City of Solitude
For 76 days, 9 million people in Wuhan slept, ate, and waited inside the largest quarantine in human history. Four people reveal what they saw and what happened after the lockdown ended.
The day before the Lunar New Year, 24 hours after the government suspended the planes and trains and ferries, and closed the highways to prevent people from coming in or out, the city of Wuhan in central China had already gone quiet. For the next two and a half months, millions stayed indoors. Many of them lived in apartment compounds — walled, maze-like complexes of high-rise buildings that house tens of thousands of residents and that, starting in February, helped enforce the quarantine. Only one person per household could leave every three days for necessities, their name and registration and temperature taken at the gate. Yellow 6-foot-tall barricades segmented the streets outside, blocking entrances to shops and separating neighbors.
Qiaokou, a district of Wuhan on the banks of the Han River, would witness one of the city’s highest concentrations of cases. At Pu’Ai No. 4 Hospital, a facility designated to treat the virus, doctors triaged; across the river, in a sports arena converted into a makeshift hospital, thousands of patients waited in collective isolation; inside their apartments, citizens waged private battles against despair, loneliness, boredom. Then the numbers began to turn. On March 1, the temporary hospital in Qiaokou closed, with the 15 others across Wuhan soon to follow. On April 8, hours after the city unsealed its borders and the first train left the railway station, tens of thousands of people departed while others returned. And as the world’s attention turned elsewhere, Qiaokou, the last district of Wuhan to have its classification changed from medium risk to low, cautiously stirred back to life.
A tech worker who contracted the virus leaves Pu’Ai No. 4 Hospital and goes home to face the monotony and alienation of recovery. Across from the clinic, a woman returns to her darkened noodle shop after months of lost business. Next door, a student grieves the death of his mother, who fell victim to the virus. Meanwhile, a courier who has delivered supplies to Qiaokou throughout the lockdown continues to roam its streets on his moped, observing its residents as they begin the task of moving on.
Interviews have been translated from Mandarin and edited for length and clarity.
YI, 23, STUDENT I’m living in my grandmother’s old home. I moved in after my mother passed away.
In late January, she began to have a fever. A week before, I’d heard about an illness that was spreading, but everyone was saying it was a rumor, and the people who started it had been arrested. On February 3, my birthday, my mother was having difficulty breathing, but she kept trying to convince me, “It’s nothing. It’s nothing.” My heart was breaking. I felt like I was going to lose her at any moment. The next day, my mother went to get tested at the isolation ward, and the day after that, she was in the car being transferred to No. 4 Hospital when she died. There was nobody by her side. When my father rode his bike over to tell me, his eyes were red and his face bore no expression at all.
BAI, 40, NOODLE SHOP OWNER I’ve run my noodle shop for over two years. Guozao — eating breakfast — is a very Wuhan thing, and the atmosphere in our shop was good. Many regulars came every morning to eat our dry spicy noodles for breakfast. The old ladies would leave their own cups in our shop so they could use them the next time they came, and sometimes they’d bring little bottles of wine. They’d eat noodles, drink, and chat about this and that. Across from our restaurant is a hospital, Pu’Ai No. 4, and in the mornings, patients would come. Many were too sick to eat and could only drink rice soup, so when we made porridge, we’d keep the liquid left over for them. The nurses and doctors at the hospital were also frequent customers. Their regular orders, the flavors they liked — we’d remember it all clearly.
We closed shop for the Lunar New Year. Wuhan’s outbreak was getting bad — the doctors and nurses who came into our shop had urged us to wear masks, saying that the pneumonia was serious. I returned to my hometown of Huangshi, outside of Wuhan, and the day after, they began to seal off the city.
Our restaurant is 70 square meters with ten employees, and after wages, rent, and utilities, we earn, at most, 3 or 4,000 yuan ($420 to $560) a month. The pandemic wiped it all out. While in Huangshi, I heard on the news that when Wuhan reopens, business owners could negotiate with landlords to reduce rent. We thought if the landlord could give us some relief, or postpone payment, maybe we can survive.
