A follow-up dispatch from the centre of the epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young
The only thing that hasn’t changed since they shut down the city is my grandmother’s insistence on walking the dog. Every morning at five or six o’clock, she puts on her face mask and steps out the door. When she comes back around breakfast time, she gives a report.
“No one outside today, either,” she says.
But on January 25, the first day of the lunar new year, she saw something new. “I turned back early today. There were people with red armbands standing on the bridge, staring right at me,” she said. “So I figured maybe that means you’re not allowed to cross.”
That day we learned the authorities had tightened the lockdown. Every district was now closed off, and you couldn’t cross the river. Neighbors who had gone to call on relatives – a traditional activity in the first days of the festival – were stopped at the gates of their housing complexes. Not long after that came word that private cars were no longer allowed in the city center.
One after another, the cities and towns of Hubei were sealed off, as if under siege. Roadblocks and sandbags appeared on the expressways. Some towns have taken more extreme measures, blocking roads by digging them up.
Anyone who has come into close contact with a confirmed case has to carefully reconstruct the encounter and record their temperature for fourteen days”
We’ve quickly adjusted to the way news spreads. First come the rumors, then the denials, and finally the confirmation. You can’t automatically believe every rumor. All day you’re inundated: steeped in a swirl of murky crosscurrents. We constantly check the number of confirmed cases and deaths, refreshing the results every few hours. Businesses and neighborhood districts gather information on the ill, and each day workers have to report their health status. Anyone who has come into close contact with a confirmed case has to carefully reconstruct the encounter and record their temperature for fourteen days.
Every news item, every new control measure leads to an endless series of questions: Why did they announce they were putting the city on lockdown at two o’clock in the morning? What do you do if you have a fever and need to get to the hospital? Motor vehicles are banned in the city center. Are some cars allowed in? The neighborhood has arranged for vehicles for emergency use and grocery trips. Who can use them? I spent a whole day fruitlessly seeking answers to these questions. It felt like climbing an endless spiral staircase.
The ban on cars hobbled a flourishing grassroots movement. When they shut down the city, they also shut down public transit, so volunteer drivers formed transport teams, ferrying medical personnel to and from work, and picking up supply donations at the city limits. Hotels offered free lodging to hospital staff, while restaurants continued to provide food delivery. Now all that has ground to a halt, and the streets have sunk into a silence that deepens by the day. People who want to help out can’t find a way to do so. The government says that staying home is the most responsible course of action if you’re healthy or have only mild symptoms.
Messages flood in, asking what the state of affairs is in Wuhan. No one has a clue, not even here. No one dares to go outside. No one dares to go to the hospital. No “locals” are left. We’re still here, living on the same ground, but it’s as though we’re suspended in mid-air, feet not quite touching the ground. Like people on the outside, we rely on social media to sift fact from fiction, to find out what’s happening just a kilometer away. We read about the world’s anger, sympathy, and indifference, and try our best to go about our lives as before.
No one dares to go outside. No one dares to go to the hospital. No one has a clue, not even here.”
On January 24, the eve of the new year, my family and I took inventory of what we had to eat – how much rice, how much flour, how many fruits and vegetables – and stored what we didn’t immediately need in the basement, or out on the icy balcony. We had planned to have the extended family over for the new year’s reunion feast, but they all ended up staying away, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve got enough to last us two weeks, at least,” said my grandmother.
Ever since she heard that at the company where my father works some two hundred employees couldn’t go home, she has been going on about the poor souls not able to have a proper new year’s dinner. Aside from that, she was in good spirits. She was constantly getting calls from her hometown up north, as long-lost relatives – including some she couldn’t even remember – rang up to express their concern. That made her feel she hadn’t been forgotten. Relatives sent photos of their own new year’s dinners in group chats, downscaled to fit the new circumstances.
That afternoon, as we prepared the customary dumplings for that night’s meal, my grandmother told us to add two peanuts to the filling. Whoever got a peanut in their dumpling would have good fortune in the new year.
“This year is special,” I said. “Let’s throw in a few more.”
“No, no, that won’t do,” said my grandmother. She insisted we stick to the usual traditions.
I had made a bet with my father about whether we would hear firecrackers that night. Every so often we brought it up again, as if each of us thought the other might have forgotten. “Let’s see if we hear firecrackers tonight.”
“This isn’t so bad,” said my mother. “I can’t remember the last time we had the whole family together in the same place for such a long time.”
As the new year’s gala played on the television, we sat looking at our phones, heads down.
After a family discussion, we decided we could all use a drink. My mother asked me to go bring up the wine and beer from downstairs, so I put on my slippers and headed down to the basement. I switched on the light, but the faint glow still left the room in semi-darkness. Supplies were heaped in chaotic piles, leaving nowhere to tread: a box of cabbage here, a bundle of garlic sprouts there. We could survive a nuclear winter on this, I thought.
