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Diary of a Wuhan lockdown survivor

Six months after the virus outbreak in Wuhan sparked off the covid-19 pandemic, a noted Chinese writer is out with a book that chronicles her life under lockdown. Lounge presents exclusive excerpts

Wuhan was the first city to go into a lockdown
Wuhan was the first city to go into a lockdown

Towards the end of January, acclaimed Chinese writer Fang Fang (the pen name of Wang Fang) began to write a daily online diary as her home town Wuhan became the epicentre of the deadly novel coronavirus outbreak. Within days, Michael Perry, Fang’s American translator, began to render her entries into English. Recently, these were collected and published as Wuhan Diary.

Why should a personal account of lockdown by a 65-year-old writer matter to the rest of the world? Because she speaks truth to power like few in her country. In spite of stringent media and social media policing, Fang continues to ask hard questions of the authorities, points out lapses and challenges official claims—actions that most journalists in China can’t undertake. Her diary is not just a portrait of a society in lockdown but also that of a people muzzled.Fang’s book also feels like a warning as the world enters the sixth month of the outbreak. There is still no reliable treatment for covid-19, let alone a vaccine to eradicate it. The world is opening up after extended periods of lockdown but infections continue to spread. So far, China alone has recorded over 83,000 cases, with 4,634 deaths (according to official figures). Globally, nearly 6.3 million people have been afflicted by the virus and over 380,000 have died of it.

Could a massive tragedy have been averted had China been stricter about its policies in the early days of the outbreak? Fang repeatedly circles back to this question in spite of the ire of the censors, an army of trolls baying for her blood, and the obvious displeasure of the ruling communist party. Even though her detractors dispute the authenticity of her sources, she continues to bear witness to the plight of ordinary citizens, migrant workers stranded without means of survival, and doctors and essential workers wagering their lives on the front line.

Just as Fang doesn’t look away from the hard truths, she is also attentive to moments of small joys: the changing texture of light as each day unfolds, the seasonal shifts observed from her window, the memories of springtime blossoms from the past, acts of kindness and empathy—nothing escapes her.

As of this week, China has recorded 32 new cases of covid-19 and none in Wuhan, though 320 people remain quarantined in the city. The Wuhan authorities are testing 11 million citizens to rule out a resurgence of cases. Such painstaking efforts to contain the virus may not have been directly precipitated by free speakers like Fang, but without her diary and her repeated exhortation to fellow citizens to record the trauma of these tragic times, the history of the pandemic would be incomplete. When she began writing the diary, Fang was a celebrated writer in China, seldom translated into English. With the publication of Wuhan Diary in English, she has become a global figure of free speech. Here are the highlights from the 60-odd days Fang recorded in her diary. The original entries have been excerpted and shortened with permission from her publisher.

Somak Ghoshal

Chinese writer Fang Fang (L) and her book - Wuhan Diary—Dispatches From A Quarantined City: By Fang Fang, translated by Michael Berry, HarperCollins India, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>469 (digital price).
Chinese writer Fang Fang (L) and her book - Wuhan Diary—Dispatches From A Quarantined City: By Fang Fang, translated by Michael Berry, HarperCollins India, 328 pages, 469 (digital price).


January 27, 2020: Everyone is now talking about the shortage of face masks as the single most pressing issue. After all, all of us still need to occasionally leave our homes to buy food and supplies. Online they are talking about people selling used face masks that are “refurbished," but no one dares to use those. One joke I saw was right on point: face masks have indeed replaced pork as the most precious commodity for the Chinese New Year!

January 29: I decided to just let everything go and slept all the way up until noon today. I was still lying in bed flicking through messages on my phone when I saw a text one of my doctor friends sent me: “Take care of yourself and, no matter what, don’t go out! Don’t go out! Don’t go out!"

I figured this must mean the outbreak is reaching its peak. I quickly called my daughter, who was about to go out to the supermarket to pick up a few boxed lunches. I told her not to go. Even if the only thing you have left to eat at home is plain white rice, don’t go out. I suspect she was just too lazy to cook and that is why she wanted to go out. She called me back to ask how to cook cabbage.

January 31: Some of the smaller supermarkets are still open. There are also a few vegetable peddlers set up on the sidewalk. I bought some vegetables from one of those peddlers and went to the supermarket to pick up some milk and eggs (I had to go to three markets before I found one with eggs in stock). I asked the storekeeper whether or not she was afraid of getting infected by staying open during the outbreak. She answered frankly: “We’ve got to go on living; so do you!"

