Wuhan resident: China “nationalized” coronavirus crisis; the West isn’t doing enough
Employees at a grocery store in Wuhan, China, unload a truck to keep shelves stocked. | Photo for People's World courtesy of Lupin

For the second day in a row, there was only one new coronavirus case confirmed in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, across North America and Europe, the number of cases continues to climb—as do anxiety levels around the effectiveness of government responses. China is beginning to emerge from the worst days of its fight against coronavirus, while the rest of the world is just waking up to how much prep time was lost these last two months.

People in the West are embarking on what looks to be several weeks of sheltering at home to avoid infection, emptying grocery store shelves and stocking up on prescriptions. But in Wuhan, being trapped at home has been the reality of life for almost two months already.

In early February, People’s World interviewed Lupin, a 26-year-old man living in Wuhan with his family. He works in Toronto, Canada, but Lupin travelled back to his hometown for the Chinese New Year holiday in the last week of January. He landed on the same day that the city of 11 million people was sealed by the government in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, which is believed to have originated there.

Lupin, age 26, at his family home in Wuhan, China—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Since the quarantine orders came, Lupin has been holed up at home with his parents. On Tuesday, March 17, he again spoke with us about what life has been like in the nearly six weeks since our last interview. Day after day, week after week in the same house has been monotonous, he says, especially when you are inundated with seemingly endless negative news. “It can be hard to keep the optimism up,” he told People’s World, but “it has made me reflect on how we should not take life for granted.”

So far, Lupin and his immediate family have been fortunate. All of them are still safe, healthy, and uninfected. But that has not been the case for everyone they know. “A friend of my father’s in his 60s”—a partner at weekly games of mahjong—“has unfortunately passed away due to the virus.”

The man’s family has so far been unable to hold a funeral; the deceased are sent directly to cremation in order to protect public health, and the remains can only be retrieved after the quarantine ends. To limit the size of public gatherings, officials are postponing all memorial services. Lupin says that despite the many deaths in the city, there are no signs of funeral services to be seen anywhere. “They have not even gotten to see his ash box.”

COVID-19’s impact has been very real for Lupin and everyone else in China in a way that the rest of us will only realize in the coming weeks and months. But as the experience in Wuhan shows, it is possible to make it through and come out the other end of the crisis. “Life is still going, somehow,” Lupin says. “It is surprising how adaptive humans can be.”

Surviving weeks of quarantine

Although the confirmed case numbers and casualties are trending in the right direction, the quarantine in Wuhan remains in full effect. The government has even tightened up some measures, according to Lupin.

Whereas leaving the house for food or medicines was still allowed in early February, now residents are no longer allowed go out unless it’s an emergency. “If you are caught wandering the city streets without a proper reason, you will be sent to a designated quarantine facility.” Public health authorities remain on a combat footing to contain infections and protect the broader population.

Getting enough food has never been a serious challenge during the quarantine, but variety and selection have improved thanks to government coordination and community cooperation. “In the early days, we had to fight for the limited daily delivery quotas from the grocery shops if we wanted to be able to have a good selection. Other options were bagged mixed veggies and frozen meats” prepared by the residents’ committees.

“Recently, food supplies have stepped up,” Lupin says. “We can pretty much get everything we need delivered to the community for us to pick up.” When it comes to medical supplies and prescriptions, a self-organized system of community volunteers takes orders and runs errands on behalf of everyone in a particular area. “The community spirit really united everyone in this time of crisis.”

Residents picking up bags of frozen meats purchased from the resident committee. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

As for the economic impact of the prolonged shutdown of businesses and public life, things are not yet clear. As is the case in most of Asia, work-from-home culture is still not widespread in China, so most people—unless they work in hospitals, grocery stores, or pharmacies—are not working at all during the quarantine. Lupin says the government remains laser-focused on containing the virus, so there has been less discussion in the media about the longer-term hit the economy will take. He’s heard stories of layoffs, bankruptcies, and salary cuts of as much as 30%.

As to how people are paying their bills, it comes down to personal circumstances. There haven’t yet been any announcements of mortgage or rent holidays like those in Italy, Iran, and some other countries. Some commercial rents have been discounted locally, but “many people are draining their savings or borrowing from family and friends” to get by. “Some people in dire situations are negotiating with landlords and banks for reduced or postponed payments,” but there is no systemized state response, so far.

A “nationalized” response to crisis

One aspect of the epidemic plaguing the minds of many working class people in the United States has been largely absent in China: how to afford virus testing and treatment. “China has made a promise that all related costs will be covered by the government and has been keeping its promise so far,” Lupin says. “No one has been left untested out of fear of the costs.”

Lupin grew up in China, but he’s lived a significant portion of his life in a Western country, Canada. Comparing the response of governments in China and the West, he says it took too long for authorities in North America to take the threat seriously.

“A month ago, many countries mocked the situation in China as if it will never become a ‘First World’ countries issue. Now, these same countries are hoping China will come to their rescue”—which is precisely what is happening in Italy, where teams of Chinese experts have arrived to help.

He says that “arrogance has been a real obstacle.” Time is of the essence, but “it’s already taken long enough for North America to acknowledge there is an issue.” Looking at what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada, Lupin wonders whether the measures taken so far have gone far enough fast enough.

President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say everything is on the table to fight the virus and protect the economy, but much emphasis has been on propping up financial markets thus far. Measures aimed at propping up everyone else have been slower in coming. “When presented with the choice, China sacrificed” the market in order to prioritize health, but “given Trump’s obsession with the stock market, it is hard to imagine he will make the same choice.”

Read People’s World’s earlier interview with Lupin from Wuhan, China:

Chinese national describes life inside the coronavirus quarantine zone

Lupin argues that the governments of “capitalist countries like Canada and the U.S. have different circumstances and priorities than China,” but when an outbreak like this hits, every country—socialist or capitalist or mixