Life on lockdown in my hometown Wuhan

By Hoe I Yune, Apr 09, 2020

We’re living in unprecedented and uncertain times. Working from home and social distancing have become the new normal.

At the time this story is published, there have been 1,356,780 confirmed cases and 79,385 confirmed deaths of COVID-19 in 212 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Before it became a worldwide pandemic, the early cases were detected in November in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China.

Wuhan was placed under lockdown with roadblocks and restrictions placed on daily life. Only yesterday was the lockdown lifted and in the two weeks leading up to this day, the travel ban was eased and people were allowed to enter the city again. Banks have reopened and public transport services have resumed, but can life ever go back to normal? 

As Wuhan has now been reclassified as a “low-risk” area and fewer cases are reported each day, Rainie, a 29-year-old Wuhan native, hopes that the worst of it is over. 

For Rainie, it wasn’t just about being cooped up at home or living in fear of contracting the virus — six of her relatives were diagnosed with the virus, which led to her maternal grandfather’s passing. Her maternal uncle’s family of three, maternal aunt and another maternal uncle’s wife have all recovered or are currently in the midst of recovery.

* * * *

When my dad called to say that grandpa passed away, my heart sank and I had to steady myself. On the other end of the line, I could hear my mum sobbing so hard that she was gasping for breath.

The news wasn’t sudden. On January 27, grandpa developed a high fever and was diagnosed with what was known as the novel coronavirus pneumonia, before it was renamed COVID-19. In both hospitals that he was admitted to, the doctors told us to be mentally prepared for the worst. We all understood that this respiratory disease was aggressive and at 78 years old, he fell within the “high-risk” age group.

When grandpa was safely transferred to the ICU room at a second hospital dedicated to treating infected patients with severe symptoms, the rest of us in the family thought we had done our best so that grandpa could get the treatment that he needed; we hoped that the worst of it was over. Just that morning, I received a text message from my superior at work asking how my family was doing and I optimistically replied: no news is good news.

Then the bad news came. 

What broke my heart to this day is that because of how contagious the virus is, there was no one to keep him company or be by his side as he took his dying breath. None of us were there to hear if he had any final words left to say. We didn’t get to tell him how much we love him. 

It has been more than a month since and we still haven’t received his ashes. It will be a while before we can hold a funeral for him.

My maternal-grandpa and maternal-uncle both developed fevers around the same time and it was a frantic period for my family and I. Reliable information on COVID-19 was scarce at that point in time but we knew that fever, cough, and difficulty breathing were all symptoms. Healthcare providers in Wuhan, which are normally consistent and reliable, were swamped. And perhaps swamped was an understatement — the hospital queues were so long that you’d have to wait an average of 10 hours before being attended to. 

I first read about the virus on WeChat at the start of January. But the initial low number of reported cases made us dismiss how serious it could be. No one wore face masks and social distancing was the furthest thing from our minds.

The wakeup call was when the government issued a statement on COVID-19 and announced in the middle of the night on January 23 that we were going into a lockdown. Public transport was shut down and most shops and businesses were closed with immediate effect. 

Hearing about the lockdown was so sudden and unusual that we didn’t know what kind of impact it would have on our daily life. But what convinced my family and I to abide by the new rules were the rising number of confirmed cases and bombardment of news reports. We were worried about what the disease could do to us. 

For the first time in our family, we called off our reunion dinner two days before the Lunar New Year’s eve.

My husband and I rang in the Lunar New Year with a dinner for two.

My husband and I rang in the Lunar New Year with a dinner for two.

I drove by my parents’ home to drop off groceries and gave my mum a hug. By then, we were wearing face masks and there was an impending sense of gloom as the future looked so uncertain. 

The streets were empty. In my 29 years of living in Wuhan, I’ve never seen it look so deserted before.

The streets were empty. In my 29 years of living in Wuhan, I’ve never seen it look so deserted before.

For two months, my husband and I went out no more than five times in total. We only popped out to get essential groceries and whenever we returned from the supermarket, we aired our outerwear outside and jumped straight into the shower. 

We used tissue to press elevator buttons and push doors open, and sometimes wore disposable gloves. During this unprecedented period, it never feels as if you are doing too much to protect yourself. 

At first I was optimistic and passed time reading books and watching movies. I wasn’t able to go out to exercise but it seemed like a minor inconvenience given the severity of the situation. Then my anxiety came into full swing when my relatives fell ill, and as a way of coping with cabin fever, I would sit by the window to get a dose of sunshine.

