This is the latest story in our series on the Covid-19 pandemic, a year after the first cases were reported in the mainland city of Wuhan. It explores how the city’s residents helped each other survive the world’s first and largest lockdown in the fight against the disease. Please support us in our mission to bring you quality journalism.
Wuhan taxi driver Li Qiang felt his life come to a sudden stop in late January. A citywide lockdown had been imposed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, which had first emerged in December in the capital of China’s central Hubei province.
He was sitting at home, contemplating a long period ahead with no income and his car left to sit idle, when an idea struck. Li realised he could still drive the car, just not for paying passengers. Instead, he could use it to help his neighbours.
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Fresh groceries were a major issue for the 600 households in Li’s neighbourhood. They were dependent on government-allocated vegetables, which were not always in prime condition. Li got together with about a dozen neighbours and organised a solution.
Keeping within the lockdown rules, the group divided responsibilities, with some taking orders through the neighbourhood’s WeChat group while others did the shopping, using Li’s taxi to deliver groceries to an open space where they were sorted for delivery or collection.
Li dismisses his altruism as trivial, but Wuhan’s 11 million residents survived the 76-day lockdown thanks to the large network of volunteers like him which mushroomed in response to the chaotic early days of the world’s longest and strictest city shutdown.
The volunteers were loosely connected, usually through WeChat groups, but risked exposure to the virus while shouldering huge responsibilities – distributing groceries, transporting health care workers, guarding neighbourhoods and supplying medical goods which were in acute shortage at the start of the outbreak.
Some were commended – 22 people from Hubei received awards from the central government for their volunteering work – but most remain nameless and faceless, with no official acknowledgement, and they are happy with that.
“I did what I could for my neighbours. It’s a very small matter. I am nothing compared to those who exposed themselves to higher risks transporting health care workers,” Li said.
Video blogger Lin Wenhua, 38, felt a strong urge to do something for his city when he saw people pleading for help online. Against his parents’ wishes, he spent the early days of the epidemic driving health workers and delivering Kaletra – an HIV/Aids treatment that had been listed for use against Covid-19 – to patients denied hospital care because of the lack of beds.
“I also wore a protective suit but in a very amateur way,” Lin said. “I was aware that I would be in contact with confirmed patients but that was all right. I was more concerned about the legal risks of any side effects from the drug delivered by me.”
When local taxi companies and big firms like Didi got involved in transporting doctors and medical supplies, Lin turned to his video-making talent so that he could continue to help Wuhan by giving the country a glimpse of life under lockdown through his lens.
His videos won acclaim on microblogging platform Weibo, where his followers leapt from 3,000 to more than 5 million in three months. Many people commented that his work encouraged them in those dark days.
The retired doctor who volunteered on the front line, an elderly man pushing his wife in a wheelchair for 30km (18.6 miles) to get her home, the disinfection of the railway station, and families preparing their holiday meals – Lin’s vignettes of daily life gave special comfort to Wuhan residents unable to return to their city.
“People needed more information, something that state media might not cover, like what it was like inside the supermarket. The videos provided a platform for people to release their emotions,” Lin said.
Peng Sen, a 48-year-old trading company owner, coordinated and distributed medical goods for hospitals during and after lockdown. He said hundreds of thousands of Wuhan people were involved in some sort of volunteering work – some organised by their employers or local authorities, but many purely on their own initiative.
“It is very hard to sit and watch the city you grew up in suffer such a crisis and then do nothing,” Peng said. “Even in a selfish sense, I helped health care workers and they helped bring the city back to normal. We are really helping ourselves.”
Restaurant owner Yang Li in Qingshan district faced financial ruin when the city went into lockdown two days before the Lunar New Year holiday. But the shutdown order also caught the Wuhan No 9 Hospital next door off guard, with not enough canteen services for medical staff.
The extra food Yang had ordered and eight staff taken on for the holiday were put to use, with three days’ of lunchbox orders from the hospital, which had been designated to treat Covid-19 patients.
When the order was complete, Yang decided to continue sending lunchboxes to three neighbouring hospitals for free. “I read on social media that frontline health care workers had no warm food and had even run out of instant noodles. I followed my conscience to provide what I have, hot food,” he said.
“I thought it through when I decided to offer help. I was prepared to suffer some financial losses and if it cost my business, I would accept that.”
Yang delivered about 16,000 food boxes in his car during the lockdown, sleeping at the restaurant to avoid the risk to his own neighbourhood if he became infected during his many visits to the hospitals.
In the beginning, he was preparing 500 to 800 lunchboxes a day as hospitals struggled to ramp up their logistics, but that dropped to 200 a day as things improved. Each box contained chicken, beef and one vegetable with rice. More variety was impossible, with prices soaring and supplies limited.
“Food prices were really high during the lockdown. I remember very small potatoes costing 16 yuan (US$2.45) and pork 120 yuan to 160 yuan a kilogram – and that was the wholesale price,” Yang said.
When the restaurant reopened in May, Yang estimated his Good Samaritan efforts had cost 400,000 yuan (US$61,000) in rent, food supplies and staff salaries. He also received no official recognition for his “small sacrifice” and does not mind at all.
“I was prepared for the worst – that I may lose my restaurant – but it didn’t happen, so everything was fine,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think anyone who volunteered to do something nice in the epidemic would ever think being rewarded was important.”
Yang recalled a moment when he was so short of food supplies that he posted an appeal for help on WeChat. He got an almost immediate response from a chicken farmer, who donated 36,000 eggs which Yang collected in his car.
“That’s valuable – 36,000 eggs during lockdown. Nobody else knew about the donation and [recognition] was not important for the farm owner, either,” he said.
Yang was touched when some of the medical staff visited the restaurant to thank him, and also that hospital departments still sometimes call him with food orders. “I didn’t expect that, but it’s just wonderful,” he said.
This article When Wuhan went into lockdown, thousands of local heroes went into action first appeared on South China Morning Post