“Nine Days in Wuhan, the Ground Zero of the Coronavirus Pandemic” by Peter Hessler (China)
By Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
New Yorker Magazine
October 5, 2020
On my second visit to the site of the former Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, at the intersection of New China Road and Development Road, in central Wuhan, I wore a mask and a pair of sunglasses with a loose frame. It was late August, and three security guards in black uniforms sat at the entrance. They examined my passport, checked my temperature, and asked me to scan a QR code that connected to a registration system. The system, though, required a national I.D. number, and the guards seemed uncertain what to do with a foreigner. I handed over the sunglasses and explained that they needed to be repaired.
The earliest documented clusters of coronavirus infections had occurred in the Huanan market. During my first visit, a week earlier, I had left after attracting the attention of a man who appeared to be a plainclothes police officer. The site remained sensitive, and a high blue wall blocked off the ground-floor stalls where the virus had spread. But the market’s second floor was open for business, which was why, when I returned, I brought the glasses.
One guard inspected the loose frame. “You can go in,” he said finally. “But no photographs.”
Another guard was assigned to accompany me. We climbed a steep flight of stairs, past a freshly painted sign that said “Heguang Eyeglasses Market.” Back in December, it had been Huanan Eyeglass City, like the market on the ground floor.
There had never been any logic to the Huanan combo: fish downstairs, eyeglasses upstairs. Locals told me that, more than fifteen years ago, some eyeglass merchants had been attracted by the low rent. Since then, fish and eyeglasses had coexisted peacefully, until the last day of December, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a report confirming a series of rumors. The report noted that scientists were studying an unknown type of “viral pneumonia” that had infected twenty-seven people who were associated with the seafood market. But the over-all message was reassuring: “The investigation so far has not found obvious human-to-human transmission, and no medical staff infection has been found.”
In fact, Wuhan physicians had already seen colleagues getting sick. The day before the report, an ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang had sent a series of warnings to a WeChat group of former medical-school classmates. Somebody posted screenshots of Li’s messages online, and that evening health officials summoned him for questioning. A few days later, the police compelled Li to sign a confession that his warning had constituted “illegal behavior.”
By then, the government had closed the downstairs market. It consisted of more than a thousand stalls that, in addition to seafood, sold freshwater fish and meat, along with some that specialized in live wild animals. On January 1st, workers in hazmat suits arrived, taking samples and disinfecting some parts of the market. Upstairs, people kept selling eyeglasses. It took another ten days for the government to shut the second-floor market; twelve days later, all of Wuhan was placed in quarantine; and then, within two more days, almost every province had declared a first-level public-health emergency. But at that point the virus was already out in the world—there was no longer any possibility of cutting it off at the source. Since then, the Chinese government has released little information about the Huanan site or the possible origins of the disease.
More than eleven million people live in Wuhan, the capital of landlocked Hubei Province. There’s no other country where the pandemic’s effects have been so concentrated in a single city while everywhere else remained relatively untouched. It was a combination of timing and policy: because the pandemic first spread in Wuhan, and the initial coverup and other missteps were followed by effective national policies, the city was unique in its suffering. Thus far, Beijing has reported nine coronavirus deaths, two more than Shanghai. In all of Guangdong Province—population a hundred and thirteen million—the death toll is eight. The second-hardest-hit Chinese city is a place that few outsiders have heard of: Xiaogan, some forty miles from Wuhan, where a hundred and twenty-nine people died.
In Wuhan, the official death toll is 3,869, although many believe that the actual figure is significantly higher. A number of writers documented the quarantine in online journals, the most famous being “Wuhan Diary,” by Fang Fang, a novelist in her sixties. A lifelong resident, Fang Fang often wondered about her home town’s pandemic legacy, and she became a frequent target of Communist Party censorship. On March 4th, she considered the future of the Huanan market. “Some people have suggested turning it into a memorial hall dedicated to this calamity,” she wrote, before making a transition, perhaps with the censors in mind: “Today I’ll just talk about shopping.”
At the eyeglasses market, the guard escorted me down a long hallway with shops on both sides. I didn’t see any other customers, and salespeople rushed to their doors as we passed, calling out discounts. After a while, I entered a store run by a middle-aged man who looked friendly. The guard waited outside.
The shopkeeper offered me a seat and some water while his assistant tinkered with my sunglasses. The shopkeeper wasn’t wearing a mask, so I took mine off. I asked about business, and he said that he had stayed in his apartment until April 8th, because of the city’s quarantine, and then the market reopened on May 12th—like others I met in Wuhan, he readily remembered dates from the spring. “I tried calling old customers, telling them it’s safe,” he said. “But of course a lot of them wouldn’t come.”
The shopkeeper said that nobody he knew in the eyeglasses market had been infected. His assistant, a woman in her twenties, claimed that there hadn’t been any cases on their floor. “It wasn’t like downstairs,” she said. “That’s where the disease spread.” Later, I saw a news article indicating that some staff at the glasses market had been infected, but the story lacked clear details, and I wasn’t sure what to believe. And I wondered if this is what folks are bound to say if you go to any ground zero and walk up a flight of steps: Nothing happened here. We’re fine. It was those people downstairs.
