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What is life like inside the coronavirus quarantine zone?

CJ ATKINS talks to Chinese national, Lupin, about how the containment measures imposed on his hometown of Wuhan have affected the community there

IT’S been three 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 January 23 — the day the city was sealed.

“I arrived just a few hours before the city was quarantined,” he told People’s World. 

“There were only about 200 confirmed cases when I landed,” he remembers. As of this writing, there are some 31,000-plus confirmed infections in China, with over 600 deaths. “I absolutely did not foresee things unfolding this way.”

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 holiday period was scheduled to end in Hubei on February 3. But with strict quarantine measures in place, that didn’t happen. For now, the provincial government has set February 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.”

Every morning, the family begin their day with a review of the latest available information from public health officials. 

“The government updates numbers around 9am 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 Organisation 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 judgement as a lot of the information is rumours and speculation,” Lupin says.

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 got 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.”

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 sensationalised xenophobic and racist stories targeting Asians. 

Anti-communist ideologues cynically use the health crisis as a chance to score points criticising 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.

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.

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 mum 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 prioritised 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 “rumours.” A short time later, the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed.

China’s highest court vindicated one of those doctors, Li Wenliang, saying that had his “rumours” 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 earlier this month.

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.”

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 US green card — he thought it might be possible to join one of the evacuation flights organised 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.”

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 labour 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 US, 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 co-operative logistics scheme that keeps food supplies flowing in his neighbourhood — 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.”

This article appeared at Peoplesworld.org.

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