Wuhan, the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days lifted its ten-week lockdown, allowing residents to leave their homes and travel outside the city, and some businesses to reopen. Raymond Zhong and Vivian Wang report for The New York Times:
But the city that has reopened after more than 10 weeks is a profoundly damaged one, a place whose recovery will be watched worldwide for lessons on how populations move past pain and calamity of such staggering magnitude.
In Wuhan, sickness and death have touched hundreds of thousands of lives, imprinting them with trauma that could linger for decades. Businesses, even those that have reopened, face a wrenching road ahead, with sluggishness likely to persist. Neighborhood authorities continue to regulate people’s comings and goings, with no return to normalcy in sight.
[…] Wednesday’s reopening came after only three new coronavirus cases were reported in the city in the previous three weeks, and a day after China reported no new deaths for the first time since January. Controls on outbound travel were officially lifted just after midnight in China [Source].
Some have questioned official statistics about transmission and death rates in Wuhan and around China, due to both official censorship of news about the spread of the disease and a lack of reporting of test results for asymptomatic patients. In particular, recent long lines of family members picking up ashes from Wuhan funeral homes appear to indicate many more deaths than the approximately 2500 that had been officially reported.
Weixin user Lu Wen wrote a lengthy, fictionalized account of a funeral home worker in Wuhan. The post has been deleted from Weixin.
Narrative Account by a Wuhan Funeral Worker
Since January 10, 2020, the crematorium has not had another farewell gathering or memorial service, monks and priests no longer chant sutras to the dead. Worried about the novel coronavirus, the higher-ups have taken care to call off these activities.
Director Shi’s work routine has changed. She used to sit in the office and spend the mornings talking to department cadres, the head driver, and the director of the crematorium before taking a stroll through the workspace. She rarely leaves the office in the afternoons. It is unknown whether she takes naps or writes reports during these times.
Now the director inspects the furnace room throughout the day to check the operation status of the 11 furnaces, the progress of cremation, the cause of death, and the number of dead cremated. She stresses the need for faster cremation, keeping the time needed to burn a dead body to 50 minutes. Three furnaces have broken down due to improper operation. She used to want to deduct the team leader’s bonus, but doesn’t mention it anymore. The two team leaders are now working much harder than before.
There is something off with her way of thinking.
Specific behavioral issues include: talking with a loud voice and swearing all the time; her mantra was “to hell with it!” before it turned to “son of a bitch.” She also said that armies are to be maintained for a thousand days to be used for a single moment–we don’t get this many dead people every year for us to burn.
She led three employees to join the Party. The superiors were present, and staff from the TV stations and news organizations also came to broadcast the initiation ceremony live. Some heard her swear “son of a bitch.” It was unclear whether she was swearing at the superiors, but she kept swearing.
On TV, from what my mentor told me, Director Shi even said, “To hell with it! These shit officials are making a mess of the city.”
The corpses from the funeral car had just been unloaded and piled up outside the door of the crematorium. We didn’t have time to take a break and hand over the remains. Of course, we also didn’t have time to register the names of the deceased, their ID numbers, or clean the relics of the dead, such as cash and cell phones. Before we could do all of this, Director Shi cursed “son of a bitch” with a loud voice, and hurried us off to pick up the next batch of bodies.
One day we transported 127 corpses in 4 vehicles. The cremator ran at full capacity, burning 116 bodies, leaving 11 to be cremated the next day. She did not have a single good word to say to us. Body bags are in extremely short supply. The lead driver got angry and said that he took bed sheets from home and burned bodies in them. Seeing his fierce and angry face, I dared not even call out to Director Shi.
On our break, we knew that there were two corpses to be transported from Sanyuan Community of Hebin Road, and three from the Siwei Apartment. We wanted to wait for another call to ensure that we had eight corpses before leaving. We didn’t want to drive halfway, and then get a phone call and be forced to drive back to Cuiye Community on the riverside just to get to one more corpse.
At that time, there were frequently people committing suicide by jumping into the river. The water was shallow, the corpses did not flow down the river; they would sink and rise up again, stranded alongside the river embankment. The police would call us to take away the corpses. Our team lead only has to take one look at the complexion of the deceased and check for scars to give an estimate of the timing of the suicide and whether the deceased jumped because he was sick of the world or because he was ill.
One that made the deepest impression on me was a bald elderly man who wrote a suicide note before his death. He contracted the novel coronavirus disease. He did not want to spread the disease to his family so he left home. But because his case was not confirmed, he found himself in a state of desperation. His glasses were washed away by the river. There were white dents on his forehead.
