COVID-19

Wuhan returns to life after COVID-19 lockdown

Jennifer Pak Apr 9, 2020
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People sit outside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in the hope of taking one of the first trains leaving the city in China's central Hubei province on April 8. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Wuhan returns to life after COVID-19 lockdown

Jennifer Pak Apr 9, 2020
People sit outside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in the hope of taking one of the first trains leaving the city in China's central Hubei province on April 8. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
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Journalist Wang Ai used to go to her office in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and wonder when her next vacation would start.

Now, she is relieved to be back at the office.

She’s had nearly three months of working from home after the city locked down to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“Different employees go to the office on different days of the week and the office hours are shorter,” Wang said.

Her company has also asked employees to avoid public transportation as much as possible. They suggest driving or walking to work.

These measures are among the many required of businesses in China to prevent a second wave of infections.

Wuhan is the last city to open after a 76-day lockdown barred almost all transportation in and out. It’s where the coronavirus outbreak started in December. More than 2,500 people have died and 50,000 have been infected in Wuhan.

Chinese officials there said nearly all large industrial enterprises have resumed operations. But only 429,000 people are back at these enterprises, or 61% of the employees, due to strict quarantine measures and travel restrictions. There is no official data on Wuhan’s small and medium-sized businesses, which have been hit the hardest.

The end of the lockdown should mean people who have a clean bill of health, or “green code” issued by a city app, can leave Wuhan, but travel will still be a complex process for the city’s 11 million residents.

“The notification we received from our Communist neighborhood council is that it all depends on where we want to go. For example, certain Chinese cities require us to take a nucleic acid test” to confirm they are coronavirus-free, said Zhang Xinxin, who works at a real estate company.

“We must do the test to avoid being turned away by other cities or being quarantined.”

Even if Zhang has no plans to leave Wuhan, there are strict controls within the city that are set by Communist neighborhood committees. The rules vary among areas and change frequently.

“A few days ago, a resident [in our apartment complex] was tested positive for the coronavirus before returning to work. The person was asymptomatic,” Zhang said.

“The control measures in our apartment complex became strict again. It used to be that one family member could shop for groceries for two hours, every day. That has now changed to every three days.”

Zhang’s husband, who was back at the office, now has to self-quarantine and work from home again.

Their 6-year-old daughter is attending online classes at home because schools are still closed. It has been manageable for Zhang since she has not been called back to work.

“I’ve not been paid for the past two months. Our finance department isn’t back at work yet,” she said.

Zhang is not too worried. Like many in China, she saves at least 20% of her income and her husband’s salary is stable.

Plus, her family is spending a lot less during this pandemic.

“A big expense is our daughter’s education. All those dance classes and piano lessons have been canceled, so we’ve saved a few hundred dollars,” Zhang said.

Another thing she has cut back on is food delivery. Zhang used to order lunch at the office nearly every day. In the past two months, she has ordered food just once.

While she is not working, Zhang spends her time cooking, chatting with friends and watching TV series. Her favorite is called “Winter Begonia.” It is set in the 1930s and tells the story of a Peking opera performer and a patriotic businessman who try to revitalize the Peking opera.

For young people adept at online entertainment and social media, life under lockdown has been bearable.

It has been a lot harder on the elderly.

“During this period,” Wang said, “my parents would ask me, ‘Why is Wuhan locked down? When will the order be lifted? When will the pandemic end?’ These questions gnawed at them every day. They got mad at me, and I had to try to console them,” the 26-year-old added.

With the lockdown over, she and her parents are finally allowed to step outside their apartment complex when they please.

Public anger over the handling of the coronavirus has led to some officials losing their jobs, and many residents still ask whether the lockdown could have been avoided.

Zhang Xinxin's social media post on WeChat with the caption: "The pandemic has forced my inner masterchef to come out." (Zhang Xinxin)
Zhang Xinxin’s social media post on WeChat with the caption: “The pandemic has forced my inner masterchef to come out.” (Zhang Xinxin)

In December, a few people tried to warn others about a potential SARS-like virus.

They were pulled in by the police for spreading “rumors” that later turned out to be true.

Among those harassed was Dr. Li Wenliang. He later contracted the coronavirus and died.

“He is the hero of China,” China’s top respiratory disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, told Reuters in an interview.

“I’m so proud of him. He told people the truth at the end of December.”

Some people heeded the early warnings and took precautions. Investor Tian Changxing bought his family face masks and goggles.

“As an investor, I plan for worst-case scenarios,” he said at the start of the lockdown in January.

Since then, Tian said, he has suffered insomnia and depression and hasn’t felt inspired.

“In the long term, it might be that I am not in a good state [and this might] affect my ability to make good investment decisions,” he wrote in a text.

Other Wuhan residents, like Wang, worry more about fresh coronavirus outbreaks.

“I used to hear ambulance sirens almost every day. Now when I hear that sound, I think, ‘Is there another case in my neighborhood?’ ” she said.

Wang used to wear two masks on top of each other and goggles on the rare occasions she went outdoors.

“I also carried two bottles of alcoholic spray. Before I did anything, I’d wear gloves and disinfect the area first,” she said.

Today, she still disinfects regularly but is more likely to wear only one mask instead of two.

The only time Zhang Xinxin ordered food delivery during the pandemic was a hotpot meal in mid-February - a big change from before COVID-19 when she would order food delivery almost every day. (Courtesy of Zhang Xinxin)
The only time Zhang Xinxin ordered food delivery during the pandemic was a hotpot meal in mid-February. Before COVID-19, she would order food delivery almost every day. (Courtesy of Zhang Xinxin)

When things looked grim in Wuhan, Wang said it was heartening to see fellow residents singing the Chinese national anthem and shouting, “Go Wuhan!” from their windows.

“During this pandemic, the residents of Wuhan and the whole nation united as one and took preventative measures to battle the coronavirus,” Wang said.

Both she and Zhang volunteered in their neighborhoods during the pandemic.

Zhang helped a friend who was the head nurse at a local hospital to transport supplies for makeshift isolation wards, while Wang delivered medical supplies and helped guard her apartment complex as part of the virus prevention measures.

Wang hopes Americans can be just as united now, while they are going through a rough time.

The sentiment that we are all in this together is echoed in a song called “Hand in Hand,” which was recorded specially by Chinese artists for the pandemic.

The chorus goes: “Hold my hand my friend/ Love is all around you/ Don’t be afraid and don’t give up/ All this shall pass/ Hold my hand/ And together we’ll watch tomorrow’s rainbow.”

Additional reporting by Charles Zhang.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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