A seafood vendor among the first people infected by the novel coronavirus has a change of heart over what is important in life.
A doctor who treated some of the first patients still puzzles over why the virus behaves the way it does.
A psychologist worries about the deep, lasting emotional strains from the outbreak.
A survivor seeks justice for his mother’s death, though he knows his lawsuit against the authorities will likely never go to trial.
These are some of the people from Wuhan, China, who lived through the start of what became a pandemic claiming almost half a million lives around the world and counting. Now Wuhan’s residents are reflecting back to where it began, including the earliest reported infections, the city’s 76-day lockdown, residents’ efforts to help each other survive and the government’s initial missteps in countering the virus.
The worst is over, say Chinese health authorities. New coronavirus cases in Wuhan have dropped to a handful each week, although they recently resurged in Beijing.
These Wuhan residents say they have not forgotten the weeks of isolation, fear and heartbreak. Here are some of their stories.
A seafood vendor rushes to the ER
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
W. may well be one of the first people in the world to contract the novel coronavirus.
He asked that just his first initial be used because of the sensitivity of discussing the epidemic in China. The authorities have detained people they suspect of criticizing or challenging their version and timeline of the coronavirus response.
The 56-year-old was a seafood vendor at the now-infamous Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Chinese authorities closed the open-air market in January after people there had become sick with the new virus.
W. began experiencing flu-like symptoms on Dec. 19. That night, he felt well enough to babysit his two young nephews, sleeping with one under each arm.
He tried Chinese herbs and antibiotics on his own, but his fever persisted. On Dec. 30, when his symptoms grew worse and he had difficulty breathing, he was rushed to the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in an ambulance.
“The doctors told my family they should prepare for my funeral if my symptoms did not take a turn for the better,” W. recalls.
Eventually, after spending 14 days in the hospital, W. recovered. Since then, more than 9.6 million have been confirmed infected worldwide; 489,854 have died, as of early Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Like many Wuhan residents, W. is now trying to get back to his life. Huanan vendors are already setting up shop in new markets. (The original market remains barricaded and its contents incinerated, though the building still gave off the pungent musk of seafood when NPR visited in mid-April.)
W. believes he picked up the virus from one of his employees who regularly played cards with other Huanan merchants, all of whom were later hospitalized for the virus.
“The coronavirus is like the flu, and when it is flu season, Chinese people get the flu, Americans get the flu,” he opined. Yet while there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, doctors have found the illness has significant differences compared with influenza.
Now W.’s mind now is on the future. He hopes he can pass on the wholesale seafood business to his 30-year-old son.
He also says the virus has changed his outlook on life. “Money does not seem that important anymore. Having a healthy life is all that matters,” W. says. “Before, we would go out of our way to make a buck. Now we no longer wish for much.”
A respiratory specialist puzzles over the new virus
Jinyintan Hospital’s vice director, Dr. Huang Chaolin, remembers when W. came in. A respiratory specialist, Huang puzzled over how to diagnose the new virus. “This was before the diagnostic tests were available, so we had to base our clinical diagnoses using the Huanan vendors as a baseline,” Huang says. The doctor later fell ill with the coronavirus himself but recovered.
When W. was admitted to Jinyintan on Dec. 30, emergency doctors there were already wearing face masks, he recalls.
That same day, Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist, warned other doctors in a group chat about a cluster of mysterious new pneumonia cases that had arrived in his hospital.
Police reprimanded Li and seven other medical workers for “rumor-mongering.” Li later died of the coronavirus himself, sparking a wave of anger and grief across China for the early missteps.
Meanwhile, doctors were scrambling to deal with a shortage of resources. “We worked 12-hour shifts. There just were not enough beds,” says Dr. Peng Zhiyong, a director of the intensive care unit at Wuhan’s Zhongnan Hospital, which eventually tripled the size of its ICU. “The emotional pressure was huge on everyone.”
In February, Zhongnan’s staff members were tapped to run Leishenshan Hospital, one of two temporary COVID-19 treatment centers erected on Wuhan’s outskirts. NPR visited in early April as part of a government-organized tour. Doctors dispatched from top hospitals around the country to aid Wuhan health workers had already returned home, but they left hundreds of hand-drawn pictures behind on the walls. One cartoon depicted a masked Chinese President Xi Jinping, fist raised, declaring, “Victory is guaranteed.”
Doctors say they are still troubled by the rise of asymptomatic virus carriers and caution that there is no certain cure, beyond a vaccine.
“Presently, there is no one medicine that can treat the different manifestations of the virus,” says Zhao Yan, an emergency care doctor at Zhongnan Hospital. “This reminds us that the virus may be changing. Is it becoming more severe or more mild? We do not know. I can only say it is manifesting differently [in Europe and the U.S.] than in China.”
Dr. Wang Xinghuan, Zhao’s colleague at Zhongnan Hospital who led Leishenshan’s operations, concurs, acknowledging that the current understanding of the virus “has very big shortcomings.”
A psychologist recalls lockdown and despair
The call came at midnight in mid-March. The woman on the other end was desperate. Her entire family had come down with COVID-19. As a close contact, she had been sealed inside her own home. Alone, she felt suicidal.
Du Mingjun, a Wuhan psychologist who took the call, eventually talked the caller away from the window.
“They are anxious about the future and anxious about whether the city will relapse into another outbreak,” Du says. “Many have a sense of shame about having contracted the disease.”
