Translation: Notes From the Wuhan Lockdown

Wuhan, Hubei–the epicenter of the outbreak of novel coronavirus that has now been declared a global health emergency by the WHO–has been on lockdown for nearly a week. The  “dramatic action” of quarantining a city of 11 million just ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday transit period was initially applauded by WHO officials as a sign China’s resolve to contain the virus, but also noted to be “new to science,” and criticized by experts for potentially inviting further risk. Over a dozen nearby cities followed Wuhan’s lead, and the general inconvenience and lack of health preparations added fuel to public anger over the official response to the outbreak. Additional concerns have been reported that a large portion of Wuhan’s population fled the city just before the lockdown, potentially bringing with them a virus confirmed to travel by air and be transmittable before symptoms develop.

On January 24, Douban user DiWeiYa (地味鸭) shared an account from inside the sealed city. The account, translated in full by CDT, describes the initial confusion that followed sparse official information on the emerging illness earlier this month, and frustration at the lack of official emergency preparations:

Notes from the Lockdown

Today is January 24, 2020, Lunar New Year’s Eve. It’s also Day Two of Wuhan’s lockdown. 

I don’t really have the right to comment on the events surrounding the lockdown. Because I haven’t fully recovered, I’ve been relying on my partner to go out and get me food and medicine. I’ve been at home recuperating for days now. I’m completely reliant, like a penguin dad, on my partner to scout the situation, then come home and repay me with news and material things. I’m not deeply engaged with the situation of Wuhan’s epidemic and lockdown, but I do know from experience something about the period of time after the outbreak began but before the public knew about it.

At the end of December 2019, a friend told me that “SARS” may have come to Wuhan via a wild animal at the Huanan Seafood Market. I moved to Wuhan just three months ago, and I’m still lost in this vast city and its Three Towns. I had no idea where the Huanan Seafood Market is. I think this story was spread by those eight friends, who are probably medical professionals. Now that they’ve received a government summons and seen the outbreak of the virus, are they still OK?

After the secular New Year’s Day, my partner and I saw the official news on the virus, and that the eight rumor-mongers had been dealt with. My partner rushed out and bought two boxes of N95 face masks. Aren’t regular masks good enough, I asked? I think we still have some at home. Not good enough, he said gravely, the N95 is specially designed to prevent viral infection. Those two boxes cost more than 300 yuan. That purchase hurt. Besides the virus, I was preoccupied in those first weeks of January with my family back home. As the sun set on January 8, a relative back in Jiangsu passed away. I bought a train ticket for home right away. It’s tough to find a ticket at the end of the year, all I could get was a seat on the high-speed train from Hankou Station for the morning of the ninth. Before I left, my partner nagged me nonstop to wear a face mask. The N95 was really uncomfortable. Is it OK if I don’t wear it? I asked. The news says the virus isn’t bad. He still made me wear it. I got on the subway and noticed that I was the only person in the entire car wearing a face mask. People sized me up with a weird look. At Hankou, I took off my mask at security for the face ID. Hankou has started using electronic tickets. This was my first time scanning my face for the train, and it certainly felt novel. There were an endless number of people walking around the station, and not one of them was wearing a face mask. Hankou hadn’t asked passengers to wear masks. They hadn’t set up temperature checkpoints, either. I started to wonder if my partner was making a big deal out of nothing. After all, the news said the virus was “preventable and controllable” and that it “doesn’t spread person-to-person,” and the number of new cases was minuscule. It was stuffy on the train and it felt hard to breathe, so I took off my mask and didn’t put it back on until I left the station. My relatives asked if it was bad in Wuhan. From the reports they heard it seemed like it wasn’t a big deal. I told them that I hadn’t seen anyone wearing masks on the way over. After the funeral, I went back to Hankou Station on the 12th. On Subway Line 2 I was once again the only freak wearing a mask. I hadn’t been examined at any point along my journey from Wuhan to my hometown and back, and my trip went without a hitch.

On the 14th, I started sneezing and had a runny nose. I didn’t know that this novel coronavirus has a latent period. I figured I had just caught a cold from being around so many people back home. I was busy preparing an article for publication, but I didn’t feel well and my progress was slow. My partner followed the news every day, but no new cases were reported. I told him they can nip this one in the bud, that it wouldn’t spread too far. On the 17th I had a fever, but we didn’t have a thermometer at home. My partner felt my forehead and said I was hot. He went out to buy a thermometer and a fever reducer. The drugstore gave him a crappy electronic thermometer that comes free with a purchase. The numbers weren’t even accurate. I took the Ibuprofen and went to bed. When I got up on the 18th, my fever was gone. 

I told my partner I was fine, but he insisted on taking me to the hospital. In the afternoon, I spiked a fever again. We packed our things, put on our N95s and walked to the closest Grade A [top tier, 三级甲等医院 in China’s classification system] hospital. I checked in and they took my temperature. There was a man with a high fever who just up and left as soon as they had taken his temperature. The nurse asked the doctor if the man had checked in. The doctor said no, he wasn’t able to check in. Then the doctor told me I only had a slight fever, and wrote my temperature in my chart. Then a petite female doctor asked for my medical history and berated me for not keeping a detailed record of my temperature. When she found out that I’d been to Hankou, she wrote down “was at Hankou Station, in vicinity of Huanan Seafood Market.” I looked up the map and saw that Hankou is just 800 meters from Huanan. The doctor took a throat culture and sent me to have my blood drawn and get a CT scan. The CT doctor asked me to wait because the person before me had a problem, and they were sterilizing the area. I waited 90 minutes for them to finish. I still don’t know what the “problem” was. I was out of it from my fever, and didn’t hear the radiologist’s instructions clearly. When my scan and report were finally done, they indicated that I tested negative for H1N1 and H2N2. The ER doctor muttered over my CT scan for a while, then made a phone call to register my name and age. She gave me some Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and a cephalosporin and sent me home. By now the ER was overcrowded. A bunch of feverish patients surrounded the doctors. Lots of people weren’t wearing masks. Some of the doctors and nurses wore N95s. Others wore two-layered surgical masks. The doctors in the crowd were angry and agitated. “This is serious!” They yelled. “This situation is serious! Please, mind your hygiene and line up single-file…”

