Inside Wuhan: Chinese national describes life in the coronavirus quarantine zone
The most common vehicles on Wuhan's nearly empty streets are the many ambulances transporting patients across the city. In this Jan. 26 photo, ambulance crew members in protective gear wait for a patient outside an apartment block. | Chinatopix via AP

SINGAPORE—It’s been more than two weeks since authorities in the city of Wuhan quarantined 11 million people in an attempt to contain the coronavirus outbreak spreading across China and around the world. Except for a few foreign nationals whose governments have ferried them out on charter flights, the capital of epidemic-hit Hubei province remains, essentially, a closed city.

But that doesn’t mean life inside the quarantine zone has come to a complete halt or that people there have lost all hope. On the contrary, a healthy dose of solidarity and community spirit is helping them make it through the long, isolated days. As one Wuhan resident told People’s World, “This storm will pass.”

Lupin, a 26-year-old Chinese national, currently works in Toronto, but Wuhan is his hometown and it’s where his family still lives. This year was the first time he’s returned home to spend Chinese New Year with them since going overseas for school and then to work eight years ago. He landed at Wuhan’s airport at midnight on Jan. 23—the day the city was sealed.

“I arrived just a few hours before the city was quarantined,” he said in an interview with People’s World on Friday morning, Feb. 7. “There were only about 200 confirmed cases when I landed,” he remembers. As of this writing, there are some 31,000+ confirmed infections in China, with over 600 deaths. “I absolutely did not foresee things unfolding this way.”

A Chinese New Year unlike any other

Hundreds of millions of Chinese people—especially those working in cities far away from home or outside the country—travel back to be with family every year during the holiday period. It’s the biggest human migration on earth, which means conditions were, unfortunately, perfect for the coronavirus to spread far and wide. The one-week vacation period was scheduled to end in Hubei this past Monday, Feb. 3. But with strict quarantine measures in place, that didn’t happen. For now, the provincial government has set Feb. 14 as the official back-to-work day. But not many people expect that to be the case, according to Lupin. “It will likely be postponed again if the situation keeps deteriorating.”

Lupin, age 26, at his family home in Wuhan, China—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. He left home eight years ago to go to school and work in Canada. Coming home for Chinese New Year to visit his family for the first time since then, Lupin is now unable to leave the sealed city. He talked with People’s World about life inside the quarantine zone. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Every morning, the family begins their day with a review of the latest available information from public health officials. “The government updates numbers around 9 a.m. every day in the morning, so that’s the first thing we check.” Other information is released throughout the day on social media by the government, but Lupin said there’s also a lot of fake news (actual fake news, not the Donald Trump kind) circulating as well.

Across Asia, authorities are battling what the World Health Organization has called a “massive info-demic,” an information epidemic of text messages promising useless “cures,” false tales of how infection spreads, racist misinformation targeting people from mainland China, and more. Inside Wuhan, where people are looking for any way possible to protect themselves, the pace of health info racing across social media messaging platforms is even more furious. “It definitely requires readers to exercise good judgment as a lot of the information is rumors and speculation,” Lupin says.

People’s World coronavirus epidemic coverage:

> China’s coronavirus response shows what’s possible when people come before profits

> UN agency declares the coronavirus a global health emergency

> Former OSHA chief: U.S. sitting on protocol to fight coronavirus

> China declares “people’s war” against coronavirus; global economic impact spreads

So far, Lupin and his family have been lucky. They’re stuck inside their home most of the time and unable to go out, but nobody has gotten sick. Neither they nor any close friends have been infected. But the coronavirus is starting to get a little too close for comfort. “There are already two confirmed cases and two suspected cases in the building where we live,” he said.

Containment measures around his community have been stepped up as the epidemic has worsened. Most entrances have been closed so as to facilitate health screenings whenever people enter or exit. “All pedestrians can only leave from one designated entrance,” with body temperature checks conducted upon departure and return.

Health officials are asking households to only send one person out of the house every two to three days in order to get food and supplies. Not that there are many places to go, though, as almost all businesses and workplaces are still shut down. The only things open are grocery and drug stores, and even those are operating on limited hours. The rules are inconvenient but understandable. The authorities, Lupin says, “are doing the best they can, given the circumstances.”

On the (nearly) empty streets of Wuhan

Gutter journalists, bigoted politicians, and even government officials in many Western countries right now are describing Wuhan as a dangerous no man’s land. The rest of China is portrayed as if it were the Forbidden Planet. Tabloids drive website traffic and ad revenue with sensationalized xenophobic and racist stories targeting Asians. Anti-communist ideologues cynically use the health crisis as a chance to score points criticizing China’s government. And right-wing public figures—like some in the Trump administration—seize the opportunity to leverage anti-China sentiment to advance the trade war.

