Everything was normal when Wuhan resident Jason flew out of the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus for a holiday on Jan 22. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and there weren’t extra security checks.
But by the time he checked into a hotel in Macau, he was told to go to the local hospital, where he spent the next four days in quarantine. After testing negative for the virus, he was driven to neighbouring Zhuhai, where he spent over a week locked in a hotel, not knowing when he could go home.
“My friends told me the disease is quite serious and there’s no way I can go back now,” Jason, who wished to use only his first name, said.
The morning after Jason was quarantined, on Jan 23, Wuhan went into complete lockdown to try to prevent the virus from spreading. Planes and trains were not allowed to leave, highway exits were sealed, and citywide public transport halted.
Other cities in Hubei province soon followed suit, shutting in more than 50 million people, the biggest national response to an infectious disease crisis in human history.
Before the lockdown, more than 5 million had already travelled out of Wuhan, with more than 4,000 going abroad, the city’s officials said.
They became outcasts, even in their own country, being quarantined in hotels and hospitals, discriminated against for having a Hubei identity card or accent, and having their personal information leaked online.
A Wuhan university student surnamed Qi, who went back home to the eastern city of Yancheng in January, said he and his friends had been receiving harassing telephone calls because of an Excel document circulating online containing the details of those who had returned from Wuhan.
“Our names, gender, home addresses and phone numbers were all exposed,” Qi said. “Ever since the Wuhan mayor said 5 million have left, he has put us on the wrong side.”
Community authorities also contacted him every day, asking him to provide his name and information, and telling him to stay put. His father's boss, who had heard he was back, told his father repeatedly to keep his son indoors.
“I’ve not even gone downstairs since I came back,” he said.
Online, targeting of those from Hubei ran rampant. Memes of “hard-core virus prevention measures” went viral. People cheered pictures that showed local governments destroying roads connecting to Hubei, preventing people passing through. Some accused Hubei residents of “selfishly hiding their illnesses” and still travelling around.
Last week, several passengers refused to board a plane from Japan to Shanghai alongside passengers from Hubei. One Hubei passenger who wrote about the experience on Weibo was attacked online for “bringing trouble to others”.
“If you left Wuhan two weeks ago, we can negotiate. If you left within two weeks, please just self explode,” one comment said.
Wuhan’s local health commission officials spoke out on public television last Wednesday, saying that “our common enemy is the virus, not Wuhan locals”, and asking other provinces to provide health care and shelter for those stranded.
As governments and airlines halted flights to and from Wuhan, China’s foreign affairs ministry said the country would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas “as soon as possible” because of “the practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei have faced overseas”. As of Friday, China had sent two planes to Malaysia and Thailand to bring stranded Hubei residents home.
Upon reaching the province, returning residents found themselves stranded again, with no transport available in the city to take them to their doorstep.
After a week outside her city, a 50-year-old insurance agent surnamed Xu finally finished her odyssey home.
Having shown no symptoms, she hopped on a train from Guangzhou, in the south, to Changsha, in Hubei’s neighbouring province of Hunan. When she got on board, she begged the conductor to let her off as it passed Wuhan.
At first, the answer was a firm “no”. “I can’t risk infecting the entire train just for you,” the conductor said.
But rail staff later allowed Xu, her daughter and four others to alight at Wuhan after registering their names and IDs.
The streets were empty and they could not get a taxi, so Xu and her daughter, dragging a suitcase behind them, biked 17km (11 miles). They reached home three hours later.
The panic has also led to confusion and exaggerated measures. Ciddy Long, a teacher in Guangzhou, where she is a long-term resident, said that when she flew from Japan to Macau on Tuesday last week, a customs officer looked at her passport and asked a colleague, “Her birthplace was Hubei, does that count?” The colleague hesitated for a few seconds before replying: “I guess.”
Despite not having been to Hubei for several years, she was refused entry and – along with a few other travellers from Hubei – told to go to Zhuhai, where she worried about the chances of becoming infected. She wore two masks the entire way, kept her head low, and kept rubbing her hands with disinfectant.
“I felt that relationships between people have become so vulnerable,” she said.
Jason, the tourist who was quarantined in Macau, said he almost lost his mind while languishing in the ward.
At the end of his four days there, he was given a report stating that he had tested negative for the coronavirus. The government then sent him in a car to the Crown Holiday Hotel in Zhuhai, where he met a group of stranded tourists from Wuhan.
Some eventually made it to Wuhan, but he decided to wait things out, because he was afraid of being infected back home.
“I don’t want to die,” he said. “I still have so many things to do, family to take care of.” – South China Morning Post
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