WU, 35, TECH EMPLOYEE On January 23, I began to feel sore and feverish. I didn’t go to dinner with my family for Lunar New Year — I thought it was a cold and was afraid of giving it to them. It was exactly then that the coronavirus was getting serious. Then, my mother-in-law developed symptoms. In the end, four people in my family of five got sick, including my parents. At that time, if you got sick, you couldn’t just check into the hospital. You had to go through the committee for your neighborhood, and they would arrange for you to be hospitalized. I’d made several requests to our committee but was told there were no beds, no tests. So I posted a plea for help on Weibo [Chinese Twitter] and wrote about the situation my family was facing. That was on February 5, and my post garnered some attention: People were reposting it and offering to help find vacant beds. That pressured the committee to move us up on their list.
Finally, around 1 a.m. one night, an ambulance came to take my parents to the hospital. I think that’s when my father began to give out. He’d been sick for over a week and hadn’t been eating — this illness takes away your appetite. My wife and I had driven them to the hospital to get medicine, but it was packed, and they felt too sick to wait in line. Before, my father was in good health, and he exercised every morning. My mother wasn’t as healthy, but in the end, it was my father who passed.
CHEN, 32, DELIVERY DRIVER I’ve done this work for almost three years, and since the outbreak, I haven’t stopped. Soon after the lockdown began, I started filling bulk orders for entire apartment buildings. It works the same as normal delivery: My customers add my contact info on WeChat and tell me what they need, and I go to the supermarket to collect their orders. Before the pandemic, we could enter each neighborhood complex for delivery, but now we leave the orders at the gate.
I’m a dude; I’d never bought sanitary napkins before. These two months, customers were often asking me to help them purchase these things. So now when I go to the store, I know the difference between daytime and nighttime ones and where to find them. It’s something I never used to think about.
BAI On April 2, the landlord for our shop called to tell me that we needed to pay rent.
My rent is 20,000 yuan a month, and we pay for three months at a time. I had paid for January to March, so starting in April, I’d have to pay rent through June: 60,000 yuan. My shop’s been closed for months. I simply had no way to afford it. On the phone, my landlord said, “I didn’t cause the pandemic.” He said that if I reopen for business, he’ll ask for the rent. Otherwise, once Wuhan’s lockdown is lifted, I’ll need to clear out.
YI My relationship with my mother was complicated. It wasn’t bad; it was a communication barrier typical between two generations. We had forgotten how to speak with each other and were just learning how to get along again.
These days, I feel like I’m losing control of myself. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep, and when I do, I have strange, sometimes nightmarish dreams, though I rarely encounter my mother in them. During the day, I might suddenly begin to cry or fall into a daze. From the moment my mother died, I haven’t stopped thinking about how I could have saved her. I keep replaying it in my head. The first time my mother ran a high fever, I lost my temper at my father. I said, “I’m not going to let this happen to her.” I got my hands on some medicine, but it turned out to be useless. I read online about another medicine worth trying, but by that time, all of the pharmacies in Wuhan had closed.
There are so many things I wish I had handled differently. When my mother was rushing to emergency care, my father called to ask me if I would accompany her. I said no. When my mother was still at the isolation ward, I saw her but didn’t go near her — I caught only a glimpse from far away. If I could go back in time, I would’ve hugged her before saying goodbye.
WU I came home from the Wuhan Pu’Ai Hospital on March 22. I can go out and walk around because I have a green code. These days, it’s virtually impossible to go anywhere without that code. On WeChat, you submit your recent travel history, whether you have symptoms, and other basic information, and the platform assigns you a color: Green means you’re at a low risk of having contracted the virus, yellow is medium, and red means high. Anything short of green would hinder your ability to move around. Still, I mostly stay home, except when my wife is carrying something heavy, then I’ll go down to help her.
After my family got ill, our neighbors seem to be afraid of us. The residential communities help manage the spread of the disease, so if someone in your family gets sick, pretty much everyone in your complex will know.
I’m indifferent. If you want to avoid me because you’re scared, then that’s fine. My wife bears the brunt of it. She was the only person in our family not to get sick. When she goes out to buy groceries, some neighbors will steer clear. Or when they get into an elevator with her, they might stand in the corner and keep their distance.
YI It’s been two months since I’ve seen my father. He also got sick: He first went to the isolation ward and then to one of the makeshift hospitals, and I haven’t seen him since he checked in.
Now, my father’s back in their house, and he’s under quarantine. Once this is over, the thing I most want to do is sit down with him and start fresh and learn about his past. From the time I was a child, I was always studying, and then I left home for college. I’ve always thought, After I finish this exam, I’ll carve out time for my parents, share my thoughts with them and hear their stories. But the chance never came. It’s likely that when I do finally see my father, I’ll discover we have nothing to say to each other.