Two weeks with no income is not an easy situation for most people to face. These farmers are out on the streets of Wuhan selling their produce, “risking their lives to make a living.” | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Despite all the stereotyping and racist scapegoating, however, the reality is that life goes on for people inside Wuhan. Out on the streets, a few farmers are still selling their produce, “risking their lives to make a living,” in the words of Lupin. “Going two weeks without income is getting difficult for many.” Along with medical workers, pharmacists, and supermarket workers, they are among the few in Wuhan who are on the job. Mostly, the wide avenues of this normally bustling city are empty and eerily quiet. Rarely, one of the taxis provided by the government for essential travel might drive by. More often seen, however, are the ambulances which are constantly rushing about, lights flashing but sirens muted.

The situation may sound a bit desperate, but for Lupin’s family—and most families in Wuhan—things are not quite so bleak. No one’s going hungry; the government and the rest of the nation are making sure of that. “The state-owned grocery chains are still operating,” he said, and his family is fortunate enough to live close to two stores. Plus, like many, they had already stocked up on a lot of things in anticipation of the holiday.

Bags of fresh vegetables loaded on a cart for distribution by the residents’ committees in Wuhan. The produce is donated by local farmers and solidarity campaigns in other Chinese provinces. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Once or twice a week, the residents’ committee delivers free bags of fresh vegetables to every apartment unit. In the hardest-hit areas of the city, where people are not allowed outside their homes at all, the deliveries come even more often. The contents—which consist of things like cabbages, potatoes, radishes, and mixed greens—are all donations from local farmers or from the solidarity campaigns being carried out in other Chinese provinces.

Harder to come by, however, are medical supplies—particularly surgical masks to protect against respiratory infection. “My mom has been trying to purchase more masks for a long time with no luck,” he said. “Masks are basically impossible to get in Wuhan.” Chinese factories have ramped up production of masks, gowns, and goggles, but stocks remain low. The central government has told the international community that such items are what it needs most right now.

Despite the mask shortages, Lupin generally gives the government high marks for its response to the crisis so far. “Chinese authorities have always prioritized social stability,” which, he says, “definitely led to some missed opportunities to contain the situation in the early days.” Several doctors, for instance, were reprimanded by Wuhan police in late December for discussing the possible emergence of a new SARS-like virus. They were accused of spreading “rumors.” A short time later, the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed.

Once or twice a week, the residents’ committee delivers bags of fresh vegetables to every apartment. The contents—which consist of things like cabbages, potatoes, radishes, and mixed greens—are all donations from around China. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Last week, China’s highest court vindicated one of those doctors, Li Wenliang, saying that had his “rumors” been followed up on earlier, valuable time would not have been lost. Unfortunately, Dr. Li—who became known worldwide as one of the “Wuhan whistleblowers” and was hailed across China as a hero—became infected with the coronavirus himself and died early Friday morning.

After early missteps, though, Lupin said it was apparent to everyone that “the government really put all their resources on the line” to combat the virus. “We have seen two full-capacity hospitals built within 10 days, and they have turned 11 arenas and stadiums into quarantine facilities within days.” Nothing’s perfect, of course, he says. “There is still a bit of trial and error here, which is understandable for a new virus like this.”

What next?

With the infection and death counts continuing to rise each day and no end in sight for the quarantine, what comes next for Lupin and his family? Eventually, he’ll have to return to Toronto for his job, but he has no idea when that will be possible. He originally planned to depart around the 10th or 11th of February, but, he said, “there are no feasible ways to leave Wuhan at the moment.”

As someone who holds permanent resident status in Canada—the equivalent of a U.S. green card—he thought it might be possible to join one of the evacuation flights organized to transport foreigners out of China. Wrong. He reached out to Global Affairs Canada, the foreign ministry, but was advised: “you must either be a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident who is the parent or a child of a Canadian citizen to be eligible for the evacuation.”

Lupin in Wuhan wearing a surgical mask, glasses, and hat to go outside. Health authorities ask that only one person leave the house every two to three days to get food and other supplies. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Since he’s “only a permanent resident” and none of his family members hold a Canadian passport, he’s not allowed to go. Canada lets him come and sell his labor and pay taxes, but when it comes down to it, second-class status still can’t get him on a plane. The only consolation is that whenever he eventually does find a way back, the Canadian government is (at least for now) not following other countries, including the U.S., in implementing outright bans on foreign nationals who’ve been in China. That’s the one “bright side,” Lupin said.

But for now, all he can do is wait until the health emergency in Wuhan is under control and authorities are able to restore travel and transport links in and out of the city.

His spirits are not dampened, though. “My family is here, and it’s my hometown. We’re in it together.” And they’re not alone. With the unprecedented influx of aid and medical help from more than 1.3 billion people all over China—and the cooperative logistics scheme that keeps food supplies flowing in his neighborhood—Lupin says it’s impossible not to feel like everyone is part of a collective effort to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

“We are all fighting for the same cause. As a citizen, there is no doubt in my mind that this storm will pass,” he confidently asserted. “It’s only a matter of time.”


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.