The Lockdown

The author of this article, a resident of Wuhan, China, describes her experiences and feelings right before and after the city was locked down due to the coronavirus epidemic.

My hometown is in the city of Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China. It’s more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) from Wuhan, Hubei Province. I moved to Wuhan in 2012. This is the ninth year I’ve lived in the city.

I visit my parents and grandmother at my childhood home in Jiaxing every year during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. I had planned to do the same this year. My husband and I made arrangements to take a high-speed train bound for Jiaxing on January 26, the second day of the Chinese New Year [which is traditionally the day on which married women visit their parents during this most important Chinese holiday]. Our intention was to set out on our trip after wishing Master Cheng Yen in Hualien, Taiwan, a happy Chinese New Year via videoconferencing along with other Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan. If all went as planned, I’d be home in the bosom of my family on January 26 after a six-hour trip.

On December 29, 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan held a year-end blessing and thanksgiving event. More than seven hundred people attended. Immediately afterwards, we began the preparatory work for an annual year-end banquet for Tzu Chi long-term care recipients in Wuhan. That meal was scheduled for January 5, 2020.

On December 30, the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee issued “An Urgent Notice on the Treatment of Pneumonia of Unknown Cause” on its Weibo social media account. This notice was widely circulated on the Internet. However, many Wuhan citizens didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking it was fake or a rumor. Besides, flu is common in winter, so people didn’t think any more of it. Everyone continued to immerse themselves in the festive atmosphere in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Similarly, Tzu Chi care recipients in the city continued to look forward to our year-end banquet. Every year we drive them to and from the event. We also deliver our winter aid supplies to their homes at the same time.

On January 1, 2020, as the new year was ushered in, the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan city was closed. This market was the suspected origin of the pneumonia of unknown cause. [In addition to seafood, the market sold live poultry and wildlife to the public.] Tzu Chi volunteer Fan Lihua (樊麗華), a medical worker in a hospital, realized it would be better to postpone our year-end banquet in light of the current situation. She observed that many of our care recipients had disabilities or were elderly, and as such they generally had lower resistance to infectious diseases. Besides, the place the meal was to be held was in a closed space, which might further compound the situation. We agreed with her assessment, and postponed the event accordingly.

Before the Lockdown of Wuhan

Volunteers in Wuhan welcome attendees to a Tzu Chi year-end blessing and thanksgiving event on December 29, 2019 (above). Children, holding lights, pray during the event.

Happiness coming to a halt

On January 5, I attended a monthly meeting of Tzu Chi commissioners. A fellow volunteer felt unwell during the meeting—she felt something was wrong with her heart—so I accompanied her to a hospital. The ER at the hospital was, as usual, packed with patients. I often went to medical facilities to visit our hospitalized care recipients, so I was used to the crowds in a hospital. I wasn’t wearing a mask at the time, and no hospital personnel reminded us to do so. In fact, the only people I saw wearing masks in the entire outpatient lobby was a couple, a man and woman, who appeared to be together.

As the coronavirus epidemic continued to worsen, we cancelled our upcoming visits to nursing homes for the elderly, but a small group of us still delivered our monthly subsidies for living expenses to a few families who were having difficulty getting by. This was to make sure that they could have a better Chinese New Year. That day was January 11, a Saturday. Traffic was light on the way. Many workers and university students in Wuhan come from out of town, and so the city becomes a lot emptier as many of them return home when Chinese New Year rolls around.

The next day, I visited volunteer Qi Yan (齊岩) at his company to help organize files on trainee volunteers. Brother Qi’s company was a stone’s throw from the Huanan Seafood Market. I usually drove when I visited him, but that day I chose to ride the subway for convenience and because it was more environmentally friendly. When Brother Qi learned that, he said to me in a joking tone, “You should’ve driven a car. It’s too dangerous to ride the subway right now.” I remember that there weren’t many people on the subway that day, and no one, including me, wore a mask.

Life went on as usual during the following week. I began doing my New Year’s shopping, and I prepared a lot of presents to take to my childhood home. My husband left on a week-long business trip to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. While there, he called home and told me that he had heard in Shenzhen that Wuhan was experiencing a mask shortage and that it was already impossible to get masks in our city. I told him not to help spread rumors and intensify panic. I assured him I’d be able to get some in the pharmacy near our home.