February 1:Now that I think back, it was actually my eldest brother who first told me that this virus was contagious. He teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. On December 31, he forwarded to me an essay entitled “Suspected Case of Virus of Unknown Origin in Wuhan". However, it wasn’t long before the official government line came down: “Not contagious between people; it’s controllable and preventable." As soon as we heard that, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

A statue with a face mask in Wuhan on 10 February.
A statue with a face mask in Wuhan on 10 February.

February 2: The video I found most difficult to watch today was a news clip of a daughter trailing behind her mother’s funeral car, screaming through her tears. Her mommy was gone and now her remains were being driven away. The daughter will never be able to give her mother a proper burial; she probably won’t even know what they did with her mother’s ashes.

February 6:Dr Li Wenliang has passed away. He was one of the eight doctors who were penalised for speaking out about the virus early on, and later he himself was infected with the novel coronavirus. Right now everyone in this city is crying for him. And I am heartbroken.

February 7: At Wuhan Central Hospital where Li Wenliang worked, he was not the only casualty. I heard that at least three other doctors also succumbed to the virus. Virtually every hospital has several medical professionals who have fallen ill. They have all sacrificed their own health and, in some cases, their lives to save their patients.

My doctor friend told me that “when all those doctors started to get sick, they all knew that this was a ‘contagious disease,’ but no one dared to speak out because they were being gagged".

February 8:Even though each one of my posts ends up getting deleted by the censors shortly after being posted, I continue to write. Some friends are worried that things will get difficult for me, but I think everything will be fine.

I always stand on the same side as my government, cooperating with all official actions, helping the government in convincing people who are not quite on board with various policies, and aiding the government by consoling all those anxious citizens. The only difference is that I use an alternative method and, occasionally, over the course of writing, I also reveal some of my personal thoughts on various issues; but that is really the only difference.

This morning I heard a recorded phone call between an investigator and a female employee at a mortuary. She called out various government officials by name, cursing them and calling them dogs.

February 11: This afternoon I cooked four dishes for myself; I also cooked some extra rice. My dog is out of dog food. He has been in my life for a full 16 years now. The day before the quarantine began, I picked up some food at the pet store, but I never imagined it wouldn’t be close to enough. I called the vet at the animal hospital to ask what to do and he told me I could feed the dog rice. So from now on I cook an extra portion for him.

An empty business street in Wuhan on 13 February.
An empty business street in Wuhan on 13 February.

February 12: One of the temporary hospitals received notice that a certain local political leader was about to visit, and so several people lined up at the entrance, including officials, medical professionals, and probably even some patients. They were all wearing face masks and went one by one singing to all the patients in their sickbeds, “There would be no new China without the Communist Party!" Isn’t this a contagious disease we are dealing with. Doesn’t it affect the lungs, making it difficult to breathe? And here you want them to sing?

February 13: My daughter once asked her 99-year-old grandfather what his secret to a long life was. His response: “Eat a lot of fatty meat, don’t exercise, and be sure to curse out anyone who deserves it." And so the third secret to a long life is cursing people.

The people of Wuhan are all locked up at home, bored out of their minds with nothing to do—we all need a release. We can’t get together to talk because of the risk of infection; we can’t open our windows and sing together because we are afraid airborne particles of saliva can still spread the virus; we tried to wail together to mourn the loss of Dr Li Wenliang, but it wasn’t enough; the only thing left for us to try is to start unleashing our curses on all those people who cause us so much pain. What’s more the Wuhan people have always had a special talent for putting people in their place. Once you have got it out of your system, your entire body feels completely refreshed; kind of like the way northerners feel after they have spent time at the bathhouse on a cold winter day.

One bit of news today left me particularly sad; that was the death of the famous master of traditional Chinese painting Mr. Liu Shouxiang. Even more heartbreaking was a photo that a doctor friend texted me. The picture was of a pile of cellphones piled up on the floor of a funeral home; the owners of those phones had already been reduced to ash. No words.

February 17:The strictest government order on the quarantine has just been issued: Everyone is now required to remain inside their homes at all times. For someone like me, staying at home is a fairly simple task. My dog can just run around in my courtyard. It is a good thing that he is so old.

February 18: Today there is something I want to get off my chest that has been weighing on me for a long time: Those ultra-leftists in China are responsible for causing irreparable harm to the nation and the people. All they want to do is return to the good old days of the Cultural Revolution and reverse all the Reform Era policies. They behave like a pack of thugs, attacking anyone who fails to cooperate with them, launching wave after wave of attacks. What I really just don’t understand is: How is it that they are able to publish these ridiculous things online and repeatedly turn the truth upside down, yet their posts somehow never get censored or deleted and no one ever stops their flagrant actions?