WU Toward the end of March, the funeral parlors began to open. When it was time to bury my father, I didn’t invite any relatives. I figured they would worry about the health risk, so I said to my mother, “Let’s just tell them not to come. Just in case they don’t want to attend but are too polite or embarrassed to refuse. Let’s just have it be us.”
YI My father and I went to the funeral parlor in Hankou district to retrieve my mother’s ashes. When we were standing in line, we saw a man about the same age as my father, who was likely also retrieving his wife’s remains.
I remember watching a movie about a girl who died, and when her family went to mourn her, they didn’t seem that devastated. At the time, I thought, Why aren’t you crying? Why is there still a smile on your face? The scene at the funeral home was similar. People seemed relaxed. Nobody appeared very sad. It was as though people had already been drained of their tears.
I was handed a small silver bag containing my mother’s ashes. I was shocked at how, when a body is cremated, it amounts to so little. I had chosen a wooden urn, and a staff member of the funeral home put the ashes inside and wrapped it in a red and gold cloth. After, another staff member escorted us out with a black umbrella. It was barely raining, so I asked him why he was holding it. He said he didn’t know.
BAI Before I returned to Wuhan, I called each of my employees to tell them we were closing. It was hard to say the words; we’d become a small family. They treated this noodle shop as their own, and they handled their work with more care and expertise than I did.
There was one person I was especially reluctant to let go. She was a waitress in her 40s. She was older than me but called me Older Sister. She made people laugh — I bet many customers came just for her. When I told her, she said that she didn’t know what to do next, because she’s divorced, and I don’t think her son looks after her, so she depends on herself for her livelihood.
CHEN Since the lockdown lifted, there are more delivery drivers. A lot of people are out of work, so many of them have joined the fleet.
BAI I returned to Wuhan on April 8, the first day the lockdown ended. The bus station was more crowded than I’d expected. When I was buying a ticket early that morning, I ran into someone I knew from Wuhan, who had a hotpot restaurant. I asked him if he was returning to Wuhan, and he replied that he was going back to reopen his shop. I thought, Why can he carry on his business, but I have to go back to close up?
The bus ride took about two hours, and around 4 p.m. that afternoon, I arrived at my shop. One of my waiters was at the entrance waiting for me. I’d thought the lockdown would last only a week or two, so we had closed up in a hurry. When I unlocked the door and went in, pots and bowls and kitchen utensils were in piles everywhere.
We had to sell everything. The big stove we used to boil noodles, dozens of bowls, dozens of pairs of chopsticks, knives, our industrial freezer, two air conditioners. When I bought that stove, I spent over 3,000; the freezer was around 10,000; the refrigerator cost thousands of yuan. When you add it all up, it would be around 50,000 yuan. I was thinking, Could I take the stove or the refrigerator and sell them to another restaurant? But nobody is looking to buy right now. I had no choice but to sell it to scrap collectors for 2,000 total.
To see everything get taken, piece by piece onto a pickup truck, it’s not quite like losing a child, but I still couldn’t bear it. All in all, it took two hours to finish everything.
YI I wanted to take my mother’s ashes to the places she wanted to go — she had always wanted to visit Hainan and Jiuzhaigou before she died. Then I would scatter them into the sea.
But my dad wanted to put the urn in a cemetery. I didn’t want to fight, so I agreed. Earlier, the price we were quoted was 20,000 yuan, but it had gone up — the new price was 100,000. My dad’s salary is only 2,000 a month, but I’ll pay for it no matter what, even if I have to sell my pots as scrap metal — even if I have to sell everything.
BAI One of the first things I wanted to do when I got back to Wuhan was to visit my employees, but everyone was still in a heavy mood, and we didn’t chat very much. They had lost their jobs. And the city hasn’t returned to normal. People are still cautious — we couldn’t just walk into a restaurant and share a meal.
YI When my mother was cremated, my first thought was, What happened to her ring? It was an ordinary ring, something she had worn for so long that it was almost a piece of her. I knew the ring must have gone with her into the furnace, but I felt that I needed it. I went crazy and searched for it everywhere, even though I knew it was probably gone.
Later, when my father was cleaning out the cabinets in their house, he found it. He told me that, before my mother died, she had taken the ring off of her finger. I wondered if she knew she was about to go.
