Issue 3, Volume 17
The following piece was submitted by an anonymous JD student from Hubei, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was in Wuhan, my hometown when everything started. I heard about the virus very, very early. I believe it was early December, almost the week after I returned home from Melbourne. At that time, no one paid much attention to it. I do not remember it clearly, but the first news I read about this incident said that there were fewer than 10 cases, and they were all related to the local seafood market. The following reports showed that the number climbed a bit, slowly, but did not rise above 60 cases in the next month. We were given the impression that this was a new virus which came from aquatic animals, and could not be transferred from person to person. Based on this misleading information, my life had not changed a bit. I went to my internship every day, prepared for my driving lessons, hung out with friends. Just like any summer holiday. Just as I had planned.
Things went sour in the middle of January, when other provinces and foreign media started to report on the ‘Wuhan virus’. They claimed that Wuhan probably already had 1700 cases or more. One of my friends, who is completing her LLM in Wuhan, decided to go home early for Chinese New Year, which turned out to be the wisest decision ever. I started to wear masks when I was using public transportation, and I cancelled all unnecessary outgoings at the time because I still remembered what was it like when SARS broke out. I told myself 17 years had passed, so it could not be that bad this time.
On the 20th of that month, we saw Professor Nanshan Zhong’s interview, a famous doctor and a hero of the SARS outbreak, on national television. He confirmed that the virus can be transferred between people. That was the last straw. From that night, the growing panic in Wuhan was clear. It was supposed to be the busiest and happiest time of the year. Chinese New Year was coming, and everyone should be meeting friends, shopping for presents and celebrating. Yet suddenly, every restaurant and shopping centre became much quieter than usual. My Dad decided that we should go to the countryside for the New Year holiday, and I should leave for Melbourne as soon as possible. Later that day, I bought my second plane ticket, 10 days after the first one. We bought a lot of daily necessities for my grandparents, who also live in Wuhan. Noodles, rice, oil, milk, tissues, anything we could think that could last half a month. My mum complained that we bought too much, believing that we would be back soon so they wouldn’t be short of anything. It was out of pure luck that we did not listen to her. We wanted to take them with us, but they refused because my grandma cannot bear to sit in a car for more than 10 minutes due to her cervical disease.
We stayed in the old family house in a small village in Hubei province. I will never forget the 23rd January of 2019. I woke up early because my phone buzzed again and again. I checked it and found out that my friends in the other spheres of the earth were drowning me with the latest breaking news - Wuhan was locked down. The government announced the decision at 2:00 a.m. that day, when most people were asleep. I wasn’t worrying too much at that time. We thought this could not last for more than a month. My biggest concern at that time was that I had classes in the summer semester, so I need to go back to Melbourne soon. However, the next day, New Year’s Eve, everywhere in the province was being traffic controlled. Cars were being stopped if they had plates from another city. We were trapped. I began to realize that the locking down of the city was not a short-term policy, and that they were about to lock down the entire province. My body temperature became higher that afternoon. We were terrified. What if I caught the disease? We went shopping days ago, and we were not wholly isolated before that.
Next morning, we woke up, only to find that the only bridge to get out of the village was blocked by a huge broken-down truck. It was done by the local officials. From that moment till this very day, I stayed in the village. My body temperature was still not normal, so I avoided my Dad at every instance in our house, locking myself in my room. Compared to catching the disease myself, I fear giving it to him much more. We learned that this virus will cause a much higher death rate to elderly people, and he is not only an aged man, but has many chronic diseases such as hypertension and emphysema. Worst of all, his medication would only last 14 days.
The nightmare did not end. In the following two weeks, I barely heard anything good from Wuhan. We were bombarded with sad stories on Weibo (a Chinese version of twitter). People with cancer had their operations cancelled; people who were about to give birth could not find an ambulance; people who couldn’t breathe found that no beds were available in the hospital. Even hospitals were begging for support because they ran out of all medical supplies. Masks, protection gear, everything. Doctors and nurses were extremely short-handed, and then they started to get sick. The medical system in Wuhan was utterly overwhelmed. In all big hospitals, we have a department called the ‘fever clinic’. People had to wait in long lines, sometimes so long that they had to wait on the street in the coldness of winter. If they were lucky, they would only have to wait for 12 hours to meet a doctor. My friend in Wuhan had a fever the night after the lockdown, and she waited the entire night for a CT and blood test. She could not have a nucleic acid test without further symptoms because Wuhan couldn’t test everyone. It could not even meet the need of those who really had it. Hospitals were filled with patients. People slept in the corridors when they had an infusion.
Helping hands came across the nation. People were donating anything they had to support us. Hospitals in other provinces were sending doctors to Hubei. But it seemed as if there was a vast black hole above the region. No matter how many resources we received, it was not enough. Yes, we were slightly cheered up when we heard that the government was building 2 new hospitals which would provide 2,600 new beds with ICU equipment. But new cases were increasing by more than 1,000 every day. Anyone could do the math and tell that it was far from enough.
I am lucky. The villagers were very kind to us. They gave us their vegetables grown in their gardens and smoked meat they stored for the New Year. They were afraid to meet us, so they left everything outside our front gate and refused to let us pay them back. The local officers visited us to make sure we are okay. They monitored our health conditions and helped us purchase medication. The head of the village rode in on his motorbike every day through the village, using his loudspeaker to urge people to stay at home. We could go to the only store in the village, but not more than once a week. The stock was not luxurious, but good enough to meet the requirements. I am glad that I had my laptop and kindle with me, so I could keep myself busy. But still, I felt depressed and lost sleep every night.