However, when I went to buy face masks on January 18, they had sold out. I asked the clerk at the pharmacy when they would restock, and he said he had no idea. Luckily, we still had a pack of one-use face masks at home for when we had colds. With that, and with the three packs of masks my husband had purchased in Shenzen, I thought we should have enough for the time being.

The next day, several volunteers and I went to the home of volunteer Fan Lihua to make wontons. Since Fan worked at a hospital and was busy at work, we were making the wontons so that she could freeze them to eat later. That would help cut down on the time she needed to spend on preparing meals. The sun shone brightly that day. The weather was perfect. Chatting while making wontons, we had a great time.

However, our happiness seemed to come to a halt on that day. After that day, we became easily agitated and often felt powerless. One moment we’d be moved to tears while the next we were consumed by anger. We had to give ourselves pep talks so that we could remain positive and upbeat.

Human-to-human transmission

On January 20, Zhong Nanshan (鍾南山), China’s leading epidemiologist, said on the news that the novel coronavirus pneumonia could be transmitted from human to human. Zhong had risen to fame after combating the SARS epidemic in 2003. His words were like a wake-up call to people in Wuhan, who had known so little about the disease. Zhong and the government began urging people not to visit Wuhan. The city’s residents were also urged not to leave the city.

That same afternoon, my mother-in-law traveled from the city of Xiaogan in Hubei Province to spend the beginning part of the New Year holiday with us. She spent a lot of time volunteering at a temple and rarely visited us in Wuhan. My husband had told her to be sure to wear a mask on the train, which she did.

The experts and government were all urging us to stay in Wuhan, so on January 21, I began to seriously consider canceling the trip back to my childhood home for the New Year. I did more shopping in the supermarket and filled our refrigerator and cupboards with food in case we stayed home. But in my heart, I really wanted to visit my family.

My husband returned from his trip to Shenzen on the evening of January 21. He said that temperature checks had been initiated at the airport. His company was originally planning to break for the holiday on January 23, but now the date had been moved forward to the 22nd. I felt more at peace when I saw the three packs of masks he had bought in Shenzhen.

On January 22, we finally decided not to visit my folks this year. My dad was shopping for groceries in a market when I called him to inform him of our decision. Unlike me, my folks were not vegetarians. I urged him not to buy live poultry and fish and to eat more vegetarian food. Later my grandma called me, saying that in view of the recent virus, she finally realized I had done a good thing by switching to a vegetarian diet.

When my husband reminded me to return our train tickets, I opened the ticket-booking app on my phone and took a look at our tickets, but I couldn’t bring myself to return them. I thought: “With medicine so advanced now, maybe the situation will take a sudden turn for the better.” I prayed that this would happen.

However, my prayer wasn’t answered. The Wuhan city government announced at two in the morning of January 23 that from ten a.m. that same day onward, all public transportation in the city was suspended. All outbound flights and trains were likewise cancelled. The lockdown of Wuhan had started.

The importance of reporting the truth

I was a high school student when the SARS epidemic broke out. At the time, we were ordered to stay in school and not to go home. Information on the Internet back then wasn’t as extensive as it is today, and there were a lot fewer self-media sites. Even though the epidemic situation seemed bad, we just did what we were told without thinking too much.

Nowadays, however, there is no shortage of information on the Internet. With a smartphone in hand, you can access as much news as you want. The problem is, it’s often hard to tell whether the message you are reading is true or fake. In this age of Internet and mobile communication, the media’s role in reporting the truth and exposing false rumors appears even more important in the fight to control the outbreak of the coronavirus. Soon, I began watching only a news program hosted by Bai Yansong (白岩松) on China Central Television. Bai said that we should only pay attention to news from reliable sources to help stem the spread of fake rumors. I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people in China leave their cities before Lunar New Year to visit their families in more rural parts of the country. In 2019, for example, a total of 415 million domestic trips were made during the New Year holiday. I was one who participated in this largest annual human migration in the world. I’m not native to Wuhan, so I left to visit my family. This practice is common and widespread in China.

Wuhan has a registered population of nine million, and a migrant population of five million. The city boasts the largest number of higher education institutes and college students nationwide. There are around a million college students in Wuhan. Many left for home in early January or a little later for the winter break. Likewise, many Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan are from out of town too. They left the city to visit their families before the city was put on lockdown.

