By Xie Sijie
NANJING, China — On January 20th I headed home from Nanjing. Looking back on the scene at that time, as I made my transfer at the Wuhan train station, I felt a little scared. There was almost no distance between people making their way through the vast Hankou station during the travel rush of the Lunar New Year, and I was the only person in the crowd wearing a mask. Hankou railway station is one of the largest in China. Located just 800 meters from the South China seafood market where COVID-19 first broke out, the station handles up to 5 million passengers annually during Lunar New Year. Having heard the rumors of pneumonia and bustling crowds, the 30 minute wait in line was long and grueling. After more than an hour long drive, I eventually arrived in Jingzhou, another city in Hubei province. The familiarity of home put me at ease. However, my feelings of ease didn’t last long. Shortly thereafter, Nanshan Zhong, a well-known respiratory expert in China, who was highly involved and influential during the SARS crisis, confirmed evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus on CCTV. Zhong’s comments directly contradicted the Wuhan Health Committee’s statement that “no obvious human-to-human transmission has been seen.” January 20th was a turning point. After that date the number of people wearing masks on the streets suddenly increased, pharmacies and even online masks and disinfectants were sold out. After that date, people began to take this unknown virus very seriously.
In my first few days at home, I was terrified. I could still remember the very long half hour I spent in Hankou station, and even a slight cough was enough to make me nervous. When my cough failed to subside over the next few days, I went to the hospital for a blood test and a CT scan of my lungs. The tests indicated everything was fine, relieving my anxiety. Besides myself, the media coverage, the social network news, and other healthy people began wondering if they too had the virus, as people became aware that it could be more serious than originally thought. “I remember the first thing my mom would do when she came home from outside was spray herself, door knobs and other items with alcohol, and when I sneezed, she would start to worry,” said an HNC student from Wuhan. The various ways this novel coronavirus could spread, along with a 14-day incubation period, and asymptomatic cases, were triggering anxiety and panic among ordinary people, especially those in Hubei.
At 10am on January 23, Wuhan shut down. On that same day, my uncle’s family returned to Jingzhou from Jiangsu province for Lunar New Year. “When we passed Wuhan, no one could get off and no one could get on,” they said. Because of the severe epidemic situation and my elderly grandparents, my uncle had intended to go back to Jiangsu after dinner the next day on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, Jingzhou was also locked down at 6pm on January 23rd. The quick decision to close the city surprised everyone and forced my uncle’s family to stay at our home for nearly two months.
Government and community staff quickly returned to work but businesses repeatedly delayed return times. “We didn’t think it was that serious when we first got the news and thought it would last only a few days. But as the closure continued, it was impossible not to feel anxious, especially as our company already started working in late February and early March,” my aunt said. “It’s not convenient to be stuck here every day. I can’t go back to work. Our company counted us as asking for leave, and we didn’t get paid, though I know many other companies give their employees basic salaries.”
In early March, excluding Wuhan, the epidemic in Hubei was largely under control, but the railway station was still not in operation. Some big firms chartered special high-speed trains or buses to bring their employees in Hubei back to work. However, not everyone was covered. For my uncle’s family, the only way to return to Wuhan was to drive back with a health certificate or wait for the train station to open. As days passed, they waited everyday for the announcement of the policy regarding stranded people from other cities and towns across China. Their positive expectations at the beginning gradually turned to disappointment, and eventually to indifference. A depressed atmosphere hung over my family. Optimism began to feel useless. Meals together, a time when everyone was usually filled with laughter, was overtaken by silence as everyone stared at their cellphones, waiting for the next bit of news. I witnessed arguments about my uncle’s decision to come home this year and watched my aunt cry. All I wanted to do was run away from everything and bury myself in schoolwork. I could only comfort myself from time to time, but I realized this made me much luckier than those in Wuhan.
封城后，政府工作人员和社区工作人员很快地回到了工作岗位，企业却一再推迟复工。“开始我们以为没有那么严重，估计只会封几天。但是随着封城时间的加长，说不焦虑是不可能的，特别是二月底三月初我们公司都已经开始复工了。” 舅妈说，“天天被困在这里觉得还是不太方便，这段时间也不能回去上班，公司算我们请假，也没拿到工资，其他很多公司好像有发基本工资。” 3月初，湖北除武汉外疫情基本得到控制，但是火车站却迟迟没有开始运行，有的企业会通过包下高铁专列或者大巴车的形式，将滞留在湖北的员工接回本地工作。但是对像我舅舅一家没有专车接送的人员来说，他们唯一的方式就是在持有健康证明的情况下自己开车回去或者等高铁开通。日子一天天过去，舅舅一家每天都在等着有关外地滞留人员的政策颁布，从开始的满怀期待慢慢变成了失落，甚至到后来的漠不关心。整个家庭的低气压让我也不好再多过问或是说些没有实际意义的乐观言论，本该热闹的吃饭时间也只剩下各自捧着手机的沉默。这段时间，我看到舅舅一家不止一次的争吵，互相指责对方今年回来过年的决定，以及舅妈时而委屈的啜泣，使我想远远地逃开身边的一切，埋头扎进自己的学习里。只能时时安慰自己，跟武汉相比，我们其实幸运多了。
There is no way for me to understand what kind of nightmare those in Wuhan experienced during that period, but I was inundated with messages asking for help on social networks. Elderly people could not get treatment at home, hospitals never had enough beds, and people were dying. Online, people accused civil servants of concealing the situation and of dereliction of their duty. They condemned agencies and organizations for intercepting and forcibly taking donated medical supplies. Some went so far as to criticize the government for taking incorrect measures that emphasized avoiding public panic over ensuring public health. It seemed the situation was far beyond our control and our mental capacity to deal with on a daily basis. The constant sound of ambulances was like an endless desolate sob, the streets were filled with disinfectant spray cars, the city clusters were quiet and all I could do was to pray for the end of the epidemic while I hid my inability to do anything. In such an uncontrollable situation, the government adopted even more extreme control measures across Hubei Province. They implemented closed-off management within communities to restrict people’s movements.
