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Stuck in Central China on Coronavirus Lockdown

Street-cleaner washing pavement in Wuhan, China
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A street-cleaner working in a virtually deserted shopping precinct during the coronavirus lockdown of Wuhan, Hubei province, China, February 3, 2020

Shiyan, China—Before Shiyan, a city in Hubei province, went into quarantine, the sum of thirty yuan (about $4) could buy two cabbages, enough spring onions for two soups, a large white radish, two lettuces, a potato, and ten eggs. Not any more. Wanting to record the hiked prices, I took two photos of price cards in my local district’s largest supermarket. Immediately, a shop assistant approached. “You can’t do that,” she said. “Please delete them.” Even after I agreed, she stood peering over my shoulder to see my phone, to make sure that the images were gone. “You could report her,” a local resident told me later: national orders have forbidden merchants to raise their prices.

Shiyan may be in the same province as Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak that has so far seen more than 20,000 cases reported in China, but it’s a seven-hour drive away if there’s no traffic. I had planned to spend the Lunar New Year holiday there in Shiyan with my roommate, Ningning, and her family. On the day I took the train from Beijing, where I have lived for the last four years, the coronavirus seemed largely confined to Wuhan; Shiyan had reported no cases. Over our first meal together in Shiyan, I learned that the local government had prepared an order to quarantine the city. There were coronavirus cases already, just not made public.

I booked a flight back to Beijing straight away, but China United Airlines cancelled it a few hours later. I booked a sleeper train leaving the next day that would cross the provincial border before the quarantine started at 1 AM. As it was, I feared that I could find myself quarantined in a hospital for two weeks either in Beijing or at any of the stops along the way in Henan province. I could find myself stuck in an unfamiliar city with potentially fewer hospital resources than I had here. At least in Shiyan, I knew that Ningning’s aunt and uncle were both doctors. When I spoke to my parents in London, where I’m from, they agreed it was best to stay. I got a refund on my train ticket, and the 1 AM deadline went by.

So I stayed with Ningning and her family. They live in apartment compounds, which, in Shiyan, are built close enough to one another to allow you stand by the window and watch neighbors opposite peeling fruit, count the exact number of chicken legs and hunks of pork people have drying on their balconies, and admire their clothes-lines for three days, which is how long it takes clothes to dry here. Ningning grew up calling friends not by phone, but by going to the foot of their apartment blocks and calling up their names.

Not far beyond the compound rises a mountain where the largest of the houses on its slope was built by someone who is now in prison, a local hospital official who’d embezzled infrastructure funds to build himself the villa, painted faint yellow. Several other buildings have numbers marked on them in red, signaling that they’re due for demolition to make way for a wider road. Together with other members of Ningning’s family, she and I dug up some cabbages from a plot that family friends maintain about an hour’s walk up the hillside. A local villager, out cutting firewood, stopped to give us a bag for our newly harvested vegetables, and, seeing our facewear, said, “Masks are useless. There’s no virus in the mountains.”

Before the outbreak, the only masks familiar to most people in Shiyan were made of a gauze designed to fend off the dust from auto factory work. The coronavirus has taught them now what an N95 is (a mask that blocks 95 percent of airborne particles that are 0.3 microns across or larger, providing some protection against viruses). It also made them pay more: masks are now selling for twenty yuan (about $3) apiece, up from around twelve yuan. Ningning’s mother has taken scissors to her old masks after she heard that some people are giving used masks a wash and then reselling them. For now, it’s still easy enough to get a new mask in Shiyan—I’ve seen them available in at least four pharmacies on a side street—but right after the lockdown, about half the people I saw around the city didn’t yet have one.

Few people, in fact, are now out and about. Instead, it seems everyone else is doing what we’re doing: watching a lot of television. At Ningning’s grandma’s, the TV is tuned to the local news channel. A city official, his name printed on a pink card propped on his desk, announced Shiyan’s virus prevention measures. His gaze never wavered from the A4 paper in front of him. No one in the apartment had ever seen him before; all we knew definitively was that he was not the mayor. Switching to national television, the broadcaster announced that Japan had donated more face masks. “We wouldn’t do that for them,” said one of my fellow viewers. “They only started being good to us last year,” said another.