The shopkeeper mentioned an illicit mah-jongg parlor in the seafood market. “I heard that four people were playing at one table, and all four got sick,” he said.
It sounded like another rumor, but subsequently I met a Wuhan journalist who had visited the mah-jongg parlor. His memories also revolved around precise dates: he told me that he had gone to the seafood market on December 31st, the day before it was closed. By then, the journalist had heard about a possible virus, and also about some mah-jongg infections. He found the players unfazed by the rumors, still gambling for small stakes. “It was kind of a secret room,” the journalist said. Like many people I talked to in Wuhan, he asked not to be named. He continued, “It was next to the public toilet, and you had to climb a ladder to get there. You wouldn’t find it unless you were looking for it. Everybody was smoking and there was no ventilation.” The journalist hadn’t written about the mah-jongg infections, in part because at that time the local government still hadn’t announced that the disease could be transmitted by human contact. “But I personally worried that it was probably spreading between people,” he recalled. He didn’t wear a mask, though he had purchased some at a nearby pharmacy.
The journalist had returned the next day, on January 1st, after the hazmat teams arrived. He saw them using a detailed list to inspect and sterilize certain stalls, but they wouldn’t answer his questions about what they were targeting. Relatively few images of the interior of the market have been published, and there hasn’t been an official report. By now, with worldwide infections at thirty-five million and counting, and with near-total silence on the part of the Chinese government, the market has become a kind of petri dish for the imagination. One common Chinese conspiracy theory claims that the U.S. Army deliberately seeded the virus during the 2019 Military World Games, which were held in Wuhan that October. On the other side of the world, a number of Americans believe that the virus was released, whether accidentally or otherwise, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose research includes work on coronaviruses.
There’s no evidence to support these theories, and even the prevalent animal-market connection is unclear. There weren’t many wildlife dealers in the market—about a dozen stalls, according to most published reports—and Wuhan natives have little appetite for exotic animals. Such fare is much more popular in Guangdong, in the far south. It’s possible that the disease arrived from somewhere else and then spread in the wet, cool conditions of the fish stalls. A few Wuhan residents told me that a considerable amount of their seafood comes from Guangdong, and they suggested that perhaps a southerner had unwittingly imported the disease, along with some fish. But, like many of the origin theories, this could have been another version of the second-floor perspective: Nothing happened here. We’re fine. It was those people downstairs.
At the eyeglasses market, the security guard outside was getting antsy. There still weren’t any other customers. The shopkeeper refused to accept money for the repair, and I felt bad, so I bought a new pair of sunglasses for fifteen dollars. I asked about the likely fate of this place. He said that nothing had been decided, but he expected the entire complex to be demolished. “What else can they do?” he said. “The name is ruined. They’ll tear it down and build high-rises.”
Among the dates that Wuhan residents bring up in conversation, the most common are January 23rd, when the city was quarantined, and April 8th, when the restrictions were lifted. All Chinese cities were under strict lockdown during the pandemic, but Wuhan’s closure was unique: apart from some foreign-passport holders, nobody in the city was allowed to leave. Citizens have their own vocabulary for this period. They refer to fengcheng—literally, “sealed city”—and the eighth day of April is known as jiefeng: “taking off the seal.”
The experience of being isolated with the virus seared the dates into people’s minds. Xiaoyin, the pen name of a Wuhan poet who, during the period of fengcheng, posted daily dispatches on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, often described the city as “an island.” He began almost every entry the same way: “I’m in Wuhan. Today is the nth day of the sealed city.” Like Fang Fang, Xiaoyin also fixated on the dates of December 31st, when the health commission issued its report, and January 20th, when Zhong Nanshan, a pulmonologist who is among China’s most prominent medical authorities, became the first official to declare that the coronavirus could be spread by human transmission.
The unexplained gap between those statements—three full weeks—infuriated people like Xiaoyin and Fang Fang. Perhaps that’s another reason for the remembered dates: they represent fixed points during a period when information often seemed fluid and unreliable. One of the most striking qualities of Fang Fang’s diary is the effort she made to draw upon the connections of a lifetime in the city, passing on information that she gathered from unnamed physicians, scientists, government officials, and police officers. Even now, after so much more is known about the disease, most of Fang Fang’s early assessments come across as accurate and reasonable. She never positioned herself as a dissident, and when government policies were effective she was quick to praise them. She reflects a paradox of China: in an authoritarian country with strict censorship, there are nevertheless many highly educated people, and citizens become adept at discerning reliable sources. Fang Fang’s Weibo posts sometimes attracted more than thirty million readers, and, even when the messages were censored, people usually found other ways to transmit them.
On February 19th, Fang Fang noted that a significant number of early deaths happened before there was proper testing and diagnosis. “So I’m afraid that we still don’t have a completely accurate tally of just how many victims there really are,” she wrote.