If the initial shut-down policy merely blocked the flow of people from one area to another, the subsequent closed-off measures effectively prohibited all residents from partaking in any unnecessary activities outside of their home. The local government closed all small convenience stores, leaving only a few big supermarkets to provide essential supplies. Pharmacies stopped selling medicines for colds and fevers so that people with symptoms had to go to the hospital. Community staff began visiting every household from door to door to register those with mild symptoms, and residents were asked to report their temperatures and other symptoms each day in their community WeChat group. A number of spots were set up on the streets to check the temperature of car drivers and pedestrians.
Under these strict control measures, there are still a few people on the empty streets. They are the primary staff members and volunteers who stayed at the front line to fight against coronavirus, and my mom is one of them. In each community, the staff and volunteers help send “love vegetables” to residents; vegetables that came from government subsidies or donations. Community members also purchase daily necessities and take the temperature of pedestrians. In this way, a well-functioning community grid management model emerged. Sometimes residents give volunteers or staff small gifts in return as a way of expressing appreciation. “I remember one day when it was raining hard, one family brought us a steaming hot ginger soup, and passers-by also sent us many fruits and small items,” said my mom with a smile and a sense of appreciation on her face, who stood all day at one of the designated check points. “Suddenly I felt everything I did made sense.”
To prevent families of those volunteers and staff from becoming infected, local governments have worked with hotels to let them stay until the outbreak is over. Some hotels also have volunteered to serve as quarantine areas. Although living in hotels is mandatory in Jingzhou, my mom chose not to come home in order to avoid any risk of contagion.
如果说开始的封城只是阻断地区间的人员流通，那之后的封闭式管理措施则禁止一切居民一切不必要的外出活动。地方政府关闭了所有的小型便利店，只留了几家大型超市为人们提供必需生活用品，药店也停售一切治疗感冒发烧的药物，为了是让有症状的人自行去医院检查。社区管理人员开始挨家挨户地登记有轻微症状的人员，社区微信群也要求社区居民每天报告体温和其他症状。此外，街道上设置了多个卡口以对来往的车和行人进行体温检测。在如此严格的管控措施下，空荡的城市街道中仍有少许奔波劳碌的身影——那些坚守在抗疫一线的工作人员及志愿者们，而我妈就是其中的一员。以社区为单位，工作人员或志愿者们为居民送去“爱心蔬菜”、采购必要的生活物资、坚守在卡口为行人测量体温等等。就这样，一个运作良好的社区网格管理模式应运而生。有时候，居民们为了感谢这些志愿者或工作人员，也会回馈给他们一些小心意。“我记得有天暴雨，有一家人直接给我们送来了热腾腾的姜汤，平常也会有一些过往的行人送一些小零食。” 我妈跟我说起这件事时，脸上都是藏不住的感恩和微笑。，“突然觉得自己做的一切都有意义了。” 为了避免这些志愿者或工作人员的家人被感染，地方政府跟一些酒店达成合作，让这些人在疫情结束之前暂时在酒店居住，当然也有一些酒店自愿作为隔离区域。尽管荆州没有强制规定必须住在指定酒店，但我妈仍然选择不回家以免给我们带来感染风险。
Although a lot of unfortunate things happened at the beginning of the outbreak, the establishment of several mobile cabin hospitals and the assistance of medical teams from other provinces gives me a sense of security. Those unknown ordinary people who helped fight the virus let me see a glimmer of humanity in the dark. The drivers outside Hubei drove almost 20 hours to Wuhan to deliver 40,000 boxes of reheatable food for the medical staff. The “Yu Liang” volunteer team sent disposable underwear and sanitary napkins to the front-line nurses and many others. My mother especially made me feel the power of ordinary people and their efforts to protect our society’s safety. This crisis brought out a large community of people who wanted to help. As a non-Wuhan resident, my story may not be as difficult as others’, it may even sound plain, but this is also the story of many other ordinary people. Countries in the world are still struggling with the pandemic and I want people in those countries to know: wherever you are, take care of yourself for the people who love you and the people who you love, as well as for the medical staff and volunteers who are at the front line, to make sure their efforts succeed.