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Wuhan: a reflection from ground zero

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Islamabad assures Pakistani students of help in virus-stricken Wuhan. SCREENGRAB TWITTER Faysal Khurshid1

by Suwaibah Bilal

It was a chilly January night. Dinnertime in Wuhan had just acquired a new hint of umami. News of a certain virus wafted through re gan mian (hot dry noodles) stands and hot pot restaurants, resonating through the clinking of stoneware and china, resonating deeper than anyone could hear. Alleged to have originated in a wet market in the Hankou region of Wuhan, the virus had just been confirmed to have the potential of human transmission. Quite like the flu, however. Such minuscule particles of genetic information rarely disrupt restaurant routines. And so, the clinking persisted.

Then, one afternoon, as I scrolled through my newsfeed, a meme about the “Wuhan virus” caught my eye. It took me a while to process that not only had an ordinary local virus made its way to the international media, it also got its own name. The meme had casually likened it to a plague. Wuhan, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to this new suffix attached to its name. People went about their lives as usual and not everyone felt the need to wear protective masks.

In tandem with the Chinese Lunar Year preparations, tiny red lanterns had started popping up on trees and arrays of red decorations and gifts sprang up in supermarkets. People flocked to the markets to buy gifts for their loved ones back home as part of the much-awaited annual Chunyun — the planet’s largest migration and family reunification. The mass migration had already started two weeks prior to the new lunar year; little shops began to shut down and our residential compound hushed down as some people left for other cities, while others based in Wuhan returned.

And then, as if a switch was flicked off, on January 23, 2020, a sudden lockdown was imposed by the Chinese government, a day before the Chinese Lunar Year Eve.

Suddenly, a hustling city in the midst of celebration became a ghost town, cut off from the world. Airports, bus stands, train and subway stations shut down and emptied while hospitals brimmed with hundreds of cases. News outlets began plastering headlines about Wuhan with doctors donned in intimidating white hazmat suits. Before I could fully comprehend why so many doctors were suddenly dressing up like astronauts, the numbers of infected patients surged. Hundreds became thousands, and numerous people in the neighbourhood tested positive. Prior to the lockdown, five million residents had left Wuhan, resulting in the rapid spread of the virus outside the city as well. Mortuaries, funeral homes, medical workers and residents, all stood on the brink of collapse as a wave of anger and confusion enveloped the city.

Studying at Wuhan University, a Pakistani shares the events that unfolded at the epicentre of the pandemic at the start of the year

Owing to the state of chaos, the Wuhan mayor offered to resign and admitted that public information should have been released more quickly. Henceforth, the administration did everything it could to avert more damage. From ensuring millions of people stayed confined to their homes to building a 1,000-bed hospital from scratch in 10 days, to making sure the city received adequate food supply to converting public venues (such as exhibition centres, gymnasiums, and stadiums) into makeshift hospitals, the administration went the extra mile. Thousands of medical personnel and tons of medical supplies were airlifted to Wuhan to lighten the severe strain on resources. Cars were banned. “Sharp-tongued” drones fitted with loudspeakers, thermal sensors, and facial recognition were employed to scold people over unsafe behavior and instruct them to disinfect large areas.

Emergency staff in protective suits check the body of a man lying in an empty street in Wuhan, China | AFP

Despite a general lockdown, some convenience stores opened at fixed hours every day. A single person from each household was permitted to leave their residential compound once every few days, after filling an elaborate form. Body temperatures were monitored at convenience stores and personnel were sent to check houses — anyone with fever was to be taken to a makeshift hospital. As the lockdown tightened further, the residential management imposed a complete ban on exiting compounds and took measures for food provision themselves. More recently, Chinese medical workers celebrated closing the last makeshift hospital in Wuhan as the situation stabilised and the average number of new daily cases fell to a single digit. They had come a long way. The government spared no effort to control the situation but, as if all their efforts were in vain, the magnitude of the virus kept escalating, until it became clear that that the situation was beyond the human scope.

As I write this, still in quarantine, I greatly worry about the situation back home. As the number of cases in Pakistan has grown exponentially, the nation bears the brunt of lax travel restrictions. It is evident how the world’s biggest mass migration facilitated the evolution of an epidemic into a pandemic.

Throughout my time in quarantine here, I had hoped that the world would take heed from China’s experience. A Chinese friend posted a narration from the Prophet (peace be upon him) in which he prohibits entering and leaving a land under a plague outbreak. I contemplate whether this global catastrophe could have been averted with travel bans, whether Pakistan would have any cases today if it had followed through. At this point, the importance of acting as a collective and cooperating with the government cannot be overstated.

The novel coronavirus is a reminder of how inextricably human actions are linked. Medical personnel in Wuhan were overwhelmed, sick, collapsing, even dying. When patients were cut off from their families and taken to hospitals — cesspools of the virus where their families couldn’t accompany them — they knew it might be the last time they see each other’s faces. But others, not even related by blood, put the patients before their own lives, sleeping on the floors, crying alone, wearing garbage bags for hazmat suits. It’s bittersweet, this melancholic vibe of harmony. It took a particle of genetic material to remind us how deeply all our genetic material overlaps. For once, the whole world recognises a common enemy, a common pain, and this enemy compels us to think not as nations and states but as a collective.

Living at the centre of the outbreak, under unprecedented circumstances, has me wondering about life and the world. Ironically, being locked in a house can be incredibly freeing mentally; it brings a chance to reflect and look inwards. I was supposed to return to Pakistan in February, after a long time. My suitcase, half-packed, still lies on my window sill. I’m not filling it with things to take back home from Wuhan anymore. I’m just trying to carry back everything the outbreak taught me. I’ve closely seen an invisible particle drive a superpower to the verge of collapse. I’ve seen an atheist neighbour call upon God when three in her family caught the virus. I’ve seen African countries ban European travellers. I’ve seen ISIS warn suicide bombers to stay away from Europe. I’ve seen the US stock market crash. I’ve seen France, who bans the face veil, forcing people to wear face masks. I’ve seen toilet paper wars and police controlling toilet paper sales. I’ve seen a French fashion house, Louis Vuitton, selling hand sanitisers. I used to think I know the world.

More than ever now, the idea of impregnability seems illusory for an invisible force has reminded us that, at any moment, we have no control over our bodies, much less over the world. After so many years of noise in Wuhan, the birds aren’t scared to come out and sing. The sunshine feels warmer and the sky is no longer thick with fumes. The sky I see from my window looks blue and bright and clear. Spring is coming. Spring bears flowers for dormancy. This  essay was first published in the EOS, Sunday issue of Dawn

The writer is currently enrolled in a Chinese language programme at Wuhan University. She’s also pursuing a Bachelors in Social Sciences at NUST

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