One infectious-disease physician who handled testing at a large Wuhan hospital told me that the actual total could be three to four times higher than the government’s figure of 3,869. He referred to the chaotic early period of the pandemic, when overwhelmed hospitals turned patients away. “If you were infected and not diagnosed, then you weren’t counted,” he said. “I think the total is probably more than ten thousand.”
In other parts of China, people generally believed the local death counts to be accurate, at least within a reasonable range. The virus simply couldn’t be covered up easily: if it was spreading widely in a community, residents would know. But Wuhan was different, because of its role at the start of the pandemic. In town, I met an architect named Kyle Hui, whose stepmother had been among the early deaths. She was sixty-five years old, in good health, and she had had no contact with the Huanan market. Hui had no idea how she got infected, but other relatives also fell ill. Later, after tests became available, some of these relatives were confirmed as positive cases.
Hui’s stepmother had raised him from his early teens, and he said that they had been as close as any parent and child. He recalled his own series of dates: on January 4th, his stepmother fell ill; on January 11th, she was turned away from a crowded hospital; on January 13th, she was finally admitted. She died two days later.
“On the eighteenth, she went to the crematorium,” Hui said. “I went there, too, and I saw some workers wearing masks, gloves, and protective clothing.” He continued, “At that time, there wasn’t much news about the disease spreading, but the hospital workers all knew, and so did people at the crematorium.” He said that the crematorium had been busy, and there he met another family who had also lost someone to a flu-like illness. At that time, the city’s official death toll was only one.
Hui was a Wuhan native, but he now lived in Jiangsu Province, near Shanghai. After his stepmother’s death, he took his wife’s parents, who were also from Wuhan, back to Jiangsu. They happened to leave Wuhan shortly before the city was sealed, but in Jiangsu they experienced their own version of the fengcheng. Officials from the neighborhood committee, the most grassroots level of the Communist Party structure, required a fourteen-day quarantine for anyone who had recently been to Hubei. They sealed Hui’s door from the outside with tape that said “Returned Hubei Resident Home Quarantine.” The tape was removed only when committee members delivered food or collected garbage.
Initially, Hui had an angry confrontation with the officials. They told him that if he didn’t allow them to seal the door he and his in-laws would be taken to a government quarantine facility. Hui decided they would be better off in their own apartment, and over time he came to believe that such strict policies were necessary. Tracking down Hubei connections was a key early strategy; at my home, in Chengdu, local committee members and volunteers came to the door five times. They always asked about recent travel to Wuhan or Hubei, which was how they caught the only case in my neighborhood. A resident had recently returned from Hubei, and the committee located him, tested him, and then isolated him, all before he showed symptoms.
“In terms of the big picture, it was correct,” Hui said. But he noted that anybody who witnessed the early mistakes in Wuhan was bound to feel differently from most Chinese. “Behind every statistic, there’s a broken family,” he said. “So I can’t say whether I’m satisfied or not satisfied with the government.”
When we met, Hui had returned to Wuhan on business. It was his first time back since his stepmother’s cremation. Earlier in the year, he had telephoned both the Wuhan mayor’s hot line and the local branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, in the hope of having his stepmother included in the coronavirus counts. But officials responded that it was impossible, because her death certificate listed pneumonia as the cause. Hui still hadn’t told his seven-year-old son that his grandmother was dead. “My father wants to tell him, but we haven’t figured out how to do it,” he said. Since January, they had been pretending that the boy’s grandmother was sick in Wuhan and couldn’t talk on the phone. During the Spring Festival holiday, they had given him a traditional gift envelope and said that it was from Grandma. After a while, the boy stopped asking questions. “I think he knows the truth,” Hui said.
When Wuhan was sealed, the strategy of isolation was replicated throughout the city. Housing compounds were closed and monitored by neighborhood committees, with residents going out only for necessities. Toward the end of the first month, the guidelines were tightened further, until virtually all goods were delivered. On February 17th, Fang Fang wrote, “Everyone is now required to remain inside their homes at all times.” Like other Wuhan diarists, she often referred to food, because it became hard to find much variety.
Meanwhile, approximately ten thousand contact tracers were working in the city, in order to cut off chains of infection, and hospitals were developing large-scale testing systems. But isolation remained crucial: patients were isolated; suspected exposures were isolated; medical workers were isolated. A nurse told me that she left for work on February 3rd and didn’t return home until June 7th. She was housed in a hotel room, like most medical workers with families. For four months, the nurse communicated with her husband and their five-year-old son only by phone and WeChat.
In order to create solitude on such a scale, it was necessary to do a great deal of construction. I met a young manager from a building company that renovated a hundred and ten hospitals, clinics, schools, gymnasiums, and other buildings. Much of their work involved installing walls, barriers, and special entrances and exits that allowed people to keep away from one another. The company also helped build Huoshenshan, one of two emergency hospitals that were constructed to house coronavirus patients. Huoshenshan, which had a thousand beds, including thirty in an intensive-care center, became a prime subject of government propaganda, because it went up in roughly ten days, from January 23rd to February 2nd. At one point, there were seven thousand workers on site, along with more than a hundred excavators.