The people I see most besides Ningning’s family in this city under lockdown are the anxious but brave heroes of state media: the nurse who admits she is scared but that putting on her white coat gives her confidence to face the situation, or the doctor who tells his colleagues, “I’m a Party member, I’ll go first,” or the doctor who has volunteered to go to Wuhan but not told her husband. This official narrative of good citizens stepping up is repeated so much that it has stopped sounding like a choice and more like the only option that they have.

“It’s a government order. If you don’t obey, you may as well resign now,” said Ningning’s uncle, a hospital manager who, since the lockdown, has worked overtime collecting donations from residents. Ningning’s class president had wanted to send 10,000 masks to Wuhan, where he’d lived for more than a decade, and had asked strangers to contribute. He had started a WeChat donation group and someone stole 858 yuan ($124) of donations. Ningning stayed up late to hurl online abuse at the thief. (After a few hours, he returned the money.)

“If there’s an epidemic in Wuhan, Shiyan is bound to be affected,” said Ningning’s mother. She used to work for Dongfeng, a state-owned car manufacturer and formerly the city’s main employer. Her job was human resources: looking after the company’s employees, organizing their benefits, dispatching work uniforms, and visiting them if they went into hospital for treatment.

That Dongfeng was born in Shiyan is because of cold war angst, at least in local lore. The surrounding mountains were supposed to provide cover for the city’s industrial plants. Dongfeng had its stamp not only on SUVs, but on tanks. In this company town, Dongfeng also built schools, hospitals, shopping malls, kindergartens, police stations, and fire stations. But when its headquarters moved to Wuhan, so did many of the workers from Shiyan, leaving partners, children, and parents behind. Others went to manufacture Wuhan’s ships, electronics, smelt metals, drugs. Shiyan’s students, too, go to Wuhan’s universities and then move on to work in its service industries. So many people in the province in effect have two homes, one in Wuhan and another in Shiyan, separated by about 300 miles of highway.

It was through this shuttling between homes that the coronavirus came to Shiyan. Everyone who can leaves early for the new year holiday to avoid the rush. By the time the government announced its quarantine order, practically everyone returning to see their families was already back watching the New Year Gala on CCTV. This year’s edition had dancers contorting their bodies to spell out messages of good wishes. Comedy skits featured stock characters that purport to reflect modern Chinese society: the exasperated mother-in-law and the equally exasperated daughter-in-law, the plainspoken car mechanic and the haughty company owner.

The coronavirus, though, has everyone in the country watching out for another character: the person from Hubei province. They’re obvious if you’re looking for them. Identity card numbers issued here begin with “42,” and car license plates are stamped with an old character for the region: e. Those from Hubei who find themselves in another province get calls from strangers asking if they have a cough or fever. They order food and eat it outside the restaurant. For some 42ers, their cars have become another home, as they are refused hotel rooms. Others, without transportation, are walking back to Wuhan.

A friend, Ruohao, sent me a photo of a black Nissan car with the e number plate, parked in Zhanjiang, southern China. Stuck onto its rear is a piece of paper saying: “I have been in Zhanjiang the whole time.” Concerned non-42 officials have leaked to their relatives the telephone numbers, addresses, photos of 42ers. There are videos from other parts of China of villagers, one seen with a spear in hand, guarding their entrances against outsiders. The number 42 and its connotations have even followed people running from it: I saw an American woman tweet at CNN calling for the United States to shoot down its own plane of evacuees, “for all our children.”

Coronavirus protesters in Hong Kong
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Protesters in Hong Kong calling on the authorities to close the border with China as the coronavirus spreads, February 3, 2020

That’s what’s on the news. Even in Shiyan, where everyone has a 42 card, I hear of some people usually folded into the community who have isolated themselves, of a family friend who returned from Wuhan and has not replied to messages for three days. Neighborhood committee members knock on the doors of those who have recently come back from Wuhan or video-call them. The committees are the grassroots units of the Party, tasked to look after their communities. They operate as a grid network, which one former member I spoke to likens to looking after a cell in a spreadsheet, each box a section of a district.

The committees stay open through the night. Next to the office entrance, a message flashes up in red LEDs: “Do not believe rumors, do not create rumors, do not spread rumors; believe in the Party committee, government, and science.” The voice of the resident committee representative plays on loudspeaker from when I wake up to sundown: do not visit family, stay indoors, and call the hospital if you have any symptoms.