This is why I was so sad and angry when I heard news circulating on the Internet that said that five million people fled Wuhan just before the lockdown took effect. The five million people said to have fled Wuhan didn’t flee. They left the city as they had planned, either to return to their hometowns or go on sightseeing trips. When I read on-line articles that declared otherwise, I couldn’t stop myself from clicking on the “File a Complaint” button. Two user accounts were shut down as a result for violating user regulations.

When I read or saw news reports of people who had left Wuhan being driven away or being despised by people in other places, I was so angry I cried. When I read about them being welcomed into open arms elsewhere, I was so moved I cried. It was said on the Internet that my city was sick. Even so, I still loved her. I loved her even though I’m not from Wuhan.

Feeling lucky but powerless

I didn’t return my high-speed train tickets until the afternoon of January 23. You are usually required to pay a processing fee when you return a ticket, but this time the fee was waived. My husband and I were told that the event in which Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan were to gather together to wish Master Cheng Yen a happy Chinese New Year via videoconferencing had also been cancelled. My husband had been assigned the task of operating the sound system in that event, and he had taken time off work twice to test the equipment and rehearse. Considering the amount of preparation he had put in, I asked if he felt disappointed that the event had been cancelled. He said, “Of course not. Life is precious. In times like this, we can’t take too much precaution.” What he said was indeed true. However, I couldn’t help but feel surprised at the same time at how fast things seemed to have spiraled out of control. My husband and I were both vegetarian; we weren’t even aware that the Huanan Seafood Market also sold wildlife. The whole affair drove home even more deeply what Master Cheng Yen says about the intertwined karma of all living creatures.

The following day was New Year’s Eve. My husband, mother-in-law, and I had vegetarian hotpot for dinner. We took pictures of our bountiful meal, then posted them on a family WeChat group chat for my parents and grandmother in Jiaxing to see. I wanted them to know that despite the situation in Wuhan, we were celebrating Chinese New Year like everyone else and were eating well.

That night, I told my husband I would stay up past midnight to send away the old year and welcome the new, but secretly I wanted to stay up so that I could find out about the updated number of confirmed coronavirus cases and the death toll. I couldn’t for the life of me fall asleep anyway. I waited until two a.m., but still no updates came in.

New Year’s Eve was followed by several days of rainy weather, during which we watched movies, read, cooked, and drank tea at home. We considered ourselves lucky, especially compared with those out-of-town Wuhan residents who were spurned, quarantined, or driven away by locals; or compared to those front-line medical workers who risked their lives and fought feelings of fatigue to look after patients; or compared even to those sick people who were turned away by overcrowded hospitals even after they had stood in line for a whole day hoping to be admitted. Watching the news of these situations, we, well-fed and cozy at home, really hoped we could do something to help. However, we knew that there was really nothing we could do except to stay home as much as possible to help prevent the spread of the disease. We felt lucky, but emotionally repressed at the same time. We had very contradictory feelings.

On the afternoon of January 25, the Wuhan city government announced that all motor vehicles would be forbidden in the city center starting January 26. This meant that we wouldn’t be able to take our cars out any more until told otherwise. I quickly went grocery shopping and came home with two large bags of food. Many relatives and friends had messaged me asking if we had had enough to eat. I always told them not to worry, that the supermarkets were well stocked, that commodity prices had stayed stable, and not to believe all that misinformation they read on-line.

Some Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan and I decided to start an on-line study group on the 26th. We felt that rather than spending time browsing panic-inducing news articles on our cell phones, we would put our time to better use by reading good books. Our daily study group session lasted two hours. The book we had chosen was the first volume of An Exploration on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Thought System. It was 1,016 pages long and the thickest book on my bookshelf. I thought that the quarantine would surely be lifted by the time we finished it.

According to a notice published by the Hubei provincial government, our Lunar New Year holiday was extended to February 13. The first workday would be on February 14. Yet, the number of confirmed cases and fatalities was still on the rise with no signs of slowing down. Everyone wondered if they could really return to work on the 14th. Even so, we still encouraged and cheered each other on.