For a moment my mind went blank, and I couldn’t recall what I had come down for. I stood rooted in place. A strange sensation crept up my spine, as though I had taken a wrong turn and stepped into another world. In the gloom, surrounded by bags of rice and half-wilted vegetables, I registered how unfree it felt. We were in prison, watched by invisible jailers, serving an indefinite sentence.
Back upstairs, in the light, everything seemed normal again. “The booze is here,” I announced, setting the bottles on the dining table. My family has different opinions about alcohol, so everyone opened a bottle of what they liked best.
You can’t automatically believe every rumor. All day you’re inundated: steeped in a swirl of murky crosscurrents”
The new year’s eve gala always continues to the stroke of midnight, but we didn’t want to sit through the entire thing.
“Let’s drive into town and see what it’s like,” my father suggested. “We’ll stay in the car. It’s the last day of the year, so we’ll have the roads to ourselves.”
All the women in the family were against the idea. In the end, my mother insisted on coming with us.
“I’m going to supervise and make sure these two don’t get out of the car,” she said to Anna, my wife.
“You just want to come along,” said my father.
The rain fell as we drove into town. It was my mother who first spotted the bunches of chrysanthemums along the road.
“Probably just a city beautification thing,” said my father.
The closer we got to the city center, the more of them we saw. Chrysanthemums are a funeral flower in China, and the only shops with lights on were selling religious items and traditional burial clothes.
“Is this some Hubei custom I don’t know about? Buying flowers for the dead on new year’s eve?” asked my mother, who didn’t grow up here.
“Not that I know of,” my father replied. “We burn joss paper.”
We turned into a petrol station and saw more neat rows of chrysanthemums. In the middle stood what appeared to be a statue of the Buddha. Then the statue raised an umbrella, and we saw it was the flower seller, crouching on the ground in a puffy jacket and a white face mask. I broke into a cold sweat, and a silence fell over the car.
All light had drained out of the Wuhan night. Black high-rises towered in the distance, somber and silent. By the time we got home, it was already after midnight. I hadn’t thought to listen for firecrackers.
We were in prison, watched by invisible jailers, serving an indefinite sentence.”
Early the next morning, we learned of the ban on private vehicles. Cars with Wuhan plates could fill up only a limited amount of gas. I couldn’t help thinking that our nighttime outing, when my father filled the tank, was divinely inspired.
After my grandmother’s morning report, we decided to get some fresh air by going down to the lakefront path behind our housing complex. We ran into a handful of people, but we gave them a wide berth, as though avoiding a dangerous beast. They did the same.
Along the way we saw several cats and dogs, their clean fur indicating they weren’t strays. Between the time they announced the lockdown of Wuhan at 2am on the January 23, and the time it went into effect the next morning, a lot of people had rushed to get out of town. I heard about people in such a hurry to leave that they left their pets behind. Now the dogs and cats had slipped out to fend for themselves.
We started to worry about our own dog. There was a rumor that dogs were transmitting the virus. We were afraid this rumor too would be confirmed, or that even if it wasn’t, some preventive measure would force us to hand over a member of our family.
“Let’s feed him the leftover dumplings,” my grandmother suggested.
Time slowed. By the third day of the new year, it felt as if we had been on lockdown for weeks. We weren’t making use of all the extra time. Our bodies had grown sluggish, feeble.
The people of Wuhan had lost their hometown – those inside the city, and those stuck outside it. The city had been broken into pieces, sectioned off into isolated compartments. There was no organization, no sense of community. We had to rely on rumors on social media to find out what was happening just down the street.
Those who had left were now in exile. They had become strangers in their homeland. Being from Wuhan or Hubei used to be an unremarkable fact. Now it became a cause for suspicion. An ID card, a license plate, an area code – any inadvertently shared piece of information could lead to ostracism.
The people of Wuhan had lost their hometown. We had to rely on rumors on social media to find out what was happening just down the street.”
“Someone at your company got sick,” my father told my mother. “Do you know her?”
“Are you sure?” my mother replied.
We got confirmation from Kunming, a city in the far southwest. A coworker who had made us some new year’s treats had fallen ill. At first she had been listed as a suspected case, but now the diagnosis was confirmed. We got a message from her, apologizing and telling us to throw out the food. My mother told her not to worry – it wasn’t her fault – and to keep her spirits up. Then she turned around and muttered to herself, “There’s only so much you can do.”
Since she had had close contact with her coworker, my mother now had to report her temperature twice a day. We threw out the hand-made cookies and sweets.
“Guess that explains my cold,” I said.
“Now that you mention it, I have a scratchy throat,” said my mother.
“My arms and legs are sore,” added my father.
“My chest feels tight,” said Anna.
“I’m going to keep my distance from you all of you,” said my grandmother.
She moved the speaker blaring out her workout routine into the living room. No one complained that it was too loud. We’re all there doing exercises and stretches now, trying to stay healthy.
I think of the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, on the front lines of the Angolan Civil War. Arriving at one town at dawn, he and the guerrilla fighters he was traveling with were on their guard, but once they saw it was deserted, they breathed easy and started to do calisthenics. One of them straightened his shoulders and said, “Another day of life.” ∎