YouTube, Twitter show realities of lockdown life in virus epicenter

Laurie Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 29 2020 11:22 AM

A general view inside a shopping mall in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 25, 2020 in this still image taken from video. Contributed image via Reuters

Social media has become a lifeline for desperate residents in Wuhan and its surrounding province of Hubei in central China in getting their message out to the wider world in the face of widespread distrust of the government's official narrative on the coronavirus crisis.

Almost the entire province is in lockdown because of the virus, which originated in Wuhan and has so far infected more than 4,500 people and caused more than 100 deaths.

The hashtag "lockdown diary" on China's Twitter-like social media platform Weibo has become a place for residents to share their stories with local media, while some are taking their message beyond the country's "Great Firewall" to circumvent the mainland's widespread censorship.

Wuhan-based vlogger Luo Bin's daily videos of life under lockdown on YouTube " which, like Twitter, is unavailable in China " have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. Luo, who normally posts gadget reviews and travel vlogs, has become a crucial window into the realities of living under a citywide quarantine.

In one video published on Saturday, Luo described how he had to queue from early in the morning for supermarket supplies after citywide food shortages after the quarantine first came into effect on Tuesday, just before the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday.

"There is no celebratory mood this time, it's kind of like going through an ordeal instead of the new year," he said in the video.

"Nobody felt like giving new year's greetings to each other yesterday, and I received much fewer celebratory messages through WeChat and messaging platforms than last year. Perhaps everyone's too concerned about the outbreak to care about other things."

Luo said, in a video posted on Sunday, that he would not upload his content to domestic video streaming platforms such as Bilibili, as China's government was cracking down on unverified rumors about the disease outbreak.

A day earlier, Wuhan's mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted on state television that the government had "not revealed information ... in a timely manner" and said he was willing to be sacked if his departure would aid the fight against the virus.

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China has said it will deploy more than 6,000 medical workers to Wuhan and Hubei province as local hospitals struggle with shortages of crucial medical supplies and depleted manpower, and has pledged to build two makeshift hospitals in Wuhan to cope with the strain on the health system.

Journalism professor Rose Luwei Luqiu from Hong Kong's Baptist University said censorship had loosened somewhat on Weibo in recent days as more people were making their complaints heard, but WeChat was a different story.

"It seems that the local government are more concerned about WeChat. Since WeChat moments (similar to a Facebook user's wall) are a closed information environment, people would speak more frankly and share hearsay," said Luwei, former executive editor of Phoenix Television in Hong Kong.

"I think people who have suffered from the crisis have less trust in government narratives, but state propaganda is still effective on the general public," she said.

Another Wuhan resident, Tao Jigong, has also found sudden YouTube fame after his videos, released in the past week, gained hundreds of thousands of views.

Tao's shaky, mobile phone-filmed videos are more amateurish than Luo's, but offer an authentic glimpse into his daily life.

In one video, released on Sunday, Tao filmed his daily rituals before leaving the house, including taping plastic bags over his shoes and putting on a respirator mask and goggles.

In the same video, he tied several large bags of basic cooking supplies and toilet paper to his electric moped because motorized private vehicles had been banned in central areas of Wuhan.

"Since (the National Health Commission) said that the incubation period could last for 14 days, what I'm most worried about is that my family could get infected, or I could get infected," Tao said in a video uploaded on Monday.

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Meanwhile, Chinese "citizen journalist" and lawyer Chen Qiushi has been sharing short videos he has filmed around Wuhan on Twitter and YouTube.

In one video, filmed on Sunday evening, Chen explored the now-closed Huanan seafood market, where the outbreak was believed to have originated in the close contact between humans and various wildlife that was sold there.

"If I return home alive, that in itself counts as a victory," he said in one clip posted on Monday.

Chen, a prolific social media personality, returned to Western social media platforms after he was harassed and silenced by mainland authorities in August following a visit to Hong Kong in August to report on the protests.

More heart-warming viral videos emerged on social media on Monday of local residents in Hubei province shouting slogans of encouragement from the windows of their flats.

In response to social media calls, people in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei chanted "Wuhan, add oil!" at around 8 p.m. on Monday evening " a popular phrase of encouragement.

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One video uploaded by Tao on Monday captured the scene outside his own window, with the shouts of hundreds of people echoing across his neighbourhood.

In one widely shared short clip, residents of a housing estate in Yichang, Hubei province, were filmed shouting "Wuhan, add oil!", "Yichang, add oil!" and singing the national anthem.

"We just want to whip up everyone's morale. Our estate residents have been shut in at home for a few days ... and everyone feels quite depressed," a worker surnamed Wang, at Yichang's Tujietou housing estate, was quoted by The Beijing News on Monday. "At the time, lots of people were crying. It was very moving."

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