‘It was either stay here in comfort or stay behind barbed wire’ We talked to three of the 200 Russians who have stayed in Wuhan rather than escaping the coronavirus
On February 5, two Russian Defense Ministry airplanes took 144 Russian citizens out of the Chinese city of Wuhan, where an outbreak of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus continues to spread. The evacuees will spend two weeks quarantined in a Tyumen sanitorium. Meanwhile, official statistics indicate that in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, there were almost 200 Russians more than the number that left. Pavel Merzlikin spoke with some of those who remained at the outbreak’s epicenter about what’s happening now in Wuhan and why they decided not to evacuate.
researcher, three months in Wuhan, asked to be identified by first name only
I came to Wuhan on a work visa. I’m a scientist, and I had come here before on a business trip. I really liked the city — the people here are so kind-hearted. I’ve only been here three months, but I’ve gotten so used to it that I feel like I’ve been here at least half a year.
At the beginning of January, there were already rumors going around [about the virus], but I thought it was just a seasonal cold. When it became clear that it was a new viral outbreak, a lot of people started worrying. I took it calmly — I was sure the problem would be solved before long. Unfortunately, the situation has really scaled up and expanded, but Chinese medical personnel are doing everything they can to save people. I was shocked at how efficiently they built [a new 1,000-bed] hospital and put a million-person city under quarantine to make sure the virus didn’t spread further.
I didn’t even think about leaving when the city was shut down. I immediately decided that I would keep the situation calm and work from home. I live in an international dormitory — it’s a closed neighborhood, they don’t let passersby in, and there’s a hospital and pharmacies and grocery stores nearby. There aren’t many people left in the dormitory: A lot of people left for the Chinese New Year holiday before the city was closed, and some countries evacuated their citizens. There are people who, like me, decided to stay. Circumstances have changed, of course, but the people who are still here are still living as they did before: They cook, they stand around chatting. People just rarely go outside.
It’s gotten to be really quiet and empty in the city. That’s typical for Chinese New Year, but now the “holidays” have been extended by the quarantine. I haven’t noticed any sense of panic outside: People go shopping, they walk their dogs. It’s just that there are a lot fewer of them. And people try not to talk to each other too much. Everybody wears masks, naturally.
Mostly, I feel as though this is all a kind of dangerous adventure. At first, the daily texts about observing safety measures and avoiding crowded areas scared me. And the people in protective gear who went over the streets on a regular basis seemed scary, too. But now, I’m used to it. I call my loved ones often to help them calm down — they’re more anxious than I am. Humor has really helped me out. When I meet friends here who are nervous, I try to joke around and cheer them up a little. But I haven’t really noticed the locals being seriously frightened. People stand in line at the supermarket like usual. It’s not like people are yelling at each other all the time. They just try to run all their errands as fast as possible and get out of crowded areas.
Of course, life has changed. The restaurants and cafés are closed, and so is the gym — there’s not really anywhere to go. But the grocery stores are open and stocked. The day before yesterday, they gave each of us in the dormitory a whole bag of vegetables so that we wouldn’t have to go outside as often.
When you drive up to the dorm area and again when you go into the building, they check your temperature. They check it at the grocery store, too. We’re constantly reminded that we should talk to a staff member as soon as we start feeling poorly. There are also 24-hour hotlines for foreigners. Fortunately, no one I know has gotten sick. Only one of my Chinese colleagues told me that her aunt was infected with the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized.
I noticed the announcement on the embassy’s website myself about how all Russian citizens in Hubei Province should send in their contact information. I sent them mine, but they haven’t written to me or called me. And then, when they asked for our information again, this time for the evacuation, I didn’t send my contact info because I had decided from the beginning that I should stay. I have a lot of work I can do from home. I think it’s a completely safe choice. I don’t feel the need to panic or look for help at all. And I don’t even think it would have been safer to leave for Russia: The Chinese medical experts already have experience treating the coronavirus. And I wouldn’t want to put my country in danger.
