, it seemed, the fatalities were just numbers.

Traditionally, many people watch the government’s gala on New Year’s Eve, but I was in no mood to. I felt such disappointment that I could not fall asleep for hours. 

The next morning, on the first day of the New Year, my temperature was 37.3 C (99.1 F).

Once again, I was too worried to sleep. Scenes flooded back in my mind of doing interviews in Wuhan: those early patients’ symptoms, the risk of cross-infection, and how hopeless and frustrated they were.

Can I be cured in this small town, I wondered? Will I be infected in the hospital? Most importantly, what about my parents? I had to protect them.

As the morning sunshine gradually brightened up, I decided to go to the hospital, alone, if my temperature rose to 38 C (100.4 F). One day later, my temperature fell – and then again the next.

Locking myself in the room, I didn’t speak to anyone. Out my window was the bus station, now closed, though a dozen taxis waited day and night. I’ve never seen my hometown so deserted.

Eleven days later, I could leave for my parents’ house. By then the whole town was under lockdown, and all hotels and public spaces closed. Then I finally headed back to my flat in Beijing, to start another 14-day quarantine: the local government required all returnees to isolate themselves at home. 

Besides, I had nowhere to go. Shops and restaurants were all closed in early February. To restrict strangers, we were all given a pass. At the entrance of the neighborhood, guards checked our passes, IDs, and temperatures.

Gradually, the city has gone back to normal. People started returning to their offices and hanging out on the weekend just as the rest of the world entered the kind of chaos Wuhan first experienced. 

Yet life has been pretty bland, and ever since I’ve wondered if my decision to leave Wuhan that early morning was right. The question in my mind has only grown as I see now how many reporters decided to stay, and were able to share powerful stories.

Now that China and the U.S. have started a blame game, it’s important to remember the sacrifices each individual made. For many Chinese people, when they think about COVID-19, they will think about the lost lives, but also the freedom of speech.

I felt lucky when I got a chance to leave. But thinking on it now, I would feel lucky if I’d chosen to stay.  

[Editor’s note: The Monitor is publishing this essay without a byline to protect the writer’s identity.]

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