The young manager, whom I’ll call Zhang, recruited and oversaw labor. He told me that he often appealed to the workers’ patriotism, but mostly he just paid them well. Recalling this period, he used a phrase that translates as “Money can make the Devil push the grindstone for you.” It was common to pay unskilled laborers the equivalent of hundreds of dollars a day, because of the risk and the long hours. The most Zhang ever handed over for a week’s work, to a carpenter, was fifty thousand yuan, about seven thousand dollars—ten times a normal wage. Even so, recruitment was difficult, because the city’s death toll was surging, and the lack of information terrified people.
The Huoshenshan site had been designed in zones, and Zhang’s workers were still finishing the hospital’s back zone while infected patients were being admitted in the front. “A big group of workers fled,” he said. “They didn’t even claim their salaries.” Once the hospital had been finished, it was immediately necessary to turn around and go inside, in order to fix leaks and other problems that resulted from the hurried construction.
At that point, Zhang offered the workers a thousand dollars a day, but nobody accepted, and they were unmoved by his talk of the Motherland. In August, when he looked back on this time, he was philosophical. “The pandemic is like a mirror,” he said. “A person can see himself more clearly, both his good qualities and his bad qualities.”
He found that the only solution was to put on personal protective equipment himself and accompany the workers into the areas where there were infected patients. “I said, ‘If you have a problem, then I have a problem,’ ” he recalled. “Once I did that, they were willing.” In truth, he wasn’t convinced that it was safe, and he was relieved that nobody got infected.
Zhang said the experience of working through the pandemic had left him calmer and more patient. He drove more carefully now; he wasn’t in such a rush. I often asked Wuhan residents how they had been personally changed by the spring, and there was no standard response. Some expressed less trust in government information; others said they had increased faith in the national leadership. The nurse who had been separated from her family admitted that sometimes she missed the simple life of the crisis, when she lived in a hotel room and thought about nothing but work. The physician who handled testing told me that since the city’s seal had been lifted he had become fixated on having enough food in his pantry. Nowadays, he always kept at least sixty-five pounds of rice, sixty-five pounds of noodles and pasta, and thirty tins of canned meat. “I have five friends who do the same thing, but they store even more than I do,” he told me.
Across Hubei, nearly four hundred tourist sites had offered free admission from August 8th until the end of the year, in the hope of conveying a message that the province was safe. I didn’t meet many people from other parts of China, but Wuhan natives seemed to be taking advantage of the opportunity. When I visited the Yellow Crane Tower, a reconstructed ancient building near the Yangtze, the site was so packed that it was hard to move. Workers told me that daily attendance was capped at twenty-five thousand; that day, the online reservation system filled before noon. At the Hubei Provincial Museum, anybody who wanted to enter had to show evidence of a negative coronavirus test, but that didn’t deter the crowds. Every half hour or so, workers doused blue rags in an alcohol solution and obsessively wiped down glass exhibition cases that contained the treasures of ancient Hubei noblemen: Marquis Yi, of Zeng, of the Warring States Period; Prince Liangzhuang, of the Ming dynasty.
I stayed at the Westin Wuhan Wuchang, on the Yangtze’s southeastern bank. When I checked in, a smiling clerk offered a special deal that allowed me to include the breakfast buffet for the equivalent of an additional twenty-three cents a day. In the elevator, on an endless loop, a screen played a promotional video that featured happy Westin Wuhan scenes: a wedding reception, a chef at work, some guests drinking cocktails. Then the footage abruptly shifted to men in gas masks, helmets, and white hazmat suits, identified as having come from the Yikang Chemical Company, Ltd., and carrying some kind of industrial-strength spray machines. They wielded the things like flamethrowers, dousing everything in the hotel in white chemical clouds: reception halls, dining rooms, air-conditioner vents. On a table, somebody laid out room-key cards in neat rows, like a game of solitaire, and then blasted them. The soundtrack to these scenes was “Love Is Greater,” by Amanda Noelle:
Friday night, feeling fine
I’m gonna have a good time.
Raise my hands, watch me dance
Everything’s alright . . .
Wuhan had most recently reported a locally transmitted symptomatic case on May 18th. It’s the most thoroughly tested city in China: at the end of May, in part to boost confidence, the government tried to test every resident, a total of eleven million. I never met a cabdriver who had been swab-tested less than twice, and a couple had been tested five times. Most of the cabbies had no relatives or friends who had been infected; swabbing was simply required by the city and by their cab companies. There are three hundred and twenty-one testing locations in the city, and the system is so extensive that in June, when Beijing suffered an outbreak, Wuhan hospitals sent seventy-two staffers to the capital to help with tests.
The physician who handled testing told me that, on average, his hospital still recorded one positive for every forty thousand exams. Most of these positives were repeat patients: after having been infected during the initial run of the virus, they recovered fully, and then for some reason, months later, showed evidence of the virus again. So far, most of the positives had been asymptomatic, and the physician saw no indication that the virus was spreading in the city. But, whenever the hospital entered these positive results into the government’s reporting system, somebody higher up made the decision not to publicize them. “I think they’re worried about undermining confidence,” the physician said.