I left the hospital and said to my partner, looks like I don’t have it! The doctor didn’t say I do. He snorted, “She didn’t say you don’t, either!” I opened my chart. Sure enough, there wasn’t any diagnosis, just my history and a description of my symptoms. I went home and took my medicine, and felt a bit better. Three days later, my partner went back to the hospital with my CT scan. This time there were more than twice as many people waiting to be seen. The doctor looked at the scan and said maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Unless a large area of my lungs were affected, it was impossible to diagnose based on the CT scan alone. They needed to run a reagent box [serologic test] to be sure. My partner asked if they had any reagent boxes. No, they hadn’t gotten any yet, the office above them hadn’t sent them yet. My partner asked if that meant I couldn’t have been properly diagnosed in the first place? If I was getting better after being on medication for three days, it’s fine, the doctor replied. If I wasn’t getting better, I could have the novel pneumonia and would have to stay at the hospital. But their beds were all taken, so I’d have to go find another hospital.

Up until this point, I had no choice but to believe that the doctors truly didn’t know whether or not I had the novel pneumonia virus when they examined me on the 18th. Days before, the news reported that a huge batch of reagent boxes were being put to use. So how come an official Grade A hospital couldn’t get any? The government had made it clear that there were only several hundred [confirmed] cases and that they doubted there were many more beyond that, so why were the beds filled at a hospital that was not specifically designated to handle the outbreak? I clearly could be infected, so why didn’t they tell me and my partner to quarantine ourselves? They made it clear that this was preventable and controllable and not spread person-to-person, so how come that turned out to be a big fat lie? I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I could do was keep taking my medicine.

A senior classmate of mine told me that at this point I should leave Wuhan and go back home to Jiangsu. But the generation before me is old and frail. What if I really did have coronavirus and infected them? It was too horrible to contemplate. My partner and I each texted our parents to explain why he had decided to stay in Wuhan for Lunar New Year, and we returned our train tickets. At this point I knew that the epidemic was far worse than what the government was saying. I started making daily orders of vegetables, eggs, and frozen meat to stockpile, filling our kitchen to capacity. On the evening of the 22nd, someone in one of my [WeChat] groups asked, “Is it true that Wuhan is on lockdown?” I thought that was unlikely. I took my medicine and went to sleep. When I woke up the next day, my phone was blowing up with group messages about the lockdown.

My partner saw that I was awake and told me that he saw the news early in the morning and had already made several grocery runs, mainly for instant noodles, crackers, and other convenience food, as well as several tanks of mineral water. Then he rushed out again to buy Tamiflu and Ibuprofen. He also snatched the last of the [rubbing] alcohol, and he bought me a new kind of hamburger from McDonald’s. As I ate my burger I scrolled through Douban, where I learned that medical personnel couldn’t move their cars to get to work. And how hard it must be for people who live far away now that the city’s public transportation was completely shut down. We have enough supplies at home, and enough face masks. We’re conveniently located–everything we could need is nearby. And I have my partner and my cat. Most importantly, I’ve already gotten better. I don’t have to risk waiting in line all day, and I don’t have to grovel for a hospital bed. How lucky I am compared to other patients, their families, and medical workers.

Our great good luck in this unlucky time was all thanks to my partner’s vigilance and strong-arming, and to my pessimism and penchant for hoarding. I could have had coronavirus after all, my partner reasoned, but a mild case that my immune system could handle. Or perhaps it was regular pneumonia, and the medicine helped me to slowly recover. What exactly I had, I’ll probably never know. If I could do it again, I would never have taken off my mask on the train, no matter how much I suffered.

My partner and I are stuck in Wuhan, holed up in the sick city, with no idea how worried our families are. My dad and my partner’s parents both canceled their new year’s plans and are glued to the news on the epidemic. The face masks I bought my dad have already arrived, and I’m urging him to get some medicine. In the evening I got a notice from my work that our logistics department has made thorough preparations to ensure a constant supply of fresh food and other goods. While I’m grateful for this, I can’t help but wonder: if my workplace can guarantee the supply and safety of its employees, why can’t our esteemed city government ensure that the staff at a top hospital are fed and rested, or even that they have enough protective gear?

Today is Lunar New Year’s Eve. I’m already recovered, except for a bit of a cough. I heard that the CCTV gala will have a celebrity host recite a poem about the city fighting coronavirus. I really can’t watch that forced, maudlin pageant, and I can’t think about how long this siege will go on. All I can do is keep my nose in a book. The cat is happy, bouncing around everywhere. She’s the only one who isn’t worried. Misery has never been a stranger to this patch of earth. Generation after generation, we silently bear it. My story isn’t important. I’m only writing it down to remind myself: do not forget, do not forget. [Chinese]

See also journalist and longtime Wuhan resident Da Shiji’s essay from inside the lockdown at China Media Project, where he recalls how politics and stability maintenance took precedent in Wuhan authorities’ initial response, or CNN’s multimedia report on how Wuhan residents are coping.

Translation by Anne Henochowicz.


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