Coronavirus: stranded in Wuhan, the people who just want to go home

Phoebe Zhang

Monday marked a month since mobile game developer Jiang Wenqiang was stranded in Wuhan, the Chinese city in Hubei province where the coronavirus outbreak was first reported. To support himself, he worked 12 hours a day collecting rubbish and scrubbing floors at a local hospital.

It wasn’t his plan. He had been on a train from Shanghai to the southern city of Changsha, in Hunan province, to sign a contract with a business partner in early February. While on the train, he left his compartment to buy lunch.

Just then, the train stopped at Wuhan. People sitting near him immediately stood up to get off. As passengers around him disembarked, the train conductor urged Jiang to get off too. He tried to explain he was headed for a different city, with no success.

“The [staff] were looking at me as if I carried the virus,” he told the South China Morning Post. “They kept their distance from me and backed away as I walked towards them.”

Empty streets in Wuhan, photographed by stranded 30-year-old Kang Wei.

He finally got off the train. The platform was empty, all entrances were closed and there was no one at the ticket stands. He couldn’t buy a ticket to other cities. He had become one of thousands of outsiders stranded in Wuhan as it tried desperately to contain the virus.

Since January 23, all transport in, out and within Wuhan has been stopped. However, some locals who had been stranded outside Hubei took trains passing through the city before begging to be let off there. More often than not, the trains made exceptions.

Jiang was on one of those trains.

Wuhan is seeing light at the end of the tunnel after being on strict lockdown for two months, with no new cases reported in the city for two straight days since Wednesday. Now, people like Jiang who are stranded in the city want to go home.

Many have lost their jobs, struggled with illness and had to bear large costs. They repeatedly contacted officials, but were never given a definite answer on when the lockdown would end.

A photo by Kang of a hotel in Wuhan being disinfected.

On Thursday, China reported zero new domestic cases for the first time. Outside Hubei province, local governments are urging gradual resumption of daily life. Parks in Shanghai have reopened; officials in Nanjing set an example by eating out at a local restaurant.

Hubei has gradually eased restrictions on transport, allowing people in low-risk areas to travel within the province. Wuhan, however, remains on high alert, with channels to leave still closed.

After the initial shock wore off, Jiang – from China’s northeast city of Dalian – wandered around his unfamiliar surroundings. There were no cars on the roads, no people on the streets. He felt like a vagabond. He looked up hotels online but none were open.

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He called the local police and ambulance services. Both said they wanted to help with his situation, but couldn’t spare a car to pick him up.

He started to panic. “When the police say they can’t help you, who wouldn’t panic?” he said.

Then he realised Wuhan must be in dire need of volunteers. He started looking up jobs online and called hospitals.

He was offered a job at the Wuhan No 1 Hospital cleaning and taking out rubbish for 500 yuan (US$70) a day. The hospital was understaffed; many of the regular cleaners were either locked out of the city or too afraid to come in. The hospital arranged a hotel for him to stay in and provided three meals a day.

Jiang at work at the Wuhan No 1 Hospital.

Even though he was off the streets, it was frightening working in a place full of critically ill patients, Jiang said. The hospital trained him on how to put on protective gear and went over his duties.

“I was scared to death,” Jiang said. “When the patients talked to me, I was nervous. When they coughed, my heart almost jumped out of my chest.”

He patrolled his ward a few times a day collecting rubbish, delivering meals and disinfecting the floor.

One time, an old man was trying to stop a nosebleed. He crumpled some used tissues into a ball and threw them at a nearby bin, but they hit Jiang’s leg instead and left a bloodstain.

Jiang immediately ran out. A nurse helped him clean up and told him to rest if he didn’t feel well.

“I’d rather not make money,” he said. “Just leave me quarantined at a hotel and give me some food.”

Jiang empties rubbish at the hospital.

For others, getting a job has proved impossible and they have been forced to stay at home with no income, facing soaring grocery prices.

“I’ve been eating noodles for more than a month now. I’ll throw up next time I see them,” 30-year-old migrant worker Kang Wei said. But he has had no choice. Food prices in Wuhan have doubled, sometimes more. For 100 yuan (US$14), he could only buy a bag of vegetables, and for 300 yuan, a frozen chicken.