I didn’t expect it, but when I learned that the ring was still here, I felt even more heartbroken. It forced me to admit that my mother is gone.
CHEN Before, our society rarely paid attention to delivery drivers. Now, it definitely knows more about us. Wuhan people are incredibly warm and generous and insisted on giving me masks: Sometimes when I delivered their order, they would throw masks down. Usually, the delivery fee is 5 yuan an order, but customers have been giving me tips — which is not a common practice in China — and now every order earns me 7 yuan. These two months, I’ve averaged around 10,000 a month, much higher than usual.
Late one night, I went to pick up noodles for a young man. I thought the shop owner had made a mistake because he handed me two servings, but it turned out that the customer had bought an extra one, just for me.
On Valentine’s Day, there were a lot of orders for flowers and chocolate. One guy, when he made his order, told me that his girlfriend likes lilies the most and requested I bring her some. I searched and searched but couldn’t find lilies, so I called him and told him. He was very understanding and asked me to buy a bunch of fake flowers instead, and then he bought me a bunch, too. I’m not a young man anymore — what’s Valentine’s Day to me? But it still made me very happy.
WU Because I wrote that post on Weibo when I was sick, people from all over have followed me and sent me messages. Even now, after I’ve recovered, some send care packages. We received calcium tablets, and people from the neighborhood gave our family vegetables and fruit. Strangers on the internet even donated money. They urge me to drink milk and eat eggs for protein, invite me to visit them in their provinces when I’m better. I know now that there are more good people out there in the world.
When this is all behind us, I want to find a way to thank my wife. She took care of my entire family; if it weren’t for her, I don’t know where any of us would be. After I recover, I’ll take her on vacation.
BAI I’ve returned home to Huangshi. I probably won’t be going back to Wuhan soon. I might head to Guangdong province to look for work because I have family there, and they said they’ll help me. They work in textiles. I don’t know if I can do it, but I can’t be picky right now.
WU At home, I talk with friends on WeChat during the day, and at night, I play games online. Some of my friends went back to work, so in the evenings we’ll play together. During the day, I tidy up, do some housework, watch TV, read. If my wife goes to buy groceries, I’ll go with her and stretch my legs.
I work for a telecom company, so I get paid every month as usual. I don’t know when my company will have me return to work. Staying at home and resting felt nice, but I want to go back. I think I’d feel more meaning and purpose.
YI I saw my father again this morning, the first time in many days. He wanted me to take an antibody test. I don’t want to, but I made a deal with him: If I get tested, then he’ll let me introduce him to a grief counselor. If you lose such an important person, how can you get through it without help? He didn’t want to see one, but he agreed.
I’m sleeping better these days. Sometimes I wake up, and the pillows are damp, but I don’t remember what I dreamed about.
WU Every day, we eat at home. We boil dumplings, we fry rice — it’s pretty much the same thing, day in, day out. I still crave dry spicy noodles, and if those noodle shops open again, I’ll know things are starting to come back to life.
CHEN There are more businesses opening. But the ones that would make me think that Wuhan is returning to normal are the breakfast vendors. Wuhan people place great importance on guozao, on having breakfast, and customers have been ordering much more breakfast delivery. It’s understandable — we’ve been deprived for months.
Previously, I was constantly going to Pu’Ai No. 4 Hospital to deliver meals. Everyone there was incredibly tense, the staff exhausted. But lately, that tension isn’t there. Sometimes I even shoot the breeze with the doctors and nurses.
BAI The internet is overwhelmed with ads for shop owners trying to transfer their leases — it’s not only our shop. But I have a friend who is also in the restaurant business, and at the end of March, his landlord called and offered to reduce rent. Sometimes there is a landlord who is a little better.
CHEN Even though there are more people out and about, everyone’s still vigilant. There are still a lot of customers ordering masks, and you’re still not allowed to help customers buy anti-fever medicine — if they have a fever, they have to go to the hospital.
But as a whole, the city feels less nervous — like everyone’s heartstrings have loosened a little. One of my favorite places in Wuhan is Jiangtan Park, on the waterfront. I grew up next to the Han River, so I’m happy whenever a delivery route takes me past it. It’s a spot couriers go for their lunch breaks or to rest. During the outbreak, the place was empty — I only ever saw the couriers in their blue and yellow uniforms. But recently, as the weather’s warmed, I see people strolling or playing badminton. The park is returning to what it used to be.