City of fear

Within the space of a few weeks, at least 2000 people have died of COVID-19 in China. The city of Wuhan in Hubei province has been on lockdown, with hospitals struggling to cope and some medical staff falling victim to the disease. The government is trying to rally support for a ‘people’s war’ on the virus; yet as Yuwen Wu reports, trust in the authorities is close to breaking point

‘A dust of times, when falling on the individual, becomes a mountain.’

This famous quote from the prize-winning Chinese author Fang Fang has been cited numerous times by the people of Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 2000 lives, destroyed families and filled China with fear.

Fang Fang is from Wuhan and has been keeping a diary since the city was placed on lockdown; a personal record of what life is like for the millions of ordinary people caught by a crisis totally beyond their control.

2 February. 9th day into the [Chinese] New Year. How long have we been stuck here? Lost count. Watched the most heart-wrenching scene today. A girl howling after her dead mother’s body was taken away.  She can’t even go to the crematorium for a decent farewell. She might never know where the ashes are.’

15 February. Very sad that one of my schoolmates died yesterday.  She became infected after shopping for the new year.  We are all mourning her. Even those who always praise the good times say heads have to roll to quench people’s anger.’

There is, occasionally, some good news too.

11 February. A colleague told me her former classmate had given birth to a boy weighing four kilos. A new life makes her very happy. Best news today!’

Respected voice

With more than three million followers on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, Fang Fang’s diary has been read, praised and shared widely, with many people offering their own tales of struggle, as well as desperate pleas for help.

Wuhan writer Fang Fang, who has been keeping a diary since the city's lockdown
Wuhan writer Fang Fang, who has been keeping a diary since the city’s lockdown

7 February.  I am so sad that Dr Li Wenliang has died. The whole country is crying for him, and the tears created a huge wave on the internet. Wuhan residents will shine a light to the sky and blow a whistle in memory of him tonight. For so long we’ve bottled up our frustration, grief and anger; maybe this is the way to release it.

Death of a doctor

Dr Li was one of the eight whistle-blowers who were reprimanded by the police on 1 January for ‘spreading rumours online’ after telling friends in Wechat groups about the emergence of a mysterious new pathogen. Dr Li became infected in mid-January and eventually succumbed to the disease he tried to warn others about.

Many Chinese citizens are angry that officials attempted to silence and punish the whistle-blowers, rather than keeping the public informed about the virus.

The first case of the new pneumonia occurred on 8 December, but the government only informed the public on 31 December, saying ‘there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission and no medical staff have been infected’. They repeated this message until mid- January, by which time there was clear evidence that some medical staff had indeed been infected while treating patients.

There has been an outpouring of public grief and anger after Dr Li died
There has been an outpouring of public grief and anger after Dr Li died

Because of the lack of warning, people in Wuhan went about their business as normal. A massive banquet involving 40,000 diners went ahead on 18 January, with many people infected as a result.

On 20 January, Dr Zhong Nanshan, credited with a crucial contribution to fighting SARS in 2003, told state TV that the coronavirus was spreading rapidly and 14 medical staff had been infected.  This was the first time the public had been officially informed about the seriousness of the situation.

The shocking news threw Wuhan into panic and chaos. Hospitals were overrun with patients, many of whom had to be turned away for lack of beds.

By 23 January, when Wuhan began the lockdown, five million people had left the city for the Chinese New Year, many carrying the coronavirus with them.

Passing the buck

‘There is no question that officials should be held responsible, as more than half of the problem is manmade,’ Fang Fang told me. ‘The hospitals knew quite early on, the doctors saw the warning signs, but the officials didn’t take it seriously. They lack common sense, judgement and the ability to deal with a crisis. This meant delay in warning and protecting the citizens.’

All of this reminds me of the SARS outbreak in 2003, which I reported on extensively when working for the BBC.

This huge banquet was allowed to go ahead on 18 Jan, when the virus is raging across Wuhan
This huge banquet was allowed to go ahead on 18 Jan, when the virus is raging across Wuhan

Lessons not learned

There was a whistle-blower in that crisis too, also a doctor.

Dr Jiang Yanyong was working at an army hospital in April 2003 when he heard government officials giving wrong statistics while insisting the disease was under control. Dr Jiang decided to speak up. He told the world’s media that his own hospital had already received 60 patients and seven had died, refuting the official figures.

At that time, I was a duty editor for BBC’s Chinese Service and I recall a radio interview with Dr Jiang, who told us he would take full responsibility for what he had revealed.

His bravery changed the course of the fight against SARS. Lying officials were sacked, new ones brought in and a public briefing was held daily. In the end, SARS claimed more than 800 lives worldwide.

It seems that after 17 years, the first instinct of some regional officials in China when confronted with a potential public health threat is to cover it up, putting stability first, as they see it.

Fang Fang is not surprised: ‘Chinese officials are very good at passing the buck. This has something to do with the system in which they are only responsible to their superiors but not to the public. The chaos in Wuhan proves it.’

Communist power

In an article published in a Communist journal in mid-February, President Xi claimed that China is better equipped than other countries to cope with the coronavirus because of its strong authoritarian grip. This message has been accompanied by a crackdown on the media and further attempts to prevent people using the internet to access uncensored reports from outlets such as the BBC. My former colleagues in the Chinese service of the BBC say reporting the story accurately in the face of government censorship is a tortuous responsibility.

The system is working at full power to control its critics. Two citizen journalists who had been posting videos about Wuhan ‘disappeared’ in early February.  Social media messages criticising the government are taken down quickly and accounts closed. Three foreign reporters from the Wall Street Journal were ordered to leave the country over an opinion piece that had appeared in the newspaper.

Fang Fang’s own Weibo account was suspended on the day Dr Li died.  But she continues her diary on other platforms. ‘A healthy society should not have only one voice,’ she says.

She is determined to speak freely and to uphold the values of the much mourned Dr Li.

Yuwen Wu is a former East Asia Editor of the BBC

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