In town, there were few propaganda signs about the epidemic, and Wuhan newspapers ran upbeat headlines every morning (Yangtze Daily, August 29th, front page: “students do not have to wear masks in schools”). Movie theatres were open; restaurants and bars had no seating restrictions. At the Hanyang Renxinghui Mall, I saw barefaced kids playing in what may have been one of the last fully functioning ball pits on earth, a sight that seemed worthy of other headlines (“children do not have to wear masks in wuhan ball pits”).
Across town, colleges and universities were in the process of bringing back more than a million students. Wuhan has the second-highest number of students of any city in China, after Guangzhou. One day, I walked around the Wuhan University campus with Xiaoyin, the poet who had documented the pandemic on Weibo with his trademark opening: “I’m in Wuhan. Today is the nth day of the sealed city.”
Xiaoyin taught in the civil-engineering department, publishing books of poetry on the side. He had grown up on the campus, where both of his parents taught. His father had died in May, at the age of eighty-three, of a heart attack. “He usually went for a walk every day, but they were indoors during the time of the sealed city,” Xiaoyin told me. He thought that the extended period of inactivity had probably weakened the old man’s heart.
Xiaoyin had stopped writing poetry during the pandemic. To him, it didn’t feel like the right form; his Weibo voice was loose, lively, and wide-ranging. In his second post, he described beginning the era of the sealed city with a hangover, because he had gone to a party at the home of a musician named Yang Dong on the night of January 22nd. On January 28th—“I’m in Wuhan. Today is the fifth day of the sealed city”—he mourned the death of Kobe Bryant, in a helicopter crash on the other side of the world. On February 7th—the fifteenth day—Xiaoyin expressed sadness and anger at the death of Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who had warned his medical-school classmates about the new disease. Sometime after that warning, and after Li had been forced to sign his confession, he was infected at work. When Li died, at the age of thirty-four, leaving a wife who was pregnant with their second child, he became a touchstone for people’s anger over the government’s early missteps. In March, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau finally apologized to Li’s family, and the following month the provincial government designated him a martyr to the pandemic. But the authorities never explained when the government became aware that the disease could be spread by human transmission, and why they had delayed making this information public.
“A monument should be built for Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan,” Xiaoyin wrote, the day after the death. “The name of this monument should be ‘Rumor Spreaders.’ ” When we met, Xiaoyin said that no mainland press could publish his diary. “You can’t even start a Web site to commemorate the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t expect them to build a museum here in Wuhan.”
He led me through the campus, which is perhaps the most beautiful in China. We walked along paths shaded by parasol and camphor trees, and Xiaoyin pointed out buildings that had been designed in the nineteen-twenties by F. H. Kales, an M.I.T.-trained architect who combined elements of Western and Chinese architecture in a graceful, dignified style. “When I came back onto campus after the seal had been lifted, I didn’t see a single person,” Xiaoyin said. “I thought about how powerful this disease is.”
Now we saw groups of students hauling luggage through the front gate. According to university policy, the students wouldn’t be allowed to leave without making a special application; like most Chinese colleges, Wuhan University was beginning the fall semester with a closed campus. Xiaoyin expressed doubt that the administration would be able to enforce the policy, because the sprawling campus has too many places where students can sneak out.
We stopped at a convenience store to get some drinks, and we met two African medical students. Umaro Sow came from Cape Verde, and Kalaba Mulizwa was Zambian. Of the few foreigners I had seen in Wuhan, most were African. Virtually all North Americans, Australians, and Europeans had been evacuated during the pandemic, often on flights organized by their embassies or consulates. But a number of African students stayed, and Sow and Mulizwa said they hadn’t left their dormitories during the period of the sealed city. The dorms were locked from the outside, with university staff delivering food and other necessities. The men said they had been well cared for, but even after the seal was lifted, and they could leave their dormitories, they were restricted to campus. Today was the first time in more than half a year that they had been granted passes to exit the gates. I asked where they were going.
I said something to the effect that the worst was behind them, and Sow grinned. “We’re still living,” he said.
Wuhan memories remained fresh, and the materials of documentation were also close at hand. People sometimes handed over manuscripts, and they took out their phones and pulled up photographs and messages from January and February. But I wondered how much of this material would dissipate over time.
In town, I met two Chinese journalists in their twenties who were visiting from out of town. They had been posted during the period of the sealed city: back then, anybody sent to cover events in Wuhan had to stay for the long haul. One was a director of streaming media whom I’ll call Han, and he had found that government-run outlets generally wanted footage that emphasized the victory over the disease, not the suffering of Wuhan residents. Han hoped that eventually he’d find other ways to use the material. “It will be in the hard drive,” he said, tapping his camera.
