The Lockdown

Faced with the looming threat of the novel coronavirus, everyone wears a mask to protect themselves at a bus stop in Tainan, southern Taiwan, in early February 2020. (photo by Huang Xiao-zhe)

My hometown is in the city of Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China. It’s more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) from Wuhan, Hubei Province. I moved to Wuhan in 2012. This is the ninth year I’ve lived in the city.

I visit my parents and grandmother at my childhood home in Jiaxing every year during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. I had planned to do the same this year. My husband and I made arrangements to take a high-speed train bound for Jiaxing on January 26, the second day of the Chinese New Year [which is traditionally the day on which married women visit their parents during this most important Chinese holiday]. Our intention was to set out on our trip after wishing Master Cheng Yen in Hualien, Taiwan, a happy Chinese New Year via videoconferencing along with other Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan. If all went as planned, I’d be home in the bosom of my family on January 26 after a six-hour trip.

On December 29, 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers in Wuhan held a year-end blessing and thanksgiving event. More than seven hundred people attended. Immediately afterwards, we began the preparatory work for an annual year-end banquet for Tzu Chi long-term care recipients in Wuhan. That meal was scheduled for January 5, 2020.

On December 30, the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee issued “An Urgent Notice on the Treatment of Pneumonia of Unknown Cause” on its Weibo social media account. This notice was widely circulated on the Internet. However, many Wuhan citizens didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking it was fake or a rumor. Besides, flu is common in winter, so people didn’t think any more of it. Everyone continued to immerse themselves in the festive atmosphere in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Similarly, Tzu Chi care recipients in the city continued to look forward to our year-end banquet. Every year we drive them to and from the event. We also deliver our winter aid supplies to their homes at the same time.

On January 1, 2020, as the new year was ushered in, the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan city was closed. This market was the suspected origin of the pneumonia of unknown cause. [In addition to seafood, the market sold live poultry and wildlife to the public.] Tzu Chi volunteer Fan Lihua (樊麗華), a medical worker in a hospital, realized it would be better to postpone our year-end banquet in light of the current situation. She observed that many of our care recipients had disabilities or were elderly, and as such they generally had lower resistance to infectious diseases. Besides, the place the meal was to be held was in a closed space, which might further compound the situation. We agreed with her assessment, and postponed the event accordingly.

Before the Lockdown of Wuhan

Volunteers in Wuhan welcome attendees to a Tzu Chi year-end blessing and thanksgiving event on December 29, 2019 (above). Children, holding lights, pray during the event.

Happiness coming to a halt

On January 5, I attended a monthly meeting of Tzu Chi commissioners. A fellow volunteer felt unwell during the meeting—she felt something was wrong with her heart—so I accompanied her to a hospital. The ER at the hospital was, as usual, packed with patients. I often went to medical facilities to visit our hospitalized care recipients, so I was used to the crowds in a hospital. I wasn’t wearing a mask at the time, and no hospital personnel reminded us to do so. In fact, the only people I saw wearing masks in the entire outpatient lobby was a couple, a man and woman, who appeared to be together.

As the coronavirus epidemic continued to worsen, we cancelled our upcoming visits to nursing homes for the elderly, but a small group of us still delivered our monthly subsidies for living expenses to a few families who were having difficulty getting by. This was to make sure that they could have a better Chinese New Year. That day was January 11, a Saturday. Traffic was light on the way. Many workers and university students in Wuhan come from out of town, and so the city becomes a lot emptier as many of them return home when Chinese New Year rolls around.

The next day, I visited volunteer Qi Yan (齊岩) at his company to help organize files on trainee volunteers. Brother Qi’s company was a stone’s throw from the Huanan Seafood Market. I usually drove when I visited him, but that day I chose to ride the subway for convenience and because it was more environmentally friendly. When Brother Qi learned that, he said to me in a joking tone, “You should’ve driven a car. It’s too dangerous to ride the subway right now.” I remember that there weren’t many people on the subway that day, and no one, including me, wore a mask.

Life went on as usual during the following week. I began doing my New Year’s shopping, and I prepared a lot of presents to take to my childhood home. My husband left on a week-long business trip to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. While there, he called home and told me that he had heard in Shenzhen that Wuhan was experiencing a mask shortage and that it was already impossible to get masks in our city. I told him not to help spread rumors and intensify panic. I assured him I’d be able to get some in the pharmacy near our home.

However, when I went to buy face masks on January 18, they had sold out. I asked the clerk at the pharmacy when they would restock, and he said he had no idea. Luckily, we still had a pack of one-use face masks at home for when we had colds. With that, and with the three packs of masks my husband had purchased in Shenzen, I thought we should have enough for the time being.

The next day, several volunteers and I went to the home of volunteer Fan Lihua to make wontons. Since Fan worked at a hospital and was busy at work, we were making the wontons so that she could freeze them to eat later. That would help cut down on the time she needed to spend on preparing meals. The sun shone brightly that day. The weather was perfect. Chatting while making wontons, we had a great time.

However, our happiness seemed to come to a halt on that day. After that day, we became easily agitated and often felt powerless. One moment we’d be moved to tears while the next we were consumed by anger. We had to give ourselves pep talks so that we could remain positive and upbeat.

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