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Wuhan Residents Share Their Stories Of A Quarantine In The Sealed-Off City


States across the country are easing stay-at-home restrictions this week, but the pandemic is far from over here in the U.S. The rate of new coronavirus cases is going up in some states, and the number of deaths has climbed past 70,000.


But there is a place where officials say the outbreak is over. China has declared victory over the pandemic in the city of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated. But residents there say they have not forgotten the weeks of isolation, fear and heartbreak under a lockdown that lasted more than two months. NPR's Emily Feng shares some of their stories.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: First came the low, persistent fever on December 20, then 10 days later, trouble breathing.

W: (Through interpreter) The doctors told my family they should prepare for my funeral if my symptoms did not take a turn for the better.

FENG: We're calling this man by his first initial W because talking about how the epidemic unfolded has gotten other residents reprimanded by the state. Talking about the early days is especially sensitive, and W is likely one of the earliest waves of people in the world who contracted the new coronavirus. He was a seafood vendor at the now infamous Wuhan Huanan seafood market where the first cluster of human coronavirus cases was reported. He's a gruff, now-stocky man but says he lost 27 pounds while sick.

W: (Through interpreter) On the night before I showed symptoms, I was hugging my nephews, one under each arm.

FENG: Luckily, neither got sick. Wuhan's Jinyintan Hospital Vice Director Dr. Huang Chaolin remembers when W came in on December 30. Even though he's a respiratory specialist, Dr. Huang struggled to diagnose the new virus.

HUANG CHAOLIN: (Through interpreter) This was before the diagnostic tests were available, so we had to base our clinical diagnosis using the Huanan vendors as a baseline.

FENG: Like other frontline workers, Dr. Huang spent more than half an hour each day sealing himself into medical protective gear. But he still contracted the coronavirus, he thinks from a man whose father had contracted COVID and who found Dr. Huang as he was leaving the hospital.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) The son saw me and knelt on the ground, hands clasped, begging me to save his father. I'd already taken off my mask, but I leaned over and brought him to his feet. We didn't talk for more than a minute.

FENG: Days later, Dr. Huang fell severely ill but recovered. W, the vendor, was also lucky. In December, when he got sick, there were still plenty of hospital beds, so he was able to get prompt care. On January 23, China sealed off Wuhan, forbidding anyone from leaving. Lockdown measures went into place across China, but they were the most strict in Wuhan. By then, Wuhan's hospitals were running out of space. Doctors remember how quickly everything fell apart.

PENG ZHIYONG: (Through interpreter) There just were not enough beds in the ICU. The emotional pressure was huge on everyone.

FENG: That's Dr. Peng Zhiyong, a director of an intensive care unit at Zhongnan, another Wuhan hospital which eventually had to triple the size of its ICU. To take the pressure off hospitals and stop family transmission, Wuhan began a door-to-door campaign in early February to identify anyone with exposure to the virus or who were exhibiting symptoms. Mild cases were sent to hastily built quarantine facilities. Hundreds of social workers, including Yu Zhihong, rushed to form online counseling groups for these patients.

YU ZHIHONG: (Through interpreter) We can't always solve their problem, but in their most difficult moments, at least they felt like someone was accompanying them.

FENG: The volunteers operated chat groups and hotlines for frightened and lonely patients as they were taken away from their families. They comforted people, isolated but grieving in their own homes. A professor at Wuhan University, Yu, eventually set up a 500-strong group of volunteers who advised patients and gathered health care information for them. But getting people to accept mental help was a challenge.

YU: (Through interpreter) In Eastern culture, if you experience trauma, you seek out your family, not a stranger, and they don't want to talk about painful times.

FENG: Guo Jing, a social worker and feminist organizer in Wuhan, warns the emotional trauma is far from over, even though the lockdown has been lifted.

GUO JING: (Through interpreter) The pandemic might leave physical scars on those who recovered. For those who died, how will we commemorate them? And now we have an employment crisis. The pressure on people's livelihoods continues. What new tragedies might happen?

FENG: W, the seafood vendor, knows how quickly tragedy can strike. Several of his fellow vendors died. But he doesn't want to dwell. He wants to move on.


FENG: The Huanan Market is now permanently closed. W is one of the lucky few who was able to find space at another market. That's where I met him, surrounded by burbling fish tanks and construction workers renovating his new storefront. He and his wife spent 13 days in Jinyintan Hospital. Both recovered. His chief concern now is his 30-year-old son, still unmarried. W wants to pass the business to him, even as China faces rising unemployment and a recession.

W: (Through interpreter) Having a healthy life is all that matters. Before, we would go out of our way to make a buck. Now we no longer wish for much.

FENG: Some, though, have not made their peace.

Y: (Through interpreter) If the city government can ignore you, they will. No one cared about us.

FENG: This is Y, another Wuhan resident. We're also using only his first initial because he's been told by police not to publicize his case. In early February, his wheelchair-bound mother waited for days trying to get into a hospital for what Y believes was a severe case of COVID.

Y: (Through interpreter) We called all the hotlines, the mayor, our neighborhood officials - no one picked up.

FENG: Finally, fearing his mother was close to death, Y wheeled her to the hospital and waited in the lawn outside with dozens of other patients hoping for a spot inside. Y begged doctors to admit his mother. At 10 p.m. that day, a bed finally opened up. Y was rushing back home to retrieve a small bag of his mother's clothes when the hospital called him. Don't bother, they said; your mother died of respiratory failure. She was cremated within an hour to avoid cross-infection.

Y is now among a small group of Wuhan residents suing the city and provincial governments for negligence. He knows suing is futile. No court will accept these cases, and police have pressured several plaintiffs to drop their lawsuits already. But Y feels duty-bound to do something.

Y: (Through interpreter) I have to live within the society. But I just do not understand why no one did anything for my mother.

FENG: Y feels like his mother was abandoned by institutions meant to protect her and his grief for her ignored. Because his mother was never tested, her death is not recorded in the city's COVID statistics. Suing on her behalf is the least he feels he can do to acknowledge that she existed and that she mattered.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Wuhan, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.