The other journalist, a print reporter I’ll call Yin, reminisced about the unusual freedom the press had been granted for a brief period in January. Journalists reported on whistle-blower figures like Li Wenliang, and they exposed some early missteps, like a failure by the Red Cross to distribute critical medical equipment. Such problems were quickly fixed, and Yin felt glad to be of service to society. “I could see what it means to be the fourth estate,” she said. But, in February, as the government started to get control of the pandemic, it also tightened restrictions on the press. “A friend of mine said that it was a very short spring,” Yin said.
After that, Yin reported on a number of issues that couldn’t be published or completed, and she often talked with scientists and officials who didn’t want to say too much. “One person said, ‘Ten years later, if the climate has changed, I’ll tell you my story,’ ” Yin told me. “He knew that he would be judged by history.” She continued, “These people are inside the system, but they also know that they are inside history.”
Yin described an interview with an employee at a research institution who was so upset that he began to weep. He wouldn’t answer her questions, but he said that he had been keeping a detailed diary. She hoped that someday such materials would be released.
I suspect that this will eventually happen, because nowadays there are so many ways to preserve information. In time, we will learn more, but the delay is important to the Communist Party. It handles history the same way that it handles the pandemic—a period of isolation is crucial. Throughout the Communist era, there have been many moments of quarantined history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the massacre around Tiananmen Square. In every case, an initial silencing has been followed by sporadic outbreaks of leaked information. Wuhan will eventually follow the same pattern, but for the time being many memories will remain in the sealed city.
When I spoke with scientists outside China, they weren’t focussed on the government’s early missteps. “I tend to take a charitable view of countries that are at the beginning stage of epidemics,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me, in a phone conversation. According to her, it’s unrealistic to expect that any country could have stopped this particular virus at its source. “I’ve always believed that this thing was going to spread,” she said.
Wafaa El-Sadr, the director of icap, a global-health center at Columbia University, pointed out that Chinese scientists had quickly sequenced the virus’s genome, which was made available to researchers worldwide on January 11th. “I honestly think that they had a horrific situation in Wuhan and they were able to contain it,” she said. “There were mistakes early on, but they did act, and they shared fast.”
For much of El-Sadr’s career, she has worked on issues related to aids in the United States, Africa, and elsewhere. After years of research, scientists eventually came to the consensus that H.I.V. most likely started through the bushmeat trade—the first human was probably infected after coming into contact with a primate or primate meat. El-Sadr views the coronavirus as another inevitable outcome of people’s encroachment on the natural world. “We are now living through two concomitant massive pandemics that are the result of spillover from animal to human hosts, the H.I.V. and the covid pandemics,” she wrote to me, in an e-mail. “Never in history has humanity experienced something along this scale and scope.”
There’s a tendency to believe that we would know the source of the coronavirus if the Chinese had been more forthcoming, or if they hadn’t cleaned out the Huanan market before stalls and animals could be studied properly. But Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist who has collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology for sixteen years on research on bat coronaviruses, told me that it’s typical to fail to gather good data from the site of an initial outbreak. Once people get sick, local authorities inevitably focus on the public-health emergency. “You send in the human doctors, not the veterinarians,” he said, in a phone conversation. “And the doctors’ response is to clean out the market. They want to stop the infections.”
Daszak believes the virus probably circulated for weeks before the Wuhan outbreak, and he doubts that the city was the source. “There are bats in Wuhan, but it was the wrong time of year,” he told me. “It was winter, and bats are not out as much.” His research has indicated that, across Southeast Asia, more than a million people each year are infected by bat coronaviruses. Some individuals trap, deal, or raise animals that might serve as intermediary hosts. “But generally it’s people who live near bat caves,” Daszak said. “Every night, the bats fly out, and they urinate and defecate. Some might get on a surface, or on somebody’s clothes, and then they touch their mouths or noses.”
Daszak said that he had always thought that such an outbreak was most likely to occur in Kunming or Guangzhou, southern cities that are close to many bat caves and that also have an intensive wildlife trade. He thinks that Chinese scientists are probably now searching hospital freezers for lab samples of people who died of pneumonia shortly before the outbreak. “You would take those samples and look for the virus,” he said. “They’ll find something eventually. These things just don’t happen overnight; it requires a lot of work. We’ve seen this repeatedly with every disease. It turns out that it was already trickling through the population.”
Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization based in New York. EcoHealth has become the target of conspiracy theorists, including some who claim that the virus was man-made. Daszak and many prominent virologists say that anything created in a lab would show clear signs of manipulation. There’s also speculation that the outbreak started when researchers accidentally released a coronavirus they were studying at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But there’s no evidence of a leak, or even that the institute has ever studied a virus that could cause a covid-19 outbreak.
“Scientists in China are under incredible pressure to publish,” Daszak said. “It really drives openness and transparency.” He has spent a good deal of time in Wuhan, and co-authored more than a dozen papers with Chinese colleagues. “If we had found a virus that infected human cells and spread within a cell culture, we would have put the information out there,” he said. “In sixteen years, I’ve never come across the slightest hint of subterfuge. They’ve never hidden data. I’ve never had a situation where one lab person tells me one thing and the other says something else. If you were doing things that you didn’t want people to know about, why would you invite foreigners into the lab?”
