How a Chinese woman experienced the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan and was able to flee the central Chinese city before being cordoned off. Now she is stuck at home and cannot tell anyone why.

Claire has been at home for ten days. Behind her is a hasty escape from Wuhan, the epicentre of the corona infection. There she and her husband had wanted to celebrate the Chinese New Year with the family when the news came that the Chinese provincial capital was being sealed off to break the chain of infection. Claire and her husband escaped just a few minutes before the locks were set up.

Since then, they have been quarantined in their apartment. “At first it was our own decision to stay at home,” she reports in a video chat with DW. However, the omnipresent party later interfered. “We received calls from the neighbourhood committee and the local police station that urged us to stay home.” She and her husband would have to measure their body temperature daily and report it to the authorities. Claire is Chinese. To protect her family, she does not reveal her identity publicly.

“We would see many new cases outside of China, and probably deaths, if it weren’t for the efforts and advances of the Chinese government,” the director of the World Health Organization, Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had tweeted.

According to this, China’s handling of the coronavirus receives some praise, but it also generates criticism. After all, the personal freedom of more than 50 million people is drastically curtailed. The local authorities had previously tried to cover up the first virus cases in December. The police had silenced doctors who had shared mysterious cases of pneumonia on social media.

“I saw the bodies in the hospitals”

The official transmission was also expressly ruled out by the officials at the beginning, even after scientists had proven otherwise. In the meantime, the virus was able to spread uncontrollably. Comparatively late, the authorities decided in a dramatic turn to completely shut down the metropolis of Wuhan, a traffic hub with eleven million inhabitants. The neighbouring cities in Hubei Province followed the example. To date, an estimated 56 million people are trapped in Hubei – almost the population of Italy.

Health experts also warn that such drastic measures could have the opposite effect. Patients would shy away from treatment. A mass panic could arise in the population. In the first days of the closure, unsettled people stormed the hospitals, whether healthy or sick.

Images on social networks show crowded waiting rooms and long lines in the clinics. “I saw several bodies in the hospitals,” reports citizen journalist Chen Qiushi in a video chat from Wuhan. The lawyer travelled to the city to document the situation. “And I saw a lot of people who had a fever and cough for several days but didn’t know if they were infected because they couldn’t be tested for the virus in hospitals.”

“We bring the garbage down when everyone is asleep”

When Claire heard about Wuhan’s impending closure, she had just arrived at her parents-in-law the night before. Together with her husband, she was looking forward to the Chinese New Year, the most important family day in China. But in the morning at nine o’clock, she read a message that people are forbidden to leave the city after ten o’clock. “I panicked and told my husband that we had to go immediately,” she says. They quickly packed up their things and hurried outside, where they could find neither a taxi nor a Didi, the Chinese equivalent of an Uber. So they stood in front of a car waiting at a traffic light. They talked to the driver and promised him every sum if he only took them out of the city. For the equivalent of around 100 euros, he drove them to a suburb outside of Wuhan. There they reached a train that brought them back to their hometown.

China taxi driver in Wuhan (AFP / H. Retmal)Wuhan taxi drivers wear protective clothing

Since then, Claire or her husband have only left the apartment to pick up purchases that are dropped off by delivery services at the gates of the housing estate or to dispose of the waste at night. “We wait until everyone sleeps. Then we put on our mouthguards and bring the garbage down,” says Claire.

The Chinese cities are currently ghostly deserted. The few passersby hurry past each other and avoid any contact. In front of a clinic in Beijing, three people are waiting to be examined. “There aren’t that many sick people,” says a woman who hurries past, “it looks as if the capital has not yet been so badly affected by the virus.” She just wanted to buy some vegetables quickly and then go home immediately. “We usually stay at home these days,” she continues. “People react faster than the government.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone else”

A young man is waiting for a taxi on the side of the road. He is not yet afraid, he says, as long as the precautions take effect. “We have to avoid crowded places, wear masks and wash our hands regularly. The government has given us clear instructions,” he told DW.

To implement strict protective measures, there is hectic activity all over the country. In Beijing, the neighbourhood committees go door to door, hand out leaflets and ask where there are health problems. Loudspeaker announcements and notice boards remind residents to report to the authorities when they have recently returned from hard-hit regions. Hotels, office buildings and shopping centres have set up checkpoints to measure the body temperature of visitors.

Across the country, authorities are tracking down people who have recently visited Hubei Province and instructing them not to leave their homes for two weeks. All over the country, people from Hubei report their difficulties in finding a hotel room or that they are bothered by locals because of their origins.

In her hometown in central China, Claire counts the days until she can leave her home. She is looking forward to an outdoor jogging session, the first shopping and other everyday activities. Still, she will limit her social life until the epidemic is under control. She wants to remain silent in public. “The authorities, my close friends and family know that we were in Wuhan. But I wouldn’t tell anyone else,” she says. “I would only scare them.”

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[…] The escape from the coronavirus […]

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