She adds, “The [lockdown] was a test for the whole of society.”
Wuhan abruptly sealed off the city from the rest of China on Jan. 23. Residents spent much of the next 2 1/2 months unable to leave their homes.
Du started a counseling hotline in the city of 11 million, as mental illness and domestic violence cases spiked during the lockdown. Staffed by more than 200 volunteers with counseling qualifications in China, the U.S. and Canada, Du’s hotline worked around the clock to field dozens of callers a day at the height of the epidemic.
The emotional scars from a 76-day citywide lockdown endure. Many in Wuhan remain reluctant to leave their homes, weeks after the most stringent restrictions on movement were lifted.
“New groups of people are emerging: the people that recovered from COVID-19 and the medical staff and workers that just retreated from the front line. Their psychological needs only just started to emerge,” says Du.
In February, Wuhan community workers began a door-to-door campaign to identify anyone with exposure to confirmed cases or exhibiting symptoms themselves. People with mild cases were sent to hastily built treatment centers and quarantine facilities converted from stadiums and convention centers, diverting patients away from already-strained hospitals. “Round up all those that need to be rounded up,” exhorted Sun Chunlan, the country’s vice premier.
The campaign met resistance from Wuhan families who loathed to part from their sick loved ones. “Central quarantine is where you put people to die,” one Wuhan resident, Pan Yifei, told NPR in early February, as the campaign began in earnest.
But central quarantine (rather than sending the sick to recuperate at home, where they often infected family members) is now credited with bringing the outbreak in Wuhan under control.
Simultaneously, hundreds of social workers rushed to form online chat groups to ease patients into the unfamiliar settings of the new quarantine centers.
“Before you offer any emotional support, first you need to let them know they will survive,” says Yu Zhihong, a professor at Wuhan University who began a 500-strong volunteer group. Some of her volunteers worked the phones to find empty hospital beds. Others organized patients with mild symptoms in quarantine centers into cleaning brigades to keep hygiene and morale high.
“Of course there will be a period of suffering [after the outbreak]. But I think a person’s ability to survive and adapt is extraordinary,” Yu says.
The counseling work was a coping process for her own sake as well: “In the face of tragedy, if you can help other people, you will empower yourself,” she says.
Yet, the healing process has just begun. Guo Jing, a Wuhan-based social worker, runs a domestic violence and sexual harassment hotline; calls continued throughout February and March. She says incidents of gender discrimination in hiring are now increasingly common as the economy struggles to bounce back, based on the number of related complaints phoned into her hotline.
“The epidemic might leave physical scars on those who recovered. For those who died, how will we commemorate them? And now we have an employment crisis. … The pressure on people’s livelihoods continues. What new tragedies might happen?” Guo ponders.
A mother’s death uncounted
Many who lost loved ones to the coronavirus want answers. Some residents blame an initial cover-up within Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan, for exacerbating the ensuing epidemic.
“It could have been different,” says a resident who wanted to use only his first initial, Y. He did not want to be named because police threatened him and told him not to publicize his case. He belongs to a small group of Wuhan residents whom NPR spoke to who are suing the city and provincial governments for negligence and for not disclosing information about the new coronavirus soon enough.
In early February, Y. was among the thousands of Wuhan residents who struggled to get care for an ailing family member from an overwhelmed hospital system. Medical supplies were so scarce, Y. says, that his wheelchair-using mother and other patients had to share two oxygen canisters outside a clinic.
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When a hospital bed finally opened up, Y. hurried to retrieve some of his mother’s clothes and personal effects. On the drive home, the hospital called. Don’t bother, it told him: His mother had died. She was cremated within an hour to avoid cross-infection. Throughout the epidemic, the authorities have barred families from holding funerals or seeing their relatives’ bodies before cremation.
“I came to the hospital with my mother. I left with a box of her ashes,” says Y. “I never got to say goodbye.”
In suing the government, the plaintiffs are challenging the official narrative that emphasizes how China’s top-down rule brought Wuhan’s outbreak quickly to heel. The authorities have worked to silence criticism of the official line. “Someone must be held responsible,” wrote Tan Jun, a civil servant in Yichang, a city about 200 miles from Wuhan. The Yichang district court recently rejected his lawsuit demanding an official apology from Hubei province on how it handled the initial outbreak.
Because Y.’s mother died before she could be tested for the coronavirus, her death isn’t included in epidemic statistics. That bothers Y. It is like his mother never existed — that her death, and in turn her life, will go unaccounted for. “If the city government can ignore you, they will. Two months later, there has not been a peep from” the local authorities about his mother’s death, he says.
Wuhan added nearly 1,300 more COVID-19-related deaths to the official tally in mid-April. Local authorities blamed “delayed reporting of confirmed cases and some failures to count patients accurately” in obscuring the initial count. Y.’s mother is almost certainly not among those added, as she was never tested.
Y. knows he will not win his lawsuit. Local police recently summoned him to their office to pressure him to drop his case, which has yet to be accepted by a court. Three other plaintiffs were also contacted by Chinese security officers regarding their plans to sue. One withdrew under the pressure.
Y. considers the process of filing a lawsuit a show of respect and a form of mourning for his mother, whose ashes lie unburied because he is waiting for unpopular restrictions on funerals to be lifted.
“I have to live within this society. That I have no choice over,” he said. “But I just do not understand why no one cared about my mother.”