In April, President Trump told reporters that the U.S. should stop funding research connected to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Shortly after Trump’s comments, the National Institutes of Health cancelled a $3.7-million grant to EcoHealth, which had been studying how bat coronaviruses are transmitted to people. EcoHealth has appealed the decision, but Daszak doesn’t expect a change unless there’s a new Administration.
I asked Daszak why, if he has such faith in the openness of his Wuhan colleagues, the Chinese government has been so closed about other aspects of the outbreak. He said that science is one thing, and politics something else; he thinks that officials were embarrassed about the early mistakes, and in response they simply shut down all information. “You’re a journalist in China,” he said. “I don’t know what you would say about the Chinese idea of P.R., but I’d say they’re pretty terrible.”
One afternoon, I drove past Huoshenshan, the newly constructed emergency hospital. The site was cordoned off; people told me that the hospital had remained vacant in case the virus returns. But this seems unlikely, and Wuhan, like the rest of China, is looking to the next stage of the pandemic. At the beginning of July, China National Biotec Group, a subsidiary of a state-owned pharmaceutical company called Sinopharm, completed construction of a vaccine-manufacturing plant in Wuhan. The project began while the city was still sealed. “That’s the politically correct thing to do,” a Shanghai-based biotech entrepreneur told me. “To show the world that the heroic people of Wuhan have come back.”
The plant has the capacity to produce more than a hundred million vaccine doses a year. Another C.N.B.G. factory, in Beijing, can make an additional hundred million doses a year of a different version of the vaccine. Both plants are already producing and stockpiling the vaccines, which have almost completed Phase III trials. Because China essentially has no active pandemic, C.N.B.G. had to go far afield in order to find subjects. Currently, researchers have enrolled more than fifty thousand people in the United Arab Emirates, Peru, and other countries in South America and the Middle East.
Yiwu He, the chief innovation officer at the University of Hong Kong, told me that the C.N.B.G. vaccine has already been given to a number of Chinese government officials, under an emergency-use approval granted by the authorities. “I know a few government officials personally, and they told me that they took the vaccine,” he said, in a phone conversation. He thought that the total number was probably around a hundred. “It’s middle-level officials,” he said. “Vice-ministers, mayors, vice-mayors.”
Pharmaceutical executives have also been expected to lead the way, like the construction manager who donned P.P.E. in order to escort his workers into the patient ward. “Every senior executive at Sinopharm and C.N.B.G. has been vaccinated,” He said. “Including the C.E.O. of Sinopharm, the chairman of the board, every vice-president—everyone.” The Chinese press has reported that vaccinations have also been administered to hundreds of thousands of citizens in high-risk areas around the world. (C.N.B.G. did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the West, China’s image has been badly damaged by the pandemic and by other recent events. The country has tightened political crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and, in May, after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the virus, China responded furiously, placing new tariffs and restrictions on Australian goods ranging from barley to beef. But He believes that the situation is fluid. “All of these feelings can turn around quickly,” he told me. “I think that once China has a vaccine, and if they can help other countries, it can make a huge difference.”
Before coming to Hong Kong, He served as the deputy director of the Gates Foundation, where he worked closely with C.N.B.G. on a number of vaccine projects. One of their most successful collaborations involved producing polio vaccines for use in developing countries, an experience that helped C.N.B.G. develop the scale necessary for its work on the coronavirus. Another Chinese pharmaceutical company, CanSino Biologics, is also running Phase III trials with its own vaccine. The government has indicated that it will eventually make these vaccines available in the developing world.
There’s also a competitive element. “China wants to beat America,” He said. He believes that the C.N.B.G. vaccine will receive some level of approval for public use by the end of October. “Chinese officials are thinking that Donald Trump might approve a U.S. vaccine before the election,” he said. “So their goal is to have a vaccine approved before that.”
No matter how quickly the Chinese develop a vaccine, or how effectively they have handled the pandemic since January, it’s unlikely to make Westerners forget the mistakes and misinformation during the pandemic’s earliest phase. Some of this is due to a cultural difference—the Chinese response to errors is often to look forward, not back. On January 31st, Fang Fang commented in her diary, “The Chinese people have never been fond of admitting their own mistakes, nor do they have a very strong sense of repentance.” It’s often hard for them to understand why this quality is so frustrating for Westerners. In this regard, the pandemic is truly a mirror—it doesn’t allow the Chinese to look out and see themselves through the eyes of others.
But, within the country, the reflection is clear. The pandemic illuminates both the weaknesses and the strengths of the Chinese system, as well as the relationship between the government and the people. They know each other well: officials never felt the need to tell citizens exactly what happened in Wuhan, but they understood that American-level casualties would have been shocking—given China’s population, the tally would have been more than a million and counting. In order to avoid death on that scale, the government also knew that people would be willing to accept strict lockdowns and contribute their own efforts toward fighting the virus.
