Sitting by the window, Cheng Chuchu (pseudonym) in Wuhan, a megacity in central China, bathed in the morning sun and opened a book she began reading just before falling ill a month ago.
She has a good appetite. “I had broccoli, sausage fried rice, beef stew, an orange and homemade soymilk for lunch,” she said.
Cheng was just discharged from hospital, but is still in quarantine in her apartment.
By the end of Feb. 22, the novel coronavirus has claimed 2,442 lives and infected over 76,000 nationwide, according to the National Health Commission. Of them, 1,856 fatalities were reported in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, accounting for 76 percent of the total.
On Jan. 23, two days before the Spring Festival, or the Chinese Lunar New Year, China took traffic restrictions in Wuhan, home to over 10 million residents and capital of Hubei Province, to curb the spread of the deadly pathogen.
All urban public transportation, including city buses, ferries and metro lines have hence been suspended and outbound channels at the airport and rail stations closed.
All of a sudden, the city seemed stalled, with streets empty, restaurants closed and celebration of the Lunar New Year nowhere to be found. But some places are busier than ever, namely hospitals.
Having had a scratchy throat and cough days before, Cheng developed a fever on the lockdown day, and a CT scan showed she might have been infected with the coronavirus. Early the next day, she rushed to the hospital for a nucleic acid test. “The hospital was stuffed with patients,” she recalled.
She waited for nearly 10 hours to know the result.
It was positive.
The next day, or the Spring Festival, was her nine-year-old son’s birthday. “I was in no mood for celebrating, at all,” Cheng said. She couldn’t be near him for fear of passing on the disease.
Cheng sang “happy birthday” to her son via a video chat, only to see a disappointed face.
Her condition deteriorated over the next few days, developing constant high fever, dyspnoea, muscular soreness and even falling into a coma.
She forced herself to gulp five liters of water every day and took her prescribed pills regularly. Yet she maintained a desperate thirst for survival. She kept dialing hotlines hoping to be hospitalized, but received little help — there were too many patients waiting for a bed. “I was physically frail and sad as there seemed no hope,” she said.
Also on the Spring Festival, Chang Kai’s 91-year-old father began to develop a fever and breathing difficulties. The family took him to several hospitals but was told that no bed was available.
Chang, a producer with the Hubei Film Studio, issued pleas for help to friends but all the efforts were in vain. The family fell into despair.
“In silent surrender, we took our old father back and looked after him by the bed as the last chance to show our filial piety. He passed away in just days, with hatred,” Chang wrote in an article titled “Chang Kai’s last words.”
The family was hit hard. Chang’s mother died of the same disease within a week and both the Changs were infected. “Chang was admitted to Wuchang Hospital in early February and soon fell into a coma,” said Li Yang, Chang’s colleague.
He died on Feb. 14. So did his elder sister, on the same day.
“I have been filial as a son, conscientious as a father, devoted as a husband and sincere to others all my life. Farewell to the people I love and those who love me,” he wrote down these words in his final hours.
Chang’s wife is receiving treatment at Jinyintan Hospital and moved out of the intensive care unit on Feb. 19. “I’ll try my best to live,” she told Li in a WeChat message.
The tragedy of the family is like a piece of a grim reality jigsaw puzzle that reflects Wuhan’s life-and-death battle against the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.
A difficult decision
The shutdown of a big city like Wuhan due to a public health emergency is unprecedented in modern Chinese history. Even when factories in most parts of China have gradually resumed operation and people are returning to work, Wuhan is still at a standstill as authorities strive to contain the epidemic.
“Given the large population base, it can easily have a serious impact on the health system. In fact, what happened in Wuhan has already verified this. If the spread of the disease is not contained in time, it will lead to a global pandemic,” warned Tang Bei, an international public health researcher at Shanghai International Studies University.
Most people began to feel the pinch of the outbreak in late January, but weeks before, medics in Wuhan had already begun to feel its impact.
Qin Lixin, director of the radiology department at Wuhan Pulmonary Hospital, said the first COVID-19 case in the hospital was reported on Jan. 3 but didn’t arouse enough caution since winter is a common flu season.
“We got nervous when more and more patients flooded the hospital about a week later,” Qin said.
When Feng Xiang at Wuhan Psychological Hospital heard the virus can spread from person to person, his first thought was that “there are not enough beds.”
“I’m a doctor and I know the number of isolation beds in Wuhan is far from enough,” said Feng. “My colleagues at the fever clinics said it was quite scary to see the hospital stuffed with patients.”
Vaccination and reduction of social contact are the only two effective ways to hinder interpersonal transmission of a virus, according to Tang. “The first method is not yet in place. Considering the high infection rate and a large number of close contacts in Wuhan at that time, there’s no other better ways except cutting off traffic to reduce population outflow.”
The latest figures showed the overall mortality rate of COVID-19 patients on the Chinese mainland except Hubei is around 0.7 percent. In Wuhan, it is 4 percent.
Globally, there are fewer than 30 countries and regions affected by the epidemic, far lower than the over 200 countries and regions affected by the H1N1 flu in 2009. And over 90 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are in China.
“The figure has shown that Wuhan’s closure has a remarkable effect on slowing the spread outside the city,” Tang said. “Wuhan’s move not only helps curb the epidemic in China, but has also won precious time for the international community to prevent its further spread.”