My own neighborhood committee back in Beijing has called Ningning three times. Where are you? Do you have plans to come back? How many people are living in your flat? Do you have a temperature, a cough, or any other symptoms?

This is a new level of inquisitiveness. Ningning’s mother says that before the outbreak, the committee representative probably knew less about the people living in her block than she herself did. And she can name five people who came back from Wuhan.

We can still go out to buy food regularly, since our compound has not yet registered a case of infection. Compounds that do are closed off and then supplies get delivered. Residents are resolved to go out. Ningning’s grandfather tries to go for walks, usually forgetting a mask—other family members chase after him after he’s already halfway down the stairs.

In an open area between compounds, a resident has spread out a towel and arranged vegetables from his own plot in piles: green radishes, cabbages, and caitai, which look like purple-toned broccolini. “Before the Lunar New Year, I hadn’t even heard of the coronavirus and now I can’t leave my house,” he said. But he’s still hoping to make some money while his stock lasts.

Online, you can find pictures of bare shelves in supermarkets and reports of hoarding, but here, in local stores, only disinfectant is out of stock. Supplies of dry noodles are getting low. Our local shop assistant, who wears two blue surgical masks layered on top of one another (a company requirement), says more stock is expected soon. Shiyan has not banned small shops opening, as other cities have. The third day after the lockdown, it was possible to buy from the local bakery owner, breakfast breads, red bean cakes, and taosu, crumbly biscuits made from oil mixed with flour with nuts pressed into them. The next day, it shut. The local government has ordered the main grocery stores to stay open.

Yet the city remains closed. At one of the checkpoints, a row of blue steel plates blocking the entrance to a tunnel through the mountain to the village of Majiahe, a police officer in full uniform sits at a desk, flanked by other men dressed in dark hues who turn out to be Party functionaries. I heard a woman in a purple coat telling a friend strolling next to her that she’d heard about a worker back from Wuhan who’d been infected.

On one of my walks, I passed four boys in sport coats, one of whom confidently predicted that “After ten days, they’ll have a vaccine.” Meanwhile, home remedies are circulating in social media messaging groups: rub sesame oil in your nostrils, take a hairdryer to your face and hands, eat seven garlic cloves and drink eight glasses of water. Then there are the “don’ts”: eat fish, wear woolen clothing, make eye-contact with strangers. Videos of bat sashimi, rumored to be the source of the virus, are also going around.

A cabbage with a 30-yuan price tag appeared in a chat group of retirees. One of them was Ningning’s grandmother, who prefers to squint than wear her glasses. They were sitting in their box on a coffee table piled with tangerines sent by Dongfeng. She showed the post of the cabbage to me, and her grandson Feifan yelled, “Stop spreading rumors, Grandma!” Cabbages are still the cheapest vegetable available here. “Selling like cabbages” means cheaply and quickly. Searching online, I found another cabbage supposedly selling for 60 yuan, sitting in a supermarket in the neighboring province of Henan, but perhaps it was someone’s Photoshop creation.

There is the online reality, the reality portrayed by state media, and the reality I’m living. On the seventh day after the lockdown, a university classmate called my friend Ningning, and told her about another: hospitals do not have enough beds for the infected in Wuhan. They go home, they die, they never enter the official count as they were not diagnosed.

Indian passengers being screened for coronavirus at New Delhi airport
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Indian citizens arriving from Wuhan, China, being screened by border police for any sign of possible coronavirus infection, New Delhi airport, India, February 2, 2020

The same day, a British evacuation flight was leaving from Wuhan Tianhe Airport. With my British passport, I thought about trying to make it. The police can still drive around, scanning pedestrians’ temperatures from their car seats. Medical staff can get to hospitals. But all public transportation has stopped, and private cars have been banned from the roads. So at 9 PM that night, I was still without a permit that would get me through the seven-hour drive and multiple checkpoints to my evacuation flight. I called the British consulate in London and after explaining that I was in Shiyan, I was put on hold.

Eventually, another representative picked up and advised me that I should be at the airport in two hours. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “They pushed the time forward.” The flight left. I stay in Shiyan.