Letters from China: “At the epicentre of the pandemic – a Wuhan diary” by Miaoxing Ye
I am Ye Miaoxing, a PhD candidate supervised by professor Martin Isabel.1 I first wrote to her in August, visited Savannakhet University and met professor Isabel there in October 2019. Subsequently, I applied for a PhD position in Karlsruhe University of Education and got accepted by the Faculty in December.
My plan was to go to Germany in February 2020, and stay there a month and then to stay in Savannakhet University in Laos for four months to carry out my research and collect some data. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 changed my plans and I have been staying at home, a small county town, Hongan 90 miles from Wuhan, for four whole months. In this blog post I am recapitulating my experience during these unforgettable four months.
How it began: 30 December 2019
Two days before the new year, I read a piece of news on Weibo, the Chinese version of Facebook , saying that there were 27 patients infected with unidentified virus. Also, I received a call from my mum, asking me about the current situation and she told me not to go to big shopping malls. The next day, I took out my anti-smog face masks which I bought a year ago.
How the New Year started: 1 January 2020
However, on the first day of 2020, the Wuhan Police Office released the news that statements about the SARS in Wuhan were proven rumours and eight rumormongers were rebuked.
First news: 5 January 2020
Then, a total of 59 cases of viral pneumonia with unknown cause were reported in Wuhan, including 7 severe cases. Preliminary investigations showed no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission and no evidence of infection among medical personnel.
After reading this, I felt relieved since only 59 cases were reported among 11 million residents and also no human-to-human transmission was found. I thought maybe those patients got pneumonia from some animals or food.
Almost every person I know in Wuhan read these statements and that was why most of us did not pay enough attention to self-protection during that phase.
Despite the news: 10 January- 15 January 2020
After finishing my work in the university, I stayed in the campus to apply for a visa to Germany in February and also to talk to the leader of the Personnel Office about my future plan of university work. On 14 January, I went to the German visa center, which took me 40 minutes by subway. I wore a face mask that day, to keep warm instead of preventing the virus. However, in the subway, since there were many people and it was stuffy, I took off my mask.
Then I went to a printer shop, talked to two women there and got some documents. On my way to the visa center, I went to a coffee shop, talked to one waitress and got a cup of latte. In the visa center, I talked to the security guard, two officers and finished the application at 14:00.
Since it was quite early, I went to a cinema and watched a film with two other people in the row before me. After that, it was about 17:00, and I invited one friend for dinner. We went to a big shopping mall, stayed in Uniqol for almost an hour and then went to a Japanese restaurant for a big dinner.
Finally, I took the subway home. Two days later, my dad drove to Wuhan and we went to a bank together. In the bank, most officers there wore masks, but I did not take it seriously at the time. In the evening of 16 January, we finally got home, which is in Hongan, 90 kms away from Wuhan.
More news, first worries: 17 January – 22 January 2020
More and more reports about viral pneumonia with unknown cause were released during these four days. The number of patients and typical symptoms were provided to the public. On 20 January, after visiting and investigating Wuhan, Professor Zhong Nanshan, a pioneer in the battle against SARS in 2003, affirmed the human-to-human transmission and infection among medical personnel in Wuhan and Guangzhou.
He also gave the public three suggestions about precautions: Do not go to Wuhan in the near future. Go to the hospital if having fever. Wear masks. It was then that I and my family realized that it would be dangerous and maybe as serious as SARS. However, this time, the center of epidemic may not be in Beijing and Guangzhou, but in Wuhan and also in my hometown.
What was worse, from 17 January, I and my dad both got a cold. I had tonsil inflammation and a stuffy nose while my dad kept coughing and also had nasal stuffiness. We were both worried about the potential danger that we might take to my mum and some relatives. But since the typical symptom of the new viral pneumonia reported in the news then were fever and breathing difficulty, we comforted ourselves that it was very likely that we were just having a cold. I decided to minimize my contact with others and to see what would happen in 14 days.
Lockdown: 23 January 2020
At 3:00 am of 23 January 2020, the Wuhan government announced that the lockdown of Wuhan would be done at 10:00 am. From 10:00 am, all public transportation, including city buses, subways, ferries and long-distance coaches would be suspended, and outbound channels at airports and railway stations would also been closed until further notice.
Closing a city of more than 11 million people was unprecedented and caused panic among people in Wuhan and outside of Wuhan. It is worth mentioning that 23 January was two days before Chinese New Year. Most people choose to come back to their hometown to get together with their family and have a big dinner the next day to wait for the new year to come. However, this year a great number of people had to face getting stuck in Wuhan or outside Wuhan, away from their family.
On the next day, Chinese New Year’s Eve, Hongan government announced to be under lockdown. I regarded the situation so critical that all my family members should be in self- quarantine for at least 14 days. However, my parents still did not think we would not be that unlucky and they valued the Chinese traditions during spring festival more. They accepted my uncle’s invitation for a lunch with more than 15 people. Strong protest as I did, we still went to my uncle’s, wearing masks.