Instagram blogger writing about life in Wuhan, 1.5 years in the city
A year and a half ago, I moved to Wuhan to study, and I’ve stayed here ever since. When the news of the virus first started spreading, I was in the next city over for a practicum, and right until the very last minute, I didn’t realize the full scope of the epidemic — or that the city might be quarantined.
I was supposed to go back to Wuhan to celebrate Chinese New Year. On the night of January 22, I was heading back to the city on a completely empty train. As soon as I got into town, just eight hours afterward, they announced the quarantine. They closed off the city, and I couldn’t leave anymore.
Wuhan is a really big, beautiful, lively place. For Chinese New Year, people here organize a lot of different events and celebrations. Now, they’ve all been canceled, and everyone spends most of their time at home. If we do go outside, then we put on masks and follow all the safety measures.
There really is a lot of panic and noise on our social media because different people interpret the same information differently. If we’re talking about Chinese people, they all acknowledge how complex the situation is and understand that unnecessary panic or hysteria won’t help anybody. The only people who really need help right now are the people who have gotten sick, their loved ones, and their doctors. And right now, that’s who all of China is focused on helping. In two weeks under the quarantine, a lot of different things have happened, including many that were shocking in terms of how efficiently and quickly the Chinese leadership responded. For example, two hospitals have been built. Doctors from other cities have been invited in on special planes. Every public service department throughout China has been mobilized and directed toward solving this problem as a number-one priority. It’s stunning, of course.
The biggest difficulties right now probably have to do with moving around the city. Since public transport has been shut down, people who don’t have their own vehicles have a pretty hard time going long distances. Mostly, everyone has to stay home or just walk around their neighborhoods. I personally had a hard time getting used to the masks we’re obligated to wear now. If you’re not wearing one, you might not be allowed to go into stores or other public places. When you walk into a store or some other public area, people check you with a thermographic camera and keep track of temperature changes. Every batch of groceries in the stores gets a thorough inspection.
[The embassy] did contact me about evacuating. I couldn’t leave — it’s got to do with my documents. I couldn’t get them because all public services are on hold right now. My case didn’t have to do with whether I wanted [to evacuate].
employee for the illuminated sign company Begriff, two weeks in Wuhan
I’m from Yekaterinburg, and I mostly live there. I go to different cities in China for work periodically because our company makes solar panels and advertising equipment. Now, as luck would have it, I’ve landed in Wuhan. This is one of the largest manufacturing centers in contemporary China, and there are a lot of production centers and labs we work with here.
When I first heard rumors about a new disease, I thought they were just that — rumors. I didn’t think it would affect me. Now, I practically don’t leave my home office. I use food delivery services, and I intentionally don’t wear a mask because masks don’t help anyway if you’re in contact with someone who’s sick. That hasn’t gotten me into any trouble.
When the epidemic got to be major, I did have some thoughts about dropping everything and leaving, but the probability of getting sick at a train station or an airport is a lot higher than when you’re alone at home. So, for safety reasons, I stayed in Wuhan.
I’m not really panicking. The Chinese are very organized, and they put together checkpoints to detect the infection very quickly. It’s hard to imagine this kind of efficient, well-coordinated work happening across public services in Russia. The only place you see panic is on social media, where people like to try and attract sympathy and attention to themselves. I feel very calm about the situation, and I’m not panicking. My family and friends are more worried than anybody else. I think I’ll be just fine if I stay calm. Of course, I’m scared that staying in Wuhan might be dangerous, just like any person in their right mind would be, but any kind of extended travel is much more dangerous.
In terms of notable difficulties that have come from the quarantine in China, I’ll just mention two: being at home 24/7 and the fact that not all the food delivery services are working consistently, so you have to wait a while sometimes for your food.
Personally, I haven’t contacted anyone [from the embassy]. I don’t want to have those connections, and they can’t force me [to evacuate]. Why sit around in Tyumen? It was either stay here in comfort or stay behind barbed wire in Tyumen. At this point, I’ll stay. I’ll go back when I finish all my business here. I believe that the epidemic won’t last long. Don’t get sick. Everything’s gonna be okay.
Translation by Hilah Kohen