On the 1st of February, Australia implemented the travel ban. I was not shocked. Even before that date, I knew that I would not make it to the new semester on time. I was angry, the same anger I felt at being trapped in this village. I felt that I was abandoned, for a second time. But I understand why both governments did it. I worried mostly about financial loss. I have to keep paying my rent because my roommate was already in Melbourne. I also worried about my study plan because as you know, if you miss this semester, the study plan in next semester will be a total mess. Many of my friends in other provinces of China flew to Thailand to quarantine themselves for 14 days before setting foot on Australia, but I did not have to chance to do so. The only thing I could do was to keep in touch with the law school and wait. I cancelled my two flights and booked a new one for the 1st of March. But later I had to cancel this one too.
Life became tough even for those healthy people in Wuhan. The traffic control got stricter every day. At first, they were forbidden to drive out. Soon people were not allowed to get out of their community, some couldn’t get out of their building if they lived in a high rise one. Neighbourhood committees arranged to purchase goods together for every community. People were not starving, not short of necessities, but they didn’t have much choice on the products they got. One day I was chatting with a friend who was trapped in Wuhan, and suddenly she started to cry and told me how much she wanted to have an ice-cream. A chocolate one. And I burst into tears with her. It was not the ice-cream we cried for, I know, but for the peaceful, ordinary life we once took granted of.
On the 12th of February, the confirmed cases in Wuhan suddenly increased to more than 10,000. It was because they gave up the former confirming standard. It was impossible to provide that many nucleic acid tests but CT could work quickly. Every patient with the CT image ‘likely’ to have the virus would be confirmed positive. This was the first good news which came along with the reports that many ‘Fangcang’ hospitals were built. They were not really hospitals but modified stadiums and city halls. Each could take thousands of patients. And since the situation was controlled outside Hubei, more doctors were sent to aid us.
Admittedly, Fangcang were not very comfortable facilities. Just a place where doctors can provide limited care to people not heavily sick and quarantine them from others. But this bloody virus chose the worst time to haunt us - Chinese New Year when most family reunion happens. This means that in most households there are more than 5 people under the roof - parents, grandparents, children and maybe other relatives. My Dad’s colleague slept in his office for a week because he showed symptoms of the virus before Fangcang was built. There were no beds available, but he didn’t dare go home. He worried that he would transfer it to his wife and children. There was news about the death of the entire family of a movie director, and how they gave the virus to each other in the house. His son is an international student studying in the UK and was not at home. Within one week he lost his father, grandparents and his aunt, and his mother was in ICU. I would rather live on the street than bring it home to my family, and Fangcang is a symbol of hope to any family like that.
Things began to improve in the second half of February. When I am writing this little piece of the story, the shadow of the virus seems to have passed. We are recovering from the nightmare and trying to get back to our old lives. We still have more than 10,000 cases, but very few new ones. Comparing to the 80,000 weeks ago, this is a significant improvement. I am still locked down in the village because of the ongoing traffic control over Hubei province. But it is not that strict now. I can visit other towns and villages nearby if I wish to. Other than Wuhan, which is still in the highest class of control, people in other cities of Hubei are gradually allowed to travel within the province. Many of my friends told me that they can receive parcels and ordered fast food at home now. In other regions in China, things are getting better and better. Many people have returned to work. Schools are setting their opening dates. I am actually applying for an internship, because many law firms now allow employees to work online.
But this does not mean that we have defeated the virus. The battle has just begun. Our body temperatures are still being tested everywhere. People are still required to wear masks in public. Anyone who travels to a different province or even a different city has to undergo compulsory quarantine for 14 days in appointed hotels. Some are free, and some are charged, based on the local policy. Anyone who comes from foreign countries has to undergo the same quarantine as soon as they step out of the plane. This strict policy is not without reason. Over 90% of the new cases in China now come from other countries. I have no idea when we will get rid of this annoying travel control and other harsh policies, just as I have no idea when we will finally defeat this disease. It may take months, maybe another year.
This is an unforgettable experience. I felt that there were 2 months of my life stolen. I had a perfect plan for the new semester, but it is gone. I find it very hard to set a plan for the near future. I am very grateful for the support of the Melbourne Law School. They gave us a special intensive study plan which allows us to start the semester in the middle of April. However, I don’t think that I can return to Melbourne on time because I am under a double travel ban from both China and Australia. It’s hard to decide whether I should take online classes for a while or just apply for a leave of absence. I will wait a bit longer to make the decision. If I cannot make it, I will try to find an internship or a part-time job. And I have my Chinese Bar Exam to prepare for so I won’t have time to get bored. In this new year, I pray for nothing but the safety and health of my family and friends.
Last words: It was our mistake to not be more alarmed by the crisis. We paid for it, with blood, tears and innocent lives. I urge anyone who is reading this, do not repeat the mistake we have made. If you think that China tragically suffers this because we have a weak medical system and poor personal hygiene, I have neither the ability nor the mood to change your view. But then please look at what is happening in Italy and South Korea. This could happen to you in a very near future. I have witnessed so many tragedies, and I wish that there won’t be another single death due to this coronavirus. It is still not too late for Australia to do something about it. Please stay healthy and safe, as we are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
Anonymous is a JD student from Hubei.