Through the eyes of those in China who can afford to pay for VPN, life in ground zero during the coronavirus or 2019-nCoV scare is documented in banned social network sites like Facebook. Here they can express fear, disbelief, and ennui, without being censored by the Chinese government. Visitors who flew to Wuhan to spend the Lunar New Year with family, and were left stranded by the city's lockdown, have turned to social media to show what life is like in the epicenter of the outbreak.
Australian Daniel Ou Yang was visiting relatives over the holidays, when the government decided to place the whole city in lockdown on January 23.
“We live in Hankou, which is the city center of Wuhan,” says the 21-year-old in a video he made for ABC News. “I'll give you guys an idea, the city is empty, man, like, the population is 11 million people. I can only see maybe one or two people on the street and I'm in the city center.”
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It hasn’t been easy for the young man, “but it hasn’t been too hard,” he adds. “We had to cancel a lot of Chinese New Year festivities that were outside. But look, there’s food to eat and drinks to be had, and we always have activities with the family to kill the time. We play mah jong a lot. There’s nothing else much to do. If this drags on for multiple weeks or even months, I do believe it's going to get a bit stressful,” he says on the video. On the popular mobile app TikTok, Daniel shares desolate scenes surrounding his family’s high-rise apartment in a montage of quick cuts timed to snappy pop music, airing disbelief at the empty roads.
One week into the lockdown, Daniel shares in another TikTok video that he and his family finally left the house to replenish house supplies. Outside, they are met with abandoned public spaces and supermarkets ransacked for goods. He narrates on a public Facebook post how nerve wracking it was to leave the house; that food, sanitizers, and detergent products had all been wiped from the store shelves; that people were hesitant to get close to one another; and everyone was fully covered.
For some people in China, tools like VPN and international roaming enable them to access social network platforms and websites that are banned in the country. These are some of the ways that residents or visitors are able to circumvent the "Great Firewall" instilled by the government, a process called fan qiang, or to “scale the wall.”
The Internet in China is known to censor sensitive news issues in Chinese social media networks, and talks of the coronavirus is no exception. Yixiu Wu, a 24-year-old working in a PR agency in Beijing says that influencers who dare criticize the government on WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms, will often find that the articles they publish are just “gone” or deleted.
But children of immigrant families, like Daniel, who are only visiting relatives in Wuhan over the school break, find that social media is one way to communicate the situation to the outside world during this dire time. More than a week after the lockdown, however, the young man’s tone registers a change as he reports that he hasn’t seen some of his family members in a while, and that there are reported confirmed cases in the complexes where his families live. He expressed worry over having adequate food to sustain their self-isolation, and whether the embassy would be able to send him home.
Another Facebook user, Xing Gao, also shares how she decided to proceed with her flight from Belgium to Wuhan before the lockdown to visit her family. "To be honest the lockdown came somehow expected and probably too late, she says. “I booked my ticket back long time ago for Chinese New Year. Almost everyone cancelled their trip after the virus outbreak. However, I still chose to come back because my whole family is here (which usually never happens) without adequate medical knowledge. I couldn’t afford to be locked out if something happened. So I landed at 23-01-2020 9:45 am, at 10:00 a.m. the city was locked down. Happy reunion.”
In a way, life inside the households, where many families take refuge, has some semblance of coping, Xing reports. On January 24, the second day of the lockdown, she says they still celebrated the Lunar New Year in her grandma's house.
“As always my grandparents welcomed us with a table full of food. The fancy restaurant we booked for our new year lunch was closed this morning. Because public transportation has been cut off, employees couldn’t get to work and besides, all ‘unnecessary entertaining facilities’ were told to shut down to prevent further transmission.”
Day by day, she describes how her family keeps busy. She writes about an aunt who tried to make a yoga instructional video for the family, and another aunt who is teaching them how to grow vegetables in a bottle. She writes about playing with her cousins, and her dad finishing a page off the adult coloring book. On the times when they step outside the apartment, she notes that she is surprised to see other people walking the streets as well.
“Turns out there is plenty to do indoors...” she posts publicly on January 25. “We had two connecting apartments where the oldies could watch the recap of the Chinese New Year show while we play Nintendo Sports to ‘stay fit.’”
The New Yorker reported that Beijing has sent 450 medical staff to Wuhan to assist the doctors and nurses who are in the frontlines of the global outbreak. Cat Gong takes to Instagram to share news about her relatives, who are doctors living and working in Wuhan.
“My parents’ hometown is Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Our family is there, and my aunt and uncle are surgeons at Wuhan Union Hospital. My aunt’s the one decked out in protective gear and throwing a thumbs up, still in good spirits,” describes Cat of a photo of her aunt in full gear. “They have been working 24-hour shifts, and given the quarantine and increasing number of patients, we heard from them that there was an urgent need for medical supplies. The shortage had reached a severity where doctors couldn’t properly eat, drink, or use the restroom, and if you were to, you would have to switch into new protective gear.”
Her father, who went to Huazhong University in Wuhan, and now lives in the Bay Area, has spearheaded a project with other alumni to arrange aid shipments to Wuhan. “They banded together as ‘Wuhan United’ and linked with Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid org,” she writes. The effort was able to gather 2.4 tons of medical supplies, shipped in a cargo plane to reach Wuhan Union hospital within a week. “The key was connecting the US NGO’s resources, FedEx and China Post's knowledge of logistics, and Wuhan United’s understanding of Chinese customs/networks/hospitals,” Cat writes. Also using social media, she calls out to those who would like to help, to donate to Wuhan United’s GoFundMe. More information can be found at WuhanUnited.org.