February 24: I heard that some of the patients admitted to the temporary hospitals don’t want to leave even after they have recovered! Those temporary hospitals are extremely spacious, they provide excellent food, and even have entertainment areas so patients can sing and dance! The whole thing is so strange that it almost sounds like a bad joke.

February 25: Today one of my old classmates from university told me that he was getting ready to go outside when his three-year-old granddaughter pleaded with him: “Grandpa, please don’t go out. There is a disease outside!" But the most heartbreaking story is the grandfather who was dead for days, but his grandchild was afraid to go outside because of the coronavirus, so he just lived on crackers for several days. There are all too many stories like that. There are so many children who won’t dare go outside because their parents keep scaring them by saying: “You’ll get sick if you go out! You’ll get sick!" The virus has already found its way into their hearts, living like a devil inside them.

March 4:Starting yesterday, they began a massive three-day project to clear and disinfect the Huanan Seafood Market. It was shut down back in early January and ever since then people have been coming every day to disinfect the area. But when they first shut the market down, their actions were rather rushed and many of the items in the various stores there were left behind. I suspect that no one ever thought the market would be shuttered for such a long time; and they certainly never imagined that the virus that emerged there would set in motion a catastrophe that would engulf all of China and later the world. After they shut off all power and water to the market and the temperature started to warm up, a lot of the seafood left behind started to emit a wretched stench.

March 5: According to the lunar calendar, today is the day the insects awaken from their winter sleep. It is day 43 of the quarantine. A few days ago I told a friend that I feel like I’m busier now than I am during normal times. I didn’t watch a single TV miniseries and although I prepared a bunch of movies that I wanted to watch, I never got a chance to see a single one. My neighbor Tang Xiaohe was showing off a video of her granddaughter eating. The way she eats in that video is so adorable. One friend told me, “I spend my days watching videos of Xiaohe’s granddaughter eating and my nights reading Fang Fang’s diary; that’s how I pass my time these days." Those videos and my friend’s message brought me a lot of smiles.

March 6: The daily new cases of coronavirus in Wuhan finally fell below 100. Today the word appearing most frequently in online chat groups is “gratitude." The political leaders here in Wuhan have requested that the citizens provide a public expression of gratitude toward the Chinese Communist Party and the nation. Their thought process is really strange.

That’s right, the outbreak is now basically under control and we should indeed express our gratitude for that. But it should be the government standing up to express their gratitude. The government should start off by expressing their gratitude to the families of those thousands of victims; their loved ones were the wrongful victims of a terrible scourge. The government should express their gratitude to the more than 5,000 people still lying in hospital beds as they struggle for their lives against the god of death; it is their stubborn will to live that has slowed down the number of deaths.

The government should express their gratitude to all the healthcare professionals and 40,000 angels in white who came to Wuhan from around China to save people’s lives; they worked in the face of great peril, pulling people from the grip of death, one soul at a time. The government should express their gratitude toward all those workers and labourers who hustled all over the city during the course of this outbreak; they are the ones who kept this city functioning amid the crisis. And the government should save their biggest thanks for the nine million residents of Wuhan who locked themselves in their homes, even though it meant facing all kinds of difficulties; without their cooperation this virus would never have been brought under control.

Next the government should make haste and beg for the people’s forgiveness.

March 13: For the past few days the coronavirus outbreak has improved greatly, yet the public outcries have been deafening. The strongest voices have all been speaking out against the practice of using garbage trucks to deliver food to Wuhan residents. Who could even possibly conceive of using a garbage truck to deliver food!? The level of ignorance and audacity is simply outrageous. Are these officials completely lacking in basic common sense, or do they look at citizens as somehow less than human?

March 19: That news we have been waiting day after day to hear has finally arrived: Today there are no new cases of novel coronavirus in Wuhan and no new suspected cases!

March 22: Those communities with no coronavirus cases are now gradually opening up; today I even heard the sound of a child outside laughing—such a long time since I have heard that sound.

March 24: Day 62 of the quarantine. It is now officially lifted for all districts outside Wuhan; for the city, it will be lifted on April 8. My housekeeper texted me to tell me that she would be probably be here tomorrow. Deep down I heaved sigh of relief. My housekeeper is a pretty good cook; my colleagues used to always come by and end up inviting themselves to stay for dinner. I’m sure once we are allowed to move around freely again they will start coming back again to crash our dinners. My difficult days are now almost behind me.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.

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