At first I was optimistic and passed time reading books and watching movies. I wasn’t able to go out to exercise but it seemed like a minor inconvenience given the severity of the situation. Then my anxiety came into full swing when my relatives fell ill, and as a way of coping with cabin fever, I would sit by the window to get a dose of sunshine.

At first there were no restrictions on going out to buy groceries but the lockdown measures tightened over time. We weren’t allowed to go out any more than twice a week.

On February 15, we were no longer permitted to leave the community even to buy groceries in person. Community staff members and volunteers were put in charge of organising “group-buys” for residents. On WeChat, I placed grocery orders and chose from set meals. The “group-buys” were organised by different people and merchants, which gave us choices such as meat, vegetables, or the local signature “hot dry noodles”. 

Before the “group-buy” initiative, “panic buying” came about during the first few days of the lockdown. Supermarkets organised crowd control measures like limiting the number of customers who could enter the supermarket at a go and making everyone stand 1.5 meters apart from one another while waiting to check out. But our worries about running out of daily necessities turned out to be unnecessary. Other provinces in China donated vegetables and meat and it was a pretty smooth transition for us to adapt our way of shopping. 

The main difference was that to err on the side of caution, my husband and I would buy more than necessary each time to reduce the amount of times we had to go to the entrance of the community to collect goods and come into contact with other people. 

The entrance of our community was totally blocked and in this picture, you can see one of my neighbours protecting himself by wearing plastic bags over his head and hands.

The entrance of our community was totally blocked and in this picture, you can see one of my neighbours protecting himself by wearing plastic bags over his head and hands.

The government also mobilised batches of medical teams from outside of Hubei province to help save lives here. These healthcare heroes helped make major progress in the prevention and control of the disease here. When the first emergency hospital was built in 10 day, I felt so grateful to the construction workers and everyone who sacrificed and put themselves at risk to work day and night.

Thankfully my husband and I didn’t face any pay cuts because we are not employed by the private sector. We worked from home and when I wasn’t working, my day-to-day life was consumed with trying to read up as much as I could about COVID-19 and figuring out how to get my family members the medical attention that they needed. News updates were coming in so quickly that I would be scrolling social media every few hours, checking in on government sources, and speaking with family members on the phone. 

No one on my husband’s side of the family came down with COVID-19 and he was my rock throughout this troubling period, preparing all my meals and taking care of household chores. 

We had no idea how long this ordeal would last and just strived to get by day by day. 

Even though we couldn’t leave our homes, it was heartwarming how the community came together by singing out of windows. Chants like “Wuhan, jiāyóu” symbolised our solidarity and you could really feel how a little faith, love, and hope can get people through during the darkest hours. 

At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, one of the biggest challenges we faced was the limited availability of medical resources. It’s something that I think other countries such as Italy and the US are going through right now. February was the dark period for us here in Wuhan. We understood so little about the virus, and when six of my family members came down with symptoms, we were so frightened. 

My grandpa and uncle contracted the disease from my aunt, who came down with a fever a week before them. She was diagnosed as a “suspected case” but her symptoms were too mild for her to be hospitalised and the doctor could only advise her to self-isolate after returning home with medication. She moved into our family’s spare apartment and we monitored everyone else’s body temperatures.

My aunt managed to recover entirely on her own. Her high fever went down after about four days. For two weeks, she rested alone before going for another CT scan. The results showed that she did have COVID-19 but had since recovered.

I think it helped that her immune system was strong. My grandpa, being older, was not as lucky. Due to a shortage of medical equipment in the hospital, he couldn’t get a proper ventilator until a family friend managed to locate one for him, and he was later transferred to another hospital.

It was a struggle even to get an ambulance, as we were told that they were reserved for people living at home, and certain ambulances could not be used for those who were infected. It took us over a day before we managed to transfer my grandpa.

Something that I’ve learned from this ordeal is that no one can afford to be selfish and live on their own. Without seeking help from friends and family, it would’ve been impossible for us to have gotten the necessary help.

As a family, even though we could not leave our homes or visit patients in person, we kept a WeChat group going. Every morning, we would post updates on how we’re feeling and encourage those diagnosed with the disease. 

I also posted about my struggles on social media and friends were incredibly supportive, sharing useful information whenever they could. Because of this I never felt like I was alone.

My cousin was the last in the household to be diagnosed with COVID-19. He’s turning 18 this year and it is such poor timing because he is meant to be sitting for his college entrance exam soon! It’s one of the most important examinations in a Chinese student’s life. 