Our small minibus was only supposed to fit one or two bodies at a time, with two paper coffins and a stretcher. With the number of dead rising, we could not keep up with our four vehicles and two morning and evening shifts. Director Shi ordered that we discard the paper coffins and stretcher, and dismantle the car seats to make room for more bodies.
I’m capable of stuffing eight corpses into the vehicle. My mentor filled all the remaining spaces and fit in ten. If there were two children among the dead, that would lead to 11 corpses.
The auto repair shop was afraid of getting infected from the virus and was reluctant to do the dirty work for the crematorium. The team leader led everyone through the dismantling. I was not prepared, and bleeding calluses formed on my fingers. This is my father’s fault, for taking advantage of the system and using his connections, forcing a Peking University graduate to work here. The person who coordinated this was probably Director Shi, because Father said to call her Sister Shi when there’s no one around. Soon after starting this job, she let me learn to drive and that’s how I became the driver of a funeral car.
My girlfriend Xiaojin felt sorry for herself. She complained that, after all her picking and choosing, she ended up with a guy who burns dead bodies. I did not complain because, for me, being in the establishment gave me a stable job and an iron rice bowl. Xiaojin was too busy with her own issues and had no time for anybody else. She graduated from nursing school, but did not land a job. She went to Dongsheng Hospital to work as a contractor, with night shifts and tasks such as changing medications, giving patients injections, ingratiating oneself with doctors, running errands, and buying them breakfast.
Her family lives in Xiaogan. She had no place to go at night. She slept in the hospital dormitory. Sometimes she slept in the new apartment that my dad bought for me. Anyway, we are getting married on National Day this year, so there is no point separating what is hers and mine. However, we didn’t get a marriage certificate and, after only spending a few nights together, she made herself at home and ordered me to do laundry and make breakfast.
And she even wanted to keep my salary card and bank card, but I said nothing.
The novel coronavirus is here. Infections are on the rise, everyone is isolating at home. Therefore, the streets are empty, and you don’t need to honk to open up a path. It is enough to simply keep that red light flashing.
The funeral car is not as popular as the ambulance. When ambulances pass by, people on the roadside turn their heads and wave, and some people bang on pots and call out “save my mother.”
When the funeral car passes by, there is dead silence. I once heard a woman sing “White Fox.” It was a strange sound, as if ghosts had appeared under the sun.
Sometimes we go to the hospital to transport corpses, sometimes we go to communities to take away the deceased. We usually pick the place with the most corpses first, so sometimes those who die at home must wait for an entire day before we get to them.
The family of the deceased called the mayor’s hotline, and the higher-ups blamed it on us. Director Shi was even more angry than before.
She scolded our team leader so badly that he lowered his head.
Some said that he stole from the pockets of the deceased and was found out by Director Shi. He took the initiative to transport the dead who were left abandoned on the road. This, Director Shi did not know about.
That corpse, we passed by it twice and it was still laying there. It is more convenient to transport corpses from hospitals. Most of them are piled up in the morgue, although some are also piled up in the corridor. Some had shrouds, some didn’t, and some did not have their faces covered. They faced the ceiling and lay on the cold tile floor. At first glance it appeared as if they were sleeping or waiting for an IV. Once we transported six corpses from one hospital. After searching, my mentor found three more children’s corpses. They were put in a single body bag. His face broke out in a smile when a patient happened to snap a photo. He forced the person to delete the photo.
After February 25th, I asked my mentor how many people have died. He said that I know too much. Our crematorium alone has been burning 110 bodies a day for more than a month. How many people do you think have died?
The numbers released to the public are the deaths of confirmed coronavirus cases. Those who are suspected of having the virus are not included. Some of those that died, such as those who died in the river, those who died on the road, and those who died at home, are not even counted as suspected cases.
Contrary to what they say, the novel coronavirus does not only target the old while sparing the young. There is a family where two elders survived while the son, the daughter-in-law, the daughter, the son-in-law, and the child all died.
We work 12 hours a day. We are too tired to go home and live in the dormitory of the funeral home. Of course, we also worry about being infected due to high levels of exposure to infected corpses and about passing the virus to our families. The work unit issues us protective clothing every day, but the quality is relatively poor. The situation did not improve until our colleagues from Chongqing came to help and brought a large amount of equipment.