The precious gift of face masks

One day during this time, a friend messaged me asking for help. He knew I volunteered for Tzu Chi, and he wondered if I might be able to help him get admitted to a hospital. He was suffering from a mild coronavirus infection, he said. I told him apologetically that I wouldn’t be able to help, that it was beyond me, or probably anyone else, to get him into a hospital at a time like this. The Internet was chock-full of people asking if anyone could help them get a berth in a hospital. Even those running a fever had to stand in line for a whole day hoping to get treatment. But only confirmed cases were allowed to check into medical facilities.

I did my best to comfort my friend. I told him to be sure to take his temperature every day and report his readings to authorities in his community. I also told him to stay on his medication and eat properly to keep up his strength. I said that Huoshenshan Hospital [an emergency field hospital especially constructed in response to the coronavirus outbreak] was about to be finished. Once it was finished, he would be able to check into it.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness when I said those words. I thought to myself, “In this day and age, must we still need to panic and suffer for a deficiency of medical resources?” I continued to receive more bad news. A former colleague’s grandfather had been infected and hospitalized. A Tzu Chi donating member’s husband was receiving treatment for the disease too. A volunteer’s family member had been infected and put under quarantine.

My husband started to work at home. I read every day, or tended to our plants. Our residential complex was extremely quiet. There were no car horns, or noise from children playing. The occasional sounds of coughing or singing from our neighbors became so loud and clear amidst the silence.

One day, a message began circulating on WeChat, calling for every Wuhan resident to open their windows at eight that night, sing along with their fellow citizens, and then call out: “Go, go, Wuhan!” for the finale. When eight o’clock rolled around that night, I indeed heard fits of singing and shouting coming through our balcony doors. Someone called out at the top of his lungs: “Neighbors across from me, open your window and sing. Let’s cheer together for Wuhan!” The singing and shouting from all around were not expressions of loneliness or pessimism, but of hope, of this sincere wish of ours: “Get well soon, Wuhan.”

I didn’t know the young man living opposite us, but I had often heard him singing over the past several days. He seemed to be all alone. With an intention to show my care for him, I stuffed a bag full of fruit and snacks, put on my mask, and knocked on his door. He seemed to be talking to his out-of-town family when I knocked, for I heard him telling them that a neighbor had come to knock on his door. When he answered the door, I handed over the food I had prepared for him and wished him a Happy New Year. I asked if he had enough to eat at home, and he answered in the affirmative. He said his parents were away in their hometown, and he didn’t need much to eat. He was like us, originally from out of town.

A few minutes after I returned to my home, he knocked on our door. He gave us two packs of face masks, explaining that he had bought more than he could use, so he could share some with us. Wow, face masks—something truly precious in a time like this. I felt that his gesture instantly sealed our friendship.

We need to be kinder in a time like this

Someone in our residential complex was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Another person living in a building next to the confirmed case’s seemed to have been infected too. The gate to our complex was locked down as a result; no one was allowed to come in or out.

No one complained or made discriminatory remarks about those infected on our residents’ group chat. Everyone was blessing each other and reminding one another not to go out. When someone sent information that was not true, someone else immediately stepped forward to counter it. A rare atmosphere of harmony and unity dominated our community.

In peacetime, people in our community could easily erupt into a fight over a parking space. They’d argue in loud voices like sworn enemies, their faces and ears going beet-red. But in a rough time like this, they showed themselves to be intrinsically kind and warm-hearted.

Are there selfish people around? Definitely yes. There are selfish people everywhere. My dad told me that someone in our hometown took a sightseeing trip to Wuhan before the city was locked down, and when he returned home, he not only hid the fact of his trip but went around everywhere. His family got the virus from him, and the entire neighborhood was now locked down.

There are too many rumors circulating on the Internet. Some might be true, some false. But there is something I know for certain: Wuhan people left the city to go back to their hometowns or for sightseeing—they didn’t set their foot outside of Wuhan to spread the virus. If I returned to my hometown, I’d report truthfully to the authorities that I’m from Wuhan and do whatever else people in my circumstances should do—because I’m a Tzu Chi volunteer, and also a resident of Wuhan. I’m just doing what I should do.

After the Lockdown of Wuhan

Zhou Liyan (周李艷), the author of this article, participates in an on-line study group. Everyone takes turns reading from a book for ten minutes (above). The vegetarian hotpot meal Zhou and her family prepared for their dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Photos courtesy of Zhou Liyan

March 2020