My cousin stayed in a makeshift hospital, one of the 16 public facilities that the government temporarily converted to house patients with mild symptoms. Making use of sports stadiums, convention centers and schools, I’ve noticed that this is a measure that has been implemented in other countries. 

This was my cousin’s bed in the makeshift hospital.

This was my cousin’s bed in the makeshift hospital.

My cousin’s recovery rate was quick but when he felt unwell, we got him transferred to a hospital just to be safe. He has since been discharged and we are so relieved.

I was fortunate to not have contracted COVID-19. However, knowing that my loved ones were in pain and not being able to do anything due to the lockdown was extremely distressing.

It took so long before my mum’s sister received a diagnosis that her oxyhemoglobin saturation level fell below 70 percent, and she had to go straight into the emergency room. Her lungs were badly infected, which is why it has been two months and she is still hospitalised. She went through a tough time and there were moments when she wanted to give up.

She hit an all-time low when she took off her ventilator mask and told my cousin that she didn’t wish to fight anymore and to just let her go.

Thankfully she pulled through and we couldn’t be more grateful to her doctors and nurses for this. My husband and I couldn’t visit anyone because of the lockdown but when she was first rushed to the emergency room, the hospital was close enough to our home that we managed to swing by to deliver food to her son and console him.

We gave him face masks, a cap and goggles for his hospital trips. I think it’s a good thing that he was so diligent in covering himself from head to toe and frequently disinfected his car. He accompanied my aunt on numerous hospital trips and to this very day, as his mum is recovering, he remains uninfected.

Now that my family members have managed to get medical assistance and the healthcare system has seemingly successfully contained the situation here, it feels as though a huge weight has been lifted off my chest. As the lockdown is gradually being lifted, my dad has resumed work and my mum has moved in with me so that I can take care of her. The stress and grief took such a toll that she suffered from aches and insomnia.

We all look forward to April 8 when the Wuhan lockdown is completely lifted!

But we are also aware that this doesn’t mean it is 100 per cent safe and we aren’t sure if it will be safe for us to seek the usual medical treatment in hospitals. So in my mum’s case, we turned to doctors online who diagnosed her as having an anxiety disorder, and we managed to get our hands on prescribed medication. 

What saddens me is how my hometown is associated with being the epicentre of COVID-19. Most people outside of China used to be familiar only with Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Now, Wuhan suddenly rose to infamy because of this pandemic.

Some politicians tend to believe or to claim that the virus originated from Wuhan. I personally don’t accept this accusation because it’s so unfair to say so, especially since the exact source hasn’t been identified yet by global scientists. According to Professor Robert F. Garry from Tulane University, who is one of the researchers behind a study published in scientific journal Nature Medicine, “There were definitely cases there (Wuhan), but that wasn’t the origin of the virus”. It’s even more upsetting when some people try to name this virus after China. This is racist, as has been criticised by WHO, and it might distract people from what really matters: the containment of the disease.

No matter how COVID-19 originated, I hope people outside of China will come to learn about the real Wuhan. Wuhan has developed so much in the last 20 years, growing from being an industrial base and manufacturing city to an economic, cultural, educational and transportation hub in central China. 

Every country has its own way of tackling COVID-19, given that we have different cultures and practices. International cooperation and support is necessary for us to win this battle worldwide. Since the situation in China has largely improved, I’m proud that we have reached out to offer support to other countries. The university I work in donated batches of personal protective equipment to our overseas university partners, because we also received generous support from them when we were going through our hardest time. 

I hope we’ll remember Wuhan for its resilience.

I hope we’ll remember Wuhan for its resilience.

During the Wuhan lockdown, the streets were quieter than usual and we are still wary when we leave our homes. From the looks of things, the darkest period is over but I think it will take much longer than we expect before things completely return to normal. 

I’m taking things day by day, because that’s all you can really do as you hope for the best and life goes on. 

I hope that once this pandemic blows over, people outside of China will be open-minded enough to come and see for themselves what this city is really like. Wuhan has so much to offer in terms of its history, scenery, food and hospitality, and I think it is important to move ahead and support one another. 

Writer’s note:

 Photos were provided by Rainie. The interview was conducted in Mandarin and translated into English.

 My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. I’ve shared my thoughts about working from home, choosing between seeing my sister and boyfriend, and conversations I’ve had with my friend from Wuhan on my personal Dayre account at @i_yune. 

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