Liu Mengdi, 25, has been keeping a diary of the past few weeks as the coronavirus has ravaged her home town of Wuhan.
“Today is the sixth day of the Wuhan lockdown [the city has been under quarantine for the last three weeks]. I thought my family, prevented from going out, would at least be safe,” she wrote on 29 January from Italy, where she is in her last year of university. “It never occurred to me they would not be able to escape this.”
Liu’s 54-year-old father, Liu Daoyu, who developed a sore throat and cough five days earlier, had just tested positive for the virus. Her 90-year-old grandfather, Lei Ruting, was showing even more serious symptoms: a fever that wouldn’t relent and breathing difficulties.
“Everyone in the family is extremely worried,” she wrote. Still, she ended her entry on a positive note: “We believe everything will be okay. Thank you to the frontline people fighting this. Thank you to those who have helped us.”
Three days later, that optimism had disappeared. “On 2 February 2020 at 3:08pm Beijing time, my grandfather passed away from ‘unknown pneumonia’. He just turned 90 last month. He was always healthy,” Liu, distraught, wrote. “Far more than grief, I feel lost and angry.”
The coronavirus, now officially known as Covid-19, has claimed at least 1,380 lives in China, with more than 1,300 in Hubei province. Wuhan, the provincial capital, was where the virus emerged in December, and has suffered the worst, with 1,016 deaths.
Liu’s family is one of hundreds who have not only lost a loved one to the virus, but struggled to get them treatment. A few days before her grandfather died, he had a fever all through the night and fell out of bed. When her relatives called for an ambulance, they were told there was no use in sending him to the hospital.
“If he really is suffering from the virus there is nothing that can be done. Going to the hospital where no one will take care of him may be even more difficult,” Liu said, recounting the advice her family had been given. Following instructions, the family contacted the local neighbourhood committee – which is charged with arranging tests, quarantines and transport to the hospitals – but were given no help. Eventually, Liu posted her family’s story on Weibo, pleading for help, and also contacted local media, which reported her account.
Eventually, health workers came to their home, took a blood sample from her grandfather and advised him to find somewhere to do the full diagnostic test, kits for which are in short supply across the city. But her family was advised to stop putting out online calls for help and to post only “positive” messages.
A journalist and friend of the family helped find a hospital that had testing kits available. Seeing photos and videos of him at the hospital, Liu felt relieved. But the next day, Lei died before the diagnosis could come back. His body was sent for immediate cremation after a short ceremony where staff set off firecrackers. The family was not allowed to go or collect the ashes.
“Grandpa really is strong. We knew he must have been in a lot of pain, but he still insisted and pretended he was fine,” Liu said. “Before his results could come back, he couldn’t hold on any more and closed his eyes for the last time.”
Now, Liu’s family is fighting to save her father – an increasingly common scenario as sick patients are turned away from overcrowded hospitals and sent home to self-quarantine, where they often end up infecting other family members.
The family is not sure how the two may have caught the virus. But just before the city was put under quarantine, both Liu’s father and grandfather had visited friends and neighbours who were later found to be infected. More than 50,000 people in the province have been infected.
Her father has been in the hospital since 29 January – they managed to find a bed through family friends. To get a diagnosis, he had to walk to the hospital and back, covering almost 18 miles on foot while in the grip of a fever. Liu spoke to him as he walked back until his phone’s battery gave out.
The doctors said her dad was the most cheerful person in the ward. He told the family he would be better in three weeks at the most. Her father is extremely active, doesn’t drink or smoke and plays badminton three times a week. He always walks 10,000 steps a day.
“He is 54 years old, but everyone says he looks like he is in his 40s,” Liu said. When he was first admitted, she asked the hospital staff if they could give her father, who still had a good appetite, two lunch boxes.
He liked to say that he fought with Mao Zedong. I wish my dear grandfather a safe journey
But his condition has worsened dramatically. On 10 February, his birthday, Liu made a video with friends from around the world wishing her father well and an early recovery. But that day, the hospital asked her mother to sign a form confirming his critical state.
Later, Liu’s mother told her that his lungs had stopped working. Her father is now in an intensive-care unit connected to a machine that pumps and oxygenates his blood.
Like many residents watching in desperation as their loved ones grow sicker, the family’s views have started to shift. Liu is especially angry about being told not to post online. “I can’t even ask for help?” she wrote in one of her diary entries.
Earlier this month, her WeChat account was blocked – she suspects because she was posting about the virus. Her father’s phone seems to have been taken away and she can no longer call him.
“The epidemic has changed how some in my family view the news we get at home. In the past, my family always 100% believed the domestic reports. Even when I told them about overseas reports, they would never believe me,” said Liu, who has lived in Italy for six years. “After the outbreak, they said would believe me in the future.”
The outbreak, which has shown no signs of abating despite drastic quarantine measures implemented across the country, has inspired what is for the ruling Communist party a dangerous level of public anger. Residents are angry at local authorities for their slow response to the virus, allowing it to spread for weeks. People like Liu are angry at the government for leaving the people of Wuhan to struggle. Party leaders have promised to win the “people’s war” against the virus, and last week fired several senior officials in Hubei province.
“For the regime, this has been a Chernobyl moment. Immediately around the event, everything continued as before,” said Victor Shih, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego. “However, in their hearts, many people lost the belief that the party is uniquely capable of governing China. If that is the case, the effectiveness of government decrees will decline over time as lower-level officials and the people resist passively. Only time will tell.”
Liu hopes that her father will recover soon, and that she can take him on a trip to Europe to relax.
But her family is still coping with the loss of her grandfather. Her mother, now alone at home, has taken to staying with her sister. She cries often. Liu herself has trouble focusing on her education in Italy, where she studies architecture, and her internship. She wants to go home to see her family, but her mother says it isn’t safe.
She remembers her grandfather fondly. He loved singing, and he was proud of his contributions to his country as a loyal party member and volunteer during the Cultural Revolution. “He liked to say that he fought with Mao Zedong,” she said.
He spoiled his grandchildren, including Liu, bringing her KFC when he picked her up from school and giving her change to buy snacks. The family, of about 20 members, is close. In one of her last conversations with her grandfather, he laughed over the phone and told her to take good care of herself.
“I will never forget why my grandfather died. I will never forget his smile. I wish my dear grandfather a safe journey,” she wrote on the day he passed away.
Additional reporting by Pei Lin Wu