In turn, citizens were skilled at reading their government. People often held two apparently contradictory ideas: that the Party lied about some things but gave good guidance about others. More often than not, citizens could discern the difference. During the pandemic, it was striking that, when the Chinese indulged in conspiracy theories, these ideas rarely resulted in personally risky behavior, as they often did in the U.S. Perhaps the Chinese have been inoculated by decades of censorship and misinformation: in such an environment, people develop strong instincts for self-preservation, and they don’t seem as disoriented by social media as many Americans are.
And lessons from the pandemic are often different from what Westerners might expect. Early in the year, I corresponded by WeChat with a Wuhan pharmacist who worked in a hospital where many were infected. On February 26th, he expressed anger about the early coverup. “My personal opinion is that the government has always been careless and suppressed dissent,” he wrote. “Because of this, they lost a golden opportunity to control the virus.”
In Wuhan, we met a few times, and during one of our conversations I showed him what he had written in February. I asked what he would do now if he found himself in Li Wenliang’s position, aware of an outbreak of some unknown disease. Would he post a warning online? Contact a health official? Alert a journalist?
The pharmacist thought for a moment. “I would tell my close friends in person,” he said. “But I wouldn’t put anything online. Nothing in writing.”
I asked if such an event would turn out differently now.
“It would be the same,” he said. “It’s a problem with the system.”
He explained that, with an authoritarian government, local officials are afraid of alarming superiors, which makes them inclined to cover things up. But, once higher-level leaders finally grasp the truth, they can act quickly and effectively. He found it strange that, after the virus had swept around the world, destabilizing cities and countries, so much in Wuhan remained unchanged. Recently, he had updated his eyeglass prescription, so he went to the same store he had been using for years. He found it in the same place, above the former Huanan market, with the same shopkeeper. The only difference was that prices had plummeted. “Usually I would bargain, but this time I felt a little embarrassed,” he said. “I didn’t bargain at all.”
On one of my final afternoons in Wuhan, I met Fang Fang in a quiet café. In May, her book was published in the U.S., in a translation by Michael Berry, a professor of Chinese literature at U.C.L.A. Berry started his translation on February 25th, exactly a month after Fang Fang’s first post, and he worked with remarkable speed, essentially riding the wave of the pandemic. By the time he finished, on April 10th, Wuhan had been unsealed, and Los Angeles was under lockdown.
Like so many aspects of the pandemic, this shared experience became divisive in the eyes of certain people. The Chinese state press accused Fang Fang of making her country look bad, and far-left nationalists attacked her online, as they had during the pandemic. They also targeted Berry, in Los Angeles. At one point, the address of Fang Fang’s house in Wuhan was published, and people wrapped rocks with spiteful messages and lobbed them over her wall.
“I’m not passionate about politics,” Fang Fang told me, explaining that she just liked to record things accurately. She is a small woman with lively eyes, and she presented me with a copy of one of her banned books, “Soft Burial.” The novel covers the issue of land reform around the time that the Communists came to power, in 1949—another example of quarantined history, because many landowning families were brutalized. When the book was published, in 2016, it angered various figures on the far left, which idolizes Mao Zedong. Some of these leftists subsequently attacked the quarantine diary.
At sixty-five, Fang Fang is retired, though she receives a pension from the government-sponsored Hubei Writers’ Association. She said that two local officials from a different government bureau had visited and tried to persuade her to withdraw the overseas publication of “Wuhan Diary,” but she refused. “I said, ‘If you cancel my pension, I’ll sue you,’ ” she told me.
Every Wuhan writer I met spoke highly, and protectively, of Fang Fang. In provincial China, literary communities tend to be tight-knit, and writers learn to be thick-skinned and resourceful. When Fang Fang’s Weibo account was suspended, a number of tech-savvy young Chinese helped her find other ways to post material. And there were indications that some people in high positions also valued her. Fang Fang said that an upper-level editor at Weibo eventually wrote her a private letter apologizing for the censorship. “He said they had no choice in suspending my account, and that he admired me,” she said.
At the moment, though, she couldn’t publish books or articles in China. For a writer who had watched history unfold in her home town, this seemed unimaginable, but Fang Fang spoke about the situation calmly. She said that recently she had been consoling a younger writer who had also been banned. “I said you have to be patient,” Fang Fang said. “I believe it won’t be like this forever.”
3 CommentsLeave a comment
This was a wonderful read, transporting me back to a time when a nice long article was actually the Rx. Perhaps a silver lining to lock-down is a renewed ability to sit through and absorb important stories such as this. Ah, the art and healing powers of the narrative. Thank you.
Might this essay be available online in Mandarin and able to be read in China? Would Arnold Zeitlin know?
Arnold Zeitlin (a RPCV of Ghana 1 in 1961-2) a lifelong international journalist connected with the AP and others, may have further information.
I’d like to hear from him. I bet has has the skinny on this.
He lives near Washington, D.C. now and has a news organization of his on now in his late ’80’s. John Coyne published an interview with him here on January 19, 2020 (peacecorpsworldwide.org/arnold-zeitlin-author-of-the-first-peace-corps-memoir-ghana): He was a professor at Guangzhou for a long time.
Well yes, we in China can read it, be it in Chinese or English.