On 23 rd of January, just two days before Chinese New Year, the city Wuhan, in Hebei
province, went into complete lockdown. On the other side of China, in a southern city called Nanning, I was told by my grandparents that they were prepared to do whatever it took to stay safe. While my grandparents had to give up most forms of traditional Chinese New Year celebration to stay at home, I was making dumplings for a small gathering with my international friends in West End of Glasgow on the other side of the world.
No one realized back then how stark the contrast was between living situations in China and Scotland, except for those whose families were directly affected. I was anxious for the well- being of my family, especially my grandparents, both of which were over 80. I was constantly asking for updates, only to receive similar responses: they are taking extreme precautions with hygiene and isolation; they were stuck for now at my uncle and aunt’s house as they were only meant to stay there for the Chinese New Year, but now they could at least play Majong together. They were scared to go out, but overall, doing well. I noticed that the family WeChat group was bursting with COVID-19 related self-care advices from this cousin and that uncle, with news updates and some occasional gossip on who and so that received a new diagnosis. It seemed that the virus ironically brought my family much closer together in a time of self-isolation – my grandparents had never spent that much time with my uncle and aunt before. Daily life was operating relatively normally, but still far from business as usual. But that life was normal in the sense that some people could still live comfortably despite the drastic policies in place. To my relief as well as frustration, I realized that my family was privileged enough to be in this position. The state of quarantine and social distancing was drastically different from city to city: Nanning seemed like a paradise compared to Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China.
Life in Wuhan has been in every Chinese native’s heart since January, and I found myself
deeply concerned for millions of people I don’t know, living in a city I’ve never been to.
Through social media site Zhihu – the Chinese equivalent of Quora – I read about countless reports, analysis and stories about the situation in Wuhan. The human sufferings in Wuhan are hard to summarize in words. For those who are more fortunate, the most severe difficulty was the psychological strain from not only needing to self-isolate, but to be separated from loved ones in a time that was normally meant for family unions. But for those less fortunate, it was a matter of life and death. Delivery men and women had to risk their lives, sometimes without proper insurance, to keep on working due to lack of protective legislations in place. For many workers who came from other provinces, unemployment was even worse as an alternative. They were now forced to live on the streets, with some even describing themselves as stray dogs as they could only live in sheltered parking lots, eating food from charities or vending machines. I particularly remember a heart-breaking story about a formerly homeless man who had made significant changes to his life in efforts to escape poverty: he managed to buy a house in 2019, but could barely feed himself in 2020.
However, the positive things that came out of this devastating crisis are also crucial to
remember. I experienced something I never thought I could: a profound sense of togetherness and empathy forged by a huge online community of netizens who otherwise blatantly fight over the smallest issues. More surprisingly, I witnessed the power of people coming together to help other people.
In early February, a nation-wide outrage sparked online against the Red Cross in Wuhan,
after being accused of corruption and misconduct, primarily in the confiscation and
redistribution of resources after the lockdown. This was a trigger point for people who were already angry over the lack of transparency and quick measures in the ways the provincial administration handled the outbreak in the early stages in Wuhan and Hebei, with the opinion that the epidemic could have been reverted if only the local government acted sooner. The end result was a nearly collapsed health care system, as hospitals and funeral homes overworked to the point of breakdown. Anger and mistrust in the Wuhan Red Cross as well as other state-sponsored charities sparked a national wave of grassroot organizations, all volunteer-led, to join the efforts in supporting Wuhan. Thousands of Chinese, if not millions, both domestically and overseas, were mobilised to donate money, medical equipment, food and time to mass procure desperately needed resources for Wuhan.
Distrust in governmental capabilities did not discourage people to help those in need. On
the contrary, it only accelerated community-initiated efforts in tackling this nation-wide
socio-political crisis. Coronavirus really brought people together in acts of solidarity, which seem like the only thing that can get us through these hard times.
[Nini Huang – @niniiiiihuang – she/her]