In fact, not only Wuhan, almost all cities in Hubei have taken similar measures to prohibit or restrict inter-city movements, such as Huanggang, Xiaogan and Jingzhou, where the epidemic is serious.
“The lockdown is a move not perfect but urgently necessary. Though some say the death rate of the coronavirus disease is not high enough to take such strict measures, an important factor should be taken into consideration that the public lacks immunity to the new virus,” explained Tang.
The losses are tremendous. Besides ordinary citizens, more than 1,700 doctors and nurses were infected by the disease, with at least ten deaths.
Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist with the Central Hospital of Wuhan, died on Feb. 7 because of the disease. He was among the first to draw public attention to the novel virus and was infected while at work.
“People are upset because Li is an iconic figure in this epidemic,” said Feng with the Wuhan Psychological Hospital. “This is a hard-learned lesson.”
Liu Zhiming, head of the Wuchang Hospital, who became infected while working to combat the virus, passed away on Feb. 18.
The deceased also include government official, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, university professors, bodybuilding champion, retired worker, driver, and people who had other professions.
On Feb. 11, Wuhan issued a new notice and rolled out the strictest measures ever, demanding all residential communities be closed to minimize the flow of personnel. Each family can only have one person go out every three days, and supermarkets no longer serve individual customers.
“We hardly go out now. We can order food and other necessities online and the community will help deliver them to us,” said Feng. “We’re at a critical stage and I believe this is necessary.”
On Jan. 20, President Xi Jinping ordered resolute efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, putting people’s safety and health as the top priority.
China has carried out national mobilization, across-the-board deployment and swift responses, adopted the most comprehensive and rigorous prevention and control measures and launched a people’s war against the epidemic.
On Jan. 24, Hubei Province raised its Level II public health emergency response to the top level and announced measures to follow Beijing’s SARS treatment model to build a makeshift hospital for admitting COVID-19 patients.
Later that day, 450 medics from medical universities of the army, navy and air force of the People’s Liberation Army arrived in Wuhan, marking the start of nationwide efforts to aid the hardest-hit city in the fight against the epidemic.
On Feb. 3 and Feb. 8, two makeshift hospitals — Huoshenshan and Leishenshan with a total capacity of 2,600 beds — were delivered and put into use in less than two weeks, respectively.
As of Feb. 19, the number of designated hospitals reserved to treat COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, especially those with severe symptoms, has risen to 45, with a capacity of 19,161 beds.
Meanwhile, to ensure all COVID-19 patients are admitted, Wuhan municipal authorities began transforming public venues such as exhibition centers and gymnasiums into temporary hospitals for patients with mild symptoms. As of Feb. 21, Wuhan had activated 13 temporary hospitals and plans to build another 19 makeshift hospitals, bringing the total reserved beds in temporary hospitals to 30,000 by Feb. 25.
China has dispatched more than 30,000 medical staff, including elite medical groups, to assist Wuhan. Of them about 11,000 are intensive care specialists, making up to approximately 10 percent of the country’s total number of intensive care medics, data from the National Health Commission show.
On Feb. 13, Ying Yong, former mayor of Shanghai, was appointed secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and took full charge of epidemic prevention and control in the province. Wang Zhonglin, former Party Chief of Jinan, was also named Wuhan’s new Party chief.
With the help of her community, Zhang Fengling entered a temporary hospital on Feb. 6.
“We can get immediate help here and we even had the festive food of glutinous rice balls on the Lantern Festival,” she said. “I’m so grateful that medics always tried their utmost to comfort us, despite already being exhausted.”
Lei Lihua, Party secretary of a local community in Jiang’an District, saw changes over the days. “Social resources are becoming abundant, as well as the number of medics,” she said. “A patient used to have to wait for a week before being hospitalized, but they now can get a bed within a day.”
Wuhan has completed a thorough combing of its over 3,300 communities and villages to ensure every confirmed or suspected patient is located and attended to.
“The residents are active to report their physical condition,” said Lei, “With everyone mobilized, the efforts to control the epidemic at the source are proved to be effective.”
To quell people’s fears and address problems concerning their psychological health, Wuhan opened two 24-hour hotlines on the lockdown day, with services offered by the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University and the Hubei Psychological Consultant Association.
The city has also recruited 6,000 taxis to provide free rides to local residents and offer services such as food and medicine delivery as well as emergency medical treatment. The taxies are subject to unified dispatch under community committees.
Cheng was discharged from hospital on Feb. 11. “I thought that what I’ve gone through only existed in fiction, but it really happened,” she said. “I’ll never forget it and I will cherish every day from now on.”
Feng from the Wuhan Psychological Hospital said he has no idea about how long the lockdown will last. “But I will cooperate and stick it out. I believe that’s the choice for everyone in this city to win this battle.”
The latest figures show China’s daily number of newly cured and discharged novel coronavirus patients has surpassed that of new confirmed infections for a fifth consecutive day.
Wuhan is still at the heart of the fight, but the number of newly confirmed and suspected patients is declining.
Xiang Xinran, an 80-year-old architect, has not stepped out of his Wuhan apartment for a month. Six people have been killed by COVID-19 in his neighborhood.
He often stands on the balcony and looks down into the quietness. Many friends who are not in Wuhan send him messages and make calls to cheer him up. “I pray that China will enjoy peace and order after the epidemic,” he wrote.