Kang came to Wuhan looking for work in July. In January, he even worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the outbreak of the virus was first reported to have originated.

I didn’t want to cause any trouble or be a burden for the government. I decided to stay. I thought the outbreak would pass quickly

Yang Hui, a mother from Sichuan province stranded in Wuhan

He was told the market needed security guards. There, community workers asked him to guard the entrance, as staff sealed off and disinfected the stalls. Nobody wore a mask, as they had been told the disease could not be transmitted between people at that time.

Since the lockdown, it has been difficult for many to keep jobs. Residential compounds have been closed off, with some back entrances even welded shut. Guards patrolled Kang’s compound, and told him that if he left, he could never come back.

Kang escaped over a fence once, for a job at a hotel designated a quarantine spot. But he only worked there for a day after discovering staff were not being given adequate protective gear.

Then began the long hours inside his flat. He watched films to pass the time, but worried about his future.

The Wuhan Fang Cang makeshift hospital where Kang worked for one day before quitting, after he discovered staff were not being given adequate protective gear.

Hundreds of other desperate, stranded people have formed groups on Chinese messaging app WeChat to share their distress and discuss measures to take.

They posted a video on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo showing entire families stranded, wearing masks, recounting how many days they had been stuck in Wuhan and describing their misery.

“I want to go home, I want to see my friends and go to school,” children said solemnly to the camera.

One woman in the group staying on the outskirts of Wuhan near Xianning city said she had run out of baby milk formula. All stores in her area had sold out. She knew there was a shop nearby in Xianning that might have stock. She begged police repeatedly to let her go, but they wouldn’t let her.

Another said he had just opened a factory back home, and all of his 70 employees were demanding their salaries. He couldn’t get orders and couldn’t pay back bank loans. “Fifteen years of hard work might go down the drain,” he wrote.

Empty streets at night in Wuhan. Photo: Handout

Many didn’t think the lockdown would last so long. Yang Hui, a woman from southwest China’s Sichuan province, told the Post she blamed herself for getting her family stuck.

She came to Wuhan in January with her three-year-old son to visit her husband, who has a job there as a tunnel construction worker. Before the city went into lockdown, they read posts on social media leaking information that it might happen.

Her brother in Sichuan asked her to come home straight away, but she chose to stay, to contain the spread of the virus.

“I didn’t want to cause any trouble or be a burden for the government,” she said. “I decided to stay. I thought the outbreak would pass quickly.”

Her husband has not had any income for two months since construction work in the city halted. The family now depends on Yang selling dietary supplements online. But it is not enough, and they often eat only a plate of vegetables a day.

Supply chains have been disrupted. With Wuhan getting warmer, Yang tried to buy summer clothes, but was told they could not be delivered.

“We’re still wearing snow boots and down coats,” she said.

Confusion persists on when the lockdown will be relaxed, Yang said. The latest she has heard from community staff is that they can leave by early April. She remains sceptical.

People are also trying to come home to Wuhan. A man who only gave his first name as Jason said he has been stranded in the southern city of Zhuhai, Guangdong province, for two months, afraid to come home.

“I don’t want to die,” he said. “I still have unaccomplished goals.”

A photo by Kang of a person in Wuhan taking emergency measures against the virus.

To ease tension, the provincial Hubei government said in February those stranded during the outbreak can apply for government financial aid, and housing and medical help. But that has proved difficult to do.

A stranded man from the city of Foshan, also in Guangdong province, who wished to remain anonymous, said his six-year-old son developed a skin rash.

He contacted community workers, asking permission to take his son to a hospital back home, but was told they could only visit local hospitals. He was afraid to catch the virus and decided to wait.

“I’m being driven crazy here,” he said. “I’ve had many sleepless nights.”

Kang, who cannot find a job, applied for financial aid, but was told he did not qualify. Fortunately for him, a civil servant in his area found out he was struggling, and delivered several bags of vegetables to him free of charge.

As the number of new infected cases drops, many in China are getting ready to celebrate. But it’s a victory that comes at great costs.

Yang stressed repeatedly that the family is healthy and answered the call of the government. In turn, she wished the government could appreciate their sacrifice and help with their problems.

Her fondness towards her captive city has also vanished.

“I’m never coming back to Wuhan again,” she said.

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