Spring Festival invitations in lockdown: 24 January 2020
In the evening of Chinese New Year’s Eve, there is a Spring Festival gala every year, consisting of singing, dancing, Chinese sketches, magic shows, and so on. Usually, that night is the most relaxing and enjoyable with family. However, this year even though I was watching the gala with my parents at home, I could not stop reading news on my phone.
A lot of hospitals in Wuhan called for help to the public since they were out of face masks, goggles, and protective clothing. Doctors and nurses wore garbage bags, raincoats and plastic holder to protect themselves from getting infected. Also, numerous people posted blogs on Chinese social media to ask for help. They or their family members had similar symptoms as Covid-19, but the hospital refused to take them since there were not enough wards or medical staff.
I kept swiping my phone, reading posts about Wuhan, Hongan, Covid-19 and the longer I swiped, the more difficult it became for me to sleep. Massive information filled me with anger, sadness, worry, anxiety and guilt. I felt angry because timely and enough support had not been given to hospitals and to citizens.
I felt sad because so many doctors and nurses were fighting against the virus without protection and also because some families in Wuhan were suffering and some of them could do nothing but to wait for the death. I felt worried and anxious because I and my dad came back from Wuhan just a week ago and we both had a cold. What if we got the Covid-19? Will my dad die?
He had been smoking for thirty years and it would be difficult for him to recover if he got infected. What if my mum got infected and will she get treated soon?
I felt guilty because I could not do anything for the people in suffering. Those mixed feelings kept me awake until 4 am and then at 7:30 am, I was woken up by my parents.
Spring Festival: 25 January 2020
On the day of Spring festival, we went to another uncle’s home for the first meal of 2020 in Chinese lunar calendar. Though I refused to go several times, my parents insisted that it was not polite to reject the invitation and since we already had dinner with the same people just a day ago, the additional risk of infection with Covid-19 was low. We had a big and delicious breakfast at my uncle’s home, but the atmosphere was not as cheerful as before.
Since my uncle is a 70-year-old farmer and does not get news as quickly as younger people, my parents told him to stay at home and wear masks if he had to come out to get some food.
After having breakfast, we went back to our home and my parents were reading news on their phone and computer. I felt my heart beat so fast and I felt terrified and nervous since the news said a rapid heartbeat was also a typical symptom of Covid-19. I kept searching for information about that and also chatted with my friends. They suggested me to take a nap and then to see if the rapid heartbeat still continues. I did feel better and relieved after my nap.
Official lockdown: 26 January 2020 – 14 March 2020
On 26 January, the lockdown of Hongan was officially carried out. Quarantine measures were getting stricter and stricter day by day. At first, we were told to stay at home as often as possible and then the buses, taxis and motorbikes were not allowed to go between the downtown and the villages. And in January 30, ordinary motor vehicles were banned from roads from Sunday in Hongan, and only authorized vehicles such as official vehicles and licensed cars to carry supplies were exempt. After two days, all supermarkets and shops were only open to the government and local communities. At last, there were blocks in every intersections and tents were set up for workers and volunteers to ensure 24/7 guard.
As for our daily supplies, community workers and volunteers got orders from residents in their neighborhood, and they went to the supermarket or they ordered groceries from local suppliers and dispatched those to residents. We also received celery, cabbage and pumpkins donated by good-hearted people in other Chinese provinces from Ningxia, Shandong and Hainan.
Worst week: 26 January 2020 – 31 January 2020
These five days might be the longest and most suffering time for me and my family. On the one hand, 30 January 2020 was the end of the 14-day incubation time since the day we went back from Wuhan. On the other, with more reports, we could get a clearer and closer look at situations in Wuhan and the rest of China.
A lot of problems arose such as the lack of medical care for a great deal of patients and suspected patients and the inconvenience of people’s daily life. In those days, I often went to bed late at night. I felt tired all day. Every night I told myself, do not read any reports about the epidemic, but I could not stop. The number of infected patients rose so rapidly that I could not imagine it was reality.
Also, more and more symptoms of Covid-19 were told to the public day by day. At first, typical symptoms were fever and breath difficulties and then cough, chest distress and diarrhoea were reported as well. That made me worry that if I and my parents were infected or not since we both had a cold after coming back from Wuhan.
I measured my temperature whenever I felt uncomfortable. One day I measured ten times since the first time it was 37.2 ℃ which is so close to low fever. I kept reading reports and posts about this epidemic and could not stop imagining the worst scenarios.
What if I and my parents all get the virus and cannot get proper and instant treatment because of the shortage of medical staff and medical supplies. That kind of anxiety and worry makes me dare not to take rest, and I secretly wipe tears in dark evenings.