I used to sleep in a dormitory. Xiaojin was afraid of getting infected and resigned from her job with more than a dozen other contractors. She stayed home all day, and was lonely. Upon her request, I slept at home. I wore a red armband and hold a regional travel pass. I could get back home on my bike with no one stopping me.
Xiaojin did not look well. She occasionally let out a few dry coughs. She suspected that she was infected. Her body temperature was 37 degrees, which is quite normal. I told her to take hot baths, drink plenty of water, and wash her nostrils with soapy water. Xiaojin was worried, and suspected that an elderly patient she was caring for infected her with his nasal mucus. She said she was worried about dying in the ward and that she couldn’t stay for another day. So she resigned from her job and left.
Usually, when we sleep together, we sleep face to face, close to each other. But now she turned her head to the other side. Whenever I tried to be intimate with her, she told me to wear a mask, not to kiss her face, and not to press on her body. Our intimate moments became hasty, without the same passion and gestures that we had in the past.
Back then, I was only responsible for driving. But after seeing how busy my mentor and colleagues were, I lowered my ego and took part in the transport work. Communities do not allow us to transport the corpses by elevator. We take the stairs, with each of us grabbing one corner of the shroud, not stopping once even when we were walking down 20 flights of stairs. The dead body is heavy like iron, like stone. Some shat and peed before dying. Masks were unable to block out the smell.
A family lost an eight-year-old child. The mother held the child, and wouldn’t let it go. We took the child from her. She became sullen and did not speak. After we walked down a few flights of stairs, we heard her howling, shouting that she would die for Caibao.
There was a family we visited back and forth four times, once every one or two days, until no one was left in the house
Another family lost their old man. His wife touched his face and called out his name. The children played “The Great Compassion Mantra” on their cellphones and told us to play the song along the way, so as not to leave Grandpa feeling lonely. They stood far away from Grandpa and did not see him off to the gate. When we collected corpses from the hospitals, we rarely saw relatives of the deceased say goodbye.
Xiaojin was out of breath. It was on the third day of the Lunar New Year. At that time, the hospitals were overcrowded and she was not able to get admitted to the hospital. Many people who took their loved ones to the hospital were infected. Xiaojin felt that she wouldn’t live long. She said that three of the nurses in her chat group had died. Xiaoming, who lived in the same dormitory as her, had also died. She said that phlegm-like fluid stuck to her lungs and that she could not breathe. She asked me to stay with her for the last few days of her life.
With space in her lungs, she successfully got oxygen into her body. Her face now had color and she talked about going back to work again. When she was in good spirits, she could breathe smoothly and her body temperature was normal. She sang “Woman Flower” on the balcony. The tone was very sad, like the sound of impermanent footsteps.
She said that we didn’t take a photo of our marriage certificate and took a few photos with her mobile phone. She also asked, if she died, would I get another girlfriend? When I get married, would I want to put our photo on my bedside table?
I told her not to be discouraged. I still need you to take care of my salary card and bank card, I said. Xiaojin replied, you take care of them for me. The bank card is in the bedside drawer. The gold necklace and gold ring are also in it. You can give it to your future girlfriend, she said. Once I’m dead, don’t look for a girlfriend right away, stay with me for two years. When the night is quiet, I will come to sit with you in your room …
From time to time during my work hours, I messaged Xiaojin on WeChat. If she sent me flowers and laughed happily, I knew that she was doing ok. If she ignored me, or sent crying emojis, then I knew that her condition has worsened and that she was fighting off suffocation.
I wanted to tell my parents, but I was worried that they would get infected if they went to visit her in the hospital.
In order for the two generations not to affect each other, I decided to completely isolate. Mom said that father was busy with work and was now in poor health and had a fever. It looked like he had it. I hardened my heart and did not offer comfort, fearing cross infection. If dad died, mom would be the only one left in the house. If Xiaojin also died, there would be only mom and me left in this world.
Xiaojin passed away, silently. She died under the bed, her face twisted and teeth clenched. It seems like she struggled before dying. Just as she said before, patients feel as if they are drowning before death.
Her entire body was cold and stiff. I wiped her body, put lipstick on her lips, brushed her hair, and dressed her in her favorite clothes. Worried that she would be infected by the novel coronavirus on her way to heaven, I gave her a mask.
I didn’t ask my mentor and two colleagues for help. I put Xiaojin in a black corpse bag by myself. With two hands, I held her down the stairs, walking a total of 13 flights.
Jiangsu / Lu Wen [Chinese]
Translation by an anonymous CDT translator.