In mid-January, a nurse named Hui Xian Wang heard that four people at a hospital near her own in Huanggang, a city of 7.5 million in Hubei province, had come down with viral pneumonia. The news didn’t seem too worry ing. China’s main state broadcaster, CCTV, had reported earlier that month that a novel coronavirus was responsible for similar illnesses in Wuhan, just 50 miles away, but for Hui Xian life was continuing as normal. She had plenty of other things to think about. Her job kept her busy, and she was looking forward to the Lunar New Year holiday, when she’d travel to Anhui province to see her in-laws. Her 8-month-old son was already there, his grandparents delighting in having him all to themselves.
A few days later, it began. Cases of the coronavirus were rising by the hundreds in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei. In Huanggang, patients were arriving faster than nurses could process them, many with severe, hacking coughs and high fevers. On Jan. 23, as the official total of confirmed cases reached more than 800, the Chinese government barred all travel in and out of Wuhan. The train station in Huanggang shut down, along with the bus system. By the end of the month, the whole province of 60 million was all but sealed off from the world.
In Beijing, where I work as a correspondent and anchor for Bloomberg Television, I received Hui Xian’s daily updates with increasing alarm. She’s my first cousin—I’ve known her almost my entire life. Since I moved to China from San Francisco last year, she and I have spoken every few weeks on WeChat, the all-purpose communication app everyone here uses, catching up on each other’s lives and laughing about the antics of her baby and 4-year-old daughter.
Hui Xian wasn’t the only person I had to worry about at the epicenter of the outbreak. My mother grew up in Hubei, and she and my father, who are both chemistry professors, met as students at Wuhan University. Although they emigrated to the U.S. before I was born, we traveled to China every few years when I was growing up, always stopping in Wuhan. I have fond memories of strolling under the blooming cherry blossoms on the university campus, climbing trees and catching butterflies with Hui Xian, and joining her and my other relatives for re gan mian, a local dish of spicy noodles that’s well known all over China.
Like most people, I had no idea that the coronavirus would soon become the most important story in the world, an economy-wrecking juggernaut that would touch me, my parents, and everyone else I cared about.
Hui Xian’s early reports described a situation that was hard to imagine. Her husband and older child were essentially locked in their apartment, along with her father and mother. Their only outside interaction was with members of the neighborhood committee, the lowest level of the government, which was organizing food deliveries to residential buildings.
As a health-care worker, Hui Xian was allowed to leave, but what she found at her hospital was frightening. Basic supplies were scarce, and she had to wear the same mask and gloves for days at a time. Local media reported that some medical staffin Huanggang had resorted to wearing raincoats and garbage bags as gowns and shoe covers. Hui Xian’s biggest fear was that she’d bring the pathogen back with her. “I’m scared,” she told me. “I just take alcohol and spray myself when I get home. I don’t want to infect my family.”
Soon her father, my uncle, began to feel sick, with a dry cough and shortness of breath—signs now known to indicate Covid-19, as the disease caused by coronavirus is called. He started taking large quantities of antibiotics, convinced they would clear up the problem. Hui Xian warned him against going for a test at the hospital, fearing that if he didn’t already have Covid-19 he might contract it there. He went anyway. The results came back negative, and he started to feel better, but he was still paranoid, hyperaware of every little scratch in his throat and constantly wiping down surfaces with disinfectant.
On Feb. 12, Hui Xian moved out of her apartment. To slow the seemingly inexorable spread of the disease—on that day the number of official confirmed cases rose above 50,000— doctors and nurses were being asked to relocate to makeshift isolation units. She’d be living and working in a school dormitory that was also serving as a screening center for patients suspected of being positive. She had mixed feelings about leaving. She already had no idea when she’d be able to see her newborn, who was still with his grandparents in Anhui; saying goodbye to her daughter as well was a depressing thought. But she felt she didn’t have much choice. “Even though in my heart I don’t want to go, it’s my responsibility,” she told me.
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