One day a friend told me “you should pay attention to your mental health.” It was then that I suddenly realized that the lingering fear and despair needs to be released, so I deleted Weibo and tried to be more positive and lead a more peaceful life.
Doing something: 31 January – 14 March 2020
During lockdown, my parents and I tried cooking different styles of cooking. Though we only have limited food, we still produced a variety of delicious dishes, with a few failures as well.
My parents and I all agreed that staying at home and keeping healthy are the best ways to fight the virus. Since we cannot go out for a walk, we had to think of ways to keep us fit to better protect us from getting infected. At first, my dad did fast-walking on our balcony for an hour after dinner, I did rope skipping and my mum did yoga.
Then we wanted to play a new sport that all of us could participate. We found rackets for (a Chinese traditional sport) that my dad bought 12 years ago. The Banyu rackets look like Pingpong rackets but made of wood and the ball is made of feathers and rubber. It does not need a pingpong table and requires less space than badminton, so we decided to give it a try in our flat. We took turns to play and kept this as our after-dinner sport till the end of lockdown.
We found different ways of relaxing on our own. My dad read news every morning and he usually took a nap after lunch and then watched TV series on a laptop on the balcony where he could have sunshine. My mum enjoys playing mahjong, so she downloaded an app for that and invited her friends and relatives to play it together online.
As for me, I took cooking as my relaxing activity, and sometimes posted my dishes on social media. What was more, my parents wanted to make use of the lockdown time and started to learn English online. I downloaded an English- learning app for kindergarten kids and taught them whenever they needed my help or corrections. They started from letter A but they quit at letter F.
1st lockdown lift: 14 March 2020
On 14 March, the lockdown in Hongan was lifted and roadblocks were removed gradually. Careful as I and my mum were, we did not go to public places on the first day but to have an observation of outside on our balcony. After two days, we finally got out of our flat, to breathe the air outside with our masks on.
Travel restrictions were lifted gradually after the end of lockdown. At first, cars were allowed on roads within Hongan but they were banned on alternate days depending on whether license plates end in odd or even numbers. For those migrant workers who wanted to go back to work in another city or province, they had to apply for an acceptance letter from their company and the neighbourhood committee.
Since we reported our health conditions and contacts on Alipay everyday during the quarantine, we got a “Health QR Code” on it. The codes are in three colours — green, yellow and red — and so restrictions could be imposed accordingly. The green code means people have little chance of having been infected, while people with yellow and red ones must be held under quarantine for a few days and report their health information every day before they are allowed to travel around.
If people wanted to go to another city, they should show their green Health QR Code at checkpoints. As for people without a car or did not want to drive a car for so long, they could apply for point- to- point buses, which would take passengers directly to their destinations, mainly in Guangdong province and Zhejiang province. On 24 March, the first high-speed railway for migrant workers in Hongan left The Hongan West Railway Station with 1133 migrant workers, who were returning to work in Guangdong.
2nd lockdown lift: 8 April 2020
On 8 April, after 76 days, the lockdown in Wuhan was finally lifted. It became a milestone for China in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak.
At midnight, at Fuhe toll gate in northern Wuhan, cars honked horns and passed through after barricades were removed. At 6:25 am, the first train left Wuhan for Jingzhou city in Hubei province. At 7:25 am, the flight MU2527 bound for Sanya, Hainan province, took off from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport.
Testing campaign: 14 May – 2 June 2020
A campaign was launched in Wuhan to have nucleic acid test on all residents for Covid-19 to quickly identify asymptomatic infections and prevent further transmission since 14 May. Residents did not pay for the test and the cost will be carried by municipal and district governments.
On 2 June, the result showed that no confirmed cases after testing 9,899,828 residents. 300 asymptomatic people were identified during the test, with a detection rate of 0.303/10,000. Among those asymptomatic people, there was no cases of transmission to others.
Till then, we could finally say that Wuhan became a safe place again and hopefully we could move on and return to normal life.
My thoughts now
Looking back on the experience, I feel so lucky and blessed that I could spend 48 days of lockdown with my family in our own flat.
We were so lucky that even though I came from the epidemic center, we all stayed healthy and safe.
We were so lucky that even during the difficult time, we still had enough meat which my mum prepared for Spring Festival and my dad managed to get fresh fruit and vegetables when he went out for volunteering work.
We were so lucky to have so many selfless and courageous doctors and nurses who kept working for such a long time even without enough protection at first.
We were so lucky that all community workers and volunteers endured long hours to keep us free from infection.
We were so lucky that we received kind greetings and concerns from people that cared about us.
We were so lucky that we gradually came back to normal life now.
However, the world now is in a terrible state, and numerous people are still suffering. For this moment, however, we just felt lucky to have survived unscathed.
Text & photos by M. Ye, editor’s note by I. Martin
1 Editor’s note: “`Global English(es)´” in the context of this blog means that contributions by international students are only sparingly edited, to preserve the authenticity of their English(es).