They Shut Down the City8 min read

A dispatch from quarantined Wuhan during the coronavirus epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young

On January 17, I went to pick up a friend at the Hankou train station in my hometown Wuhan. She was the only one wearing a face mask. At the time, the official line was that everything was under control, that the spread could be prevented. “The Huanan Seafood Market is only two blocks away,” I said to her, teasingly. In an all-night restaurant, the glass tanks were swimming with life. We ate noodles with crab legs. The streets were as packed as ever, with drunk revelers trying to call cabs after their year-end company parties. A man doubled over to vomit, while a young woman patted him on the back and said, “Ready for another round, honey?”

A week ago the panic was still confined to health-conscious retirees, who always worry about seasonal illnesses. It didn’t prompt them to wear face masks or use hand sanitizer more regularly, it just gave them a new reason to get on young people’s case: don’t go out, drink plenty of water. There were also the perennial conspiracy theorists, who doubted official news yet didn’t provide more reliable information. To most of us, not wearing a mask seemed reasonable and logical. After all, who wanted to be associated with paranoid old folks and crackpots?

Wuhan is not a city of fear. I can’t think of a time when it has ever been gripped by panic. Perhaps that is due to the city’s revolutionary past, as the site of the Wuchang uprising in 1911 that overthrew the Qing dynasty. If a revolution couldn’t faze us, a natural disaster or illness won’t. In 1998, when I was a child growing up here, a flood burst the dams on the Yangtze, leaving whole neighborhoods head-deep in water and halting all public transit. Since the ground level was submerged, us kids would play together on the second floor of our buildings, firing BB guns at the dead animals floating in the water. I remember how the adults kept going to work, while we had a watery vacation. Wuhan residents have a perverse competitive streak: the more extreme a challenge, the more we throw ourselves against it.

Wuhan is not a city of fear. If a revolution couldn’t faze us, a natural disaster or illness won’t.”

When the time came for my friend to leave, on January 19, the atmosphere had become more tense, and events took a nasty turn. First came the official reports from other provinces, confirming that the virus wasn’t just in Wuhan, and that it could be passed between human carriers. Supermarkets were still packed with locals stocking up for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Criticism of Wuhan’s disease control become a national pastime. I was only back in town for the holidays, but I wrote an email to my university in Australia about extending my leave.

On January 20, I came down with cold-like symptoms and immediately went to a community clinic. People were streaming in and out. Only the doctor wore a face mask, and he indiscriminately prescribed antibiotics, fever reducers, and a traditional honeysuckle medicine. As I waited, I read a regulation posted on the wall that medical personnel have a legal responsibility to report Category A infectious diseases within two hours, and Category B and C diseases within 24 hours. Atypical pneumonia is classified as Category B but follows the reporting timeline of Category A.

When it was my turn to be seen, the doctor told me I didn’t have a fever. He wrote down my name and age, then told the crowd that the clinic had run out of face masks. Go take a look in the pharmacy next door, he suggested. “What can we do to prevent getting sick?” asked someone. The doctor lowered his mask and replied, “Try positive thinking.” Everyone laughed.

When I went to the pharmacy, crowds were lining up to buy face masks. The shelves displayed all kinds, and people were asking which was most effective. I hesitated, and the face masks were going fast so I randomly bought a few. Then another customer came in and tried to buy the rest of the stock, carrying a bulky bag. More than one person consoled themselves saying: “everyone else is wearing one, so I’ll be safe even if I don’t.” In Shanghai and Beijing, masks were already selling out, and in Wuhan they are now almost impossible to find. From that day on, face masks became ubiquitous in public, and the streets were a collage of white patches, like pear-blossoms budding out of season.

On January 21, I met some friends for lunch in the city center. I’ve got a bit of a cold, I said. Perfect timing, they replied. Come over and drink down the virus. A lot of people were coming down with colds – some real, some in their heads. None of us suggested cancelling lunch. Companies had called off their parties and restaurants had more space available. Everyone ate quickly, and by the time we had finished drinking, we were the only ones left. Outside, as we walked across Liberation Park, we took off our masks. I didn’t see a soul. I’ve never seen this central park so quiet. “It’s because it’s raining today,” my friend said, flipping up his collar. On the drive home, the taxi driver wore a mask.

“Not leaving town?” he asked. “Today everyone’s going to the train stations.”
“Where would I go?” I replied.
“The sick flee when there’s no truth around,” he said.

His words reminded me of Amartya Sen’s theory about democracy preventing famine. Freedom of speech is usually a cheesy topic: too pious, too self-righteous. Only in a crisis does it take on real meaning. Whether or not you can speak up is one thing, and whether the truth will prevail is another. I desperately grasped at news from any source, none of which I could verify, filling me with bottomless anxiety. I wanted neither to be blindly optimistic, nor to think the worst. When I got home, the TV was showing an interview with the pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, savior of the 2003 SARS crisis. My family decided to shop for supplies tomorrow, and not leave the house after that. My relatives cancelled their plans to come to Wuhan for the new year.

At the door a security guard touched every customer’s head with a thermometer, as if giving them a blessing”

On January 22, an icy rain fell all day long. Wearing a face mask outside was now seen as a matter of common decency. The crisis had become a test case for arguing the merits or flaws of the government. On social media, neither side changed its position, but now they had a new example to point to, a new argument for praising or criticizing state agencies. Now that I was directly affected, I lost any desire to take part. I didn’t want to write a word; Wuhan wasn’t an argument for me to brandish in a debate. People in an epidemic-stricken area don’t care about scoring points about who’s right and who’s wrong.

On January 23, the day before Chinese new year’s eve, Wuhan locked down. Nobody was allowed out. Concerned messages flooded my phone. I tossed a few effervescent vitamin tablets into a glass of water and started the day with a fizz. My family cancelled plans to visit our buried ancestors in the cemetery. The living can’t see the dead, said my grandmother, playing on a Chinese proverb that the dead can’t see the living. My parents went shopping, though they didn’t see any of the profiteering we had heard about. As soon as goods made it onto the shelves, they were snatched up. The supermarket gave up and closed in the morning, to reopen at an undetermined date. At the door a security guard touched every customer’s head with a thermometer, as if giving them a blessing.

It is the eve of the new year. My neighborhood is nearly deserted. Even the dogs have ceased barking – if only the cat in heat next door would shut up, too. I sleep unusually well. I read old books and make long-term plans. Neighbors remind us to stock up on food, and tell us of those with high fevers who are being sent to the hospital. They’re afraid they might be taken too. The news is infuriating: it’s either about New Year’s celebrations, or about the selfless doctors and nurses on the front line. Their tragic heroism is an obsession, and the crisis is turning into an excuse to venerate them. No one should need to prove themselves through heroic acts. Tears well up at their sacrifice, not at why sacrifice is necessary in the first place. In time of disaster, we look for the divine in humanity. 

They say they’re going to build a hospital in six days. During SARS it took them a whole week. ∎

Header: Wuhan seafood market, closed on 21 January 2020 after the coronavirus was detected there. (Wikicommons)