Opinionista Mickey Adney 30 March 2020

Lessons from ground zero: My Covid-19 lockdown experience in Wuhan

The Chinese city of Wuhan is Covid-19’s ground zero with 50,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths in Hubei province, of which it is the capital. On Saturday, 28 March, Wuhan gradually began to emerge from a lengthy lockdown with people being allowed to enter, but not leave. Being there as a foreign student who doesn’t speak Chinese has taken its physical, emotional and mental toll.

The lockdown here came in progressively more restrictive stages. To slow the spread of Covid-19 and to ultimately contain the outbreak, the Wuhan city government ordered the closure of almost everything on 23 January 2020 – public transport, universities, basic schools, offices and banks – making Wuhan as empty as a ghost city.

Wuhan is a vibrant city, but from day one of the lockdown, all the cars and buses quickly disappeared and even the sirens of ambulances went silent. Many people, especially international students in Wuhan, including myself, went into panic mode during the first weeks of the pandemic because we faced a triple threat – fear of infection, lack of basic necessities and limited social support. 

The issue of the language barrier, increasing infection and death rates also left us on edge. We busied ourselves online, trying to understand what was going on, but this proved very unhealthy as the plethora of fake information online heightened our fears and anxiety levels.

The mood in Wuhan evolved over the course of the lockdown — from shock and panic in the initial weeks, to acceptance. I did my best to change my lifestyle to adapt to this new life. In the beginning, it was don’t socialise – meaning don’t go to crowded spots, don’t shake hands and stay home – then a full-blown lockdown came on 8 February 2020 when Wuhan was declared as a code red zone (a highly contagious environment).

The new restrictions imposed by the city government meant that we couldn’t leave our residences unless it was a medical emergency. This greatly affected access to stores, pharmacies and supermarkets to buy basic necessities. The gradual tightening of access unquestionably helped us adapt to these restrictions. 

Stocking up basic necessities such as food, toiletries and protective items (masks and hand sanitisers), in the early days of the lockdown reduced the impact of the restrictions greatly. Although there are contingency measures for us to get basic items, it is very difficult to get most of our basic needs as the lockdown has greatly affected supplies.

For the past eight weeks, living under lockdown has become the surreal new normal. Daily life here is like being locked up in a cell, just that this one is full of panic, especially for an African student like me who doesn’t speak Chinese. I have to continuously assure my family and friends that I’m safe, and doing fine. 

I was scheduled to travel to Leiden in the Netherlands for a short research visit on 24 January 2020 when the lockdown was imposed the day before. This made me feel stranded and trapped in the beginning. The lack of information on when the lockdown would end and living alone with minimal physical contact for the first time in my life affected my emotional and mental health. Frequently receiving encouraging and supportive messages from friends and family proved very helpful.

Though I am not infected, and still hopeful that I will not be infected, I sometimes become anxious and feel secluded. In the early stages, I found myself expressing a lot of negative emotions and easily got angry because of the conflicting and often incomplete information about precautions to take in quarantine. 

For instance, the epidemic started in the middle of winter, but we were told to open our windows for fresh air (ventilate our rooms). At the same time, we were advised to stay warm as Covid-19 couldn’t stand heat. The daily temperature checks were also worrisome. Checking my temperature for fever during the peak of the outbreak amplified my anxieties. I became anxious any time the school officials checked my temperature when we went for the free breakfast, lunch or dinner provided by the university. 

At some point, I stopped going for the meals because I always became worried that I may have been exposed to the virus. The hardest part of my experience is not really about my health and wellbeing, but the additional uneasiness over writing my doctoral thesis as the original deadlines remain unchanged.

During the calls for evacuation, I became greatly conflicted that going home to Ghana may be dangerous as most of us had been exposed to the virus and would possibly infect our family, and friends. It was not an easy decision for me. So, I eventually decided to stay in Wuhan until the risk of infection has passed or when I complete my degree and go home for good. I made this decision even before our government decided not to evacuate us.

The lockdown has been an extremely stressful and traumatic experience, but I always remind myself that it won’t last forever. 

Though the situation in Wuhan is improving now, I’m concerned about the likelihood of new infections when the lockdown is over. As a result, I’ll still stay indoors to work on my thesis and adhere to the preventive measures until it’s really safer to revert back to normal life in Wuhan. For now, I will focus on getting a good sleep and keeping a positive attitude — and having daily walks out in the courtyard to enjoy the early morning sun! DM

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