Losing Track of Time in the Epicenter of China’s Coronavirus Outbreak

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WUHAN, China — In the mornings, Wuhan is so quiet that bird calls sound down once busy streets. Stray dogs trot in the middle of empty expressways. Residents wrapped in masks creep out of their homes, anxiety flitting across their eyes.

They line up at hospitals overwhelmed by a virus that most had not heard of until a few weeks ago.

They line up outside pharmacies despite the door signs declaring they have sold out of protective masks, disinfectant, surgical gloves and thermometers. They line up to buy rice, fruit and vegetables from food stores that keep operating, while nearly all other shops are closed.

Then they shuffle home to wait out this 21st-century siege. The unluckiest ones lie at home or in a hospital, stricken by pneumonia fevers that could spell death linked to coronavirus 2019-nCoV.

“I’d never heard of this thing called a coronavirus before,” said Sun Ansheng, a man in his 50s who the other day was sitting on the steps outside Hankou Hospital in Wuhan, where his feverish wife was being treated as a suspected victim of the coronavirus. “But now it’s in my mind as soon as I wake up.”

“There’s still not enough beds and not enough doctors,” he said.

Wuhan, a sprawling industrial city in central China at the heart of an epidemic that has affected more than 20 countries, is nearly two weeks into a state-imposed lockdown.

People here and across much of Hubei Province are subjects of a vast medical experiment conceivable only in authoritarian China: Is it is possible to halt the spread of a virus by putting tens of millions of people under a kind of house detention, warning them to stay inside their homes, and blocking their way out of cities, towns or villages?

The proliferation of the coronavirus, and the government’s draconian restrictions, have given much of Wuhan, a metropolis of 11 million on the Yangtze River, the feel of a ghost city. Many residents said their lives that seemed secure a month ago have been upended, and their futures are in disorienting limbo.

Some remain stoical, carrying on with the remnants of normality: jogging, strolling by the river, taking children outdoors for a quick breath of fresh air. Many feel marooned in boredom and dread.

“I’ve started to lose track of the days,” said Yang Dechao, a burly 34-year-old factory worker trapped in Wuhan. “Is it Sunday or Monday? You forget because all normal activity has stopped. Ordinary people have just their families and their phones.”

On the morning of Jan. 23, Mr. Yang explained ruefully, he arrived in Wuhan for a medical checkup, only to hear that the government had just banned nearly everyone from leaving.

Now he talks to his aged parents in his home village outside the city in terse voice mail messages, checking in on their health and shrinking food supplies.

  • Updated Feb. 5, 2020

    • Where has the virus spread?
      You can track its movement with this map.
    • How is the United States being affected?
      There have been at least a dozen cases. American citizens and permanent residents who fly to the United States from China are now subject to a two-week quarantine.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      Several countries, including the United States, have discouraged travel to China, and several airlines have canceled flights. Many travelers have been left in limbo while looking to change or cancel bookings.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do.

“I have relatives here, but I wouldn’t dare visit them,” he said, pausing on his way to find a cheaper hotel to stay in. “Everyone is afraid of visitors. Many people here also feel isolated. Me too.”

Traversing Wuhan by car and foot over the past two weeks has exposed the contrast between the clenched-smile optimism of government propaganda, and the sounds and sights of a city beleaguered by confusion, anxiety and frustrations.

“I can’t stand staying inside,” said Zhang Biao, a 52-year-old cook eating chocolate cookies on a streetside bench. “Everyone feels irritated and jumpy.”

Neighborhood Communist Party committees have mobilized to try to provide relief and increase morale.

Soothing recorded messages playing over loudspeakers say that the government cares, and admonish residents to wear masks and minimize outings. Red banners hang on road barriers and walls, telling residents not to heed hearsay about miracle cures.

“Don’t panic,” says one banner. “Don’t allow rumors to make a mess of things.”

But after Wuhan officials silenced early talk of the virus outbreak as “rumor mongering,” many residents are skeptical about the reassuring official message.

In interviews, many spat out the names of the city and province officials whom they say let the virus slip out of control. But most residents said they were helpless to do much while the virus raged, preferring to vent their emotions in the relative refuge of their homes or online.

“First, we need honesty and transparency now,” said Mao Shuo, a 26-year-old engineering company worker who had briefly tugged down her mask outside for a cigarette. “Who’s to blame, who gets punished, that must come, but now we just want to survive.”

She added: “Where’s all the medical masks? Are they hoarding them somewhere? That’s what I most want to know.”

Outside the market for meat, fish and seafood, from which the virus spread, police officers and security guards sit around, yelling desultorily at passers-by to keep away. A block away, rows of neat new shops — Starbucks, 5G mobile stores — and apartment complexes exude middle-class aspirations. This epidemic took root not in a slum, but a modern city.

A little down the street, dozens of dogs locked inside a “canine salon” wailed. Nobody seemed to be inside, and it was unclear whether they were being cared for. On the streets, too, little dogs roam, either escapees abandoned by owners who may be in the hospital or who believe unfounded rumors that pets spread the virus.

Many residents have little energy to think about such things. Most who need a medical check for a cough or fever must endure lengthy lines to register, see a doctor and wait for possible prescription — often an intravenous drip.

Major hospitals are one of the few places in the city where keeping a distance from others seems difficult. At Wuhan Union Hospital, the patients, mostly elderly, crushed around doctors who wore full-body protective suits.

“We’ve heard about people in the neighborhood suddenly dying of pneumonia. Every cough is frightening,” said Liu Xiaoping, a retiree in her 60s who had come for a checkup but gave up, worried it would be too late for her long walk home by the time she finished. “But waiting hours at a hospital is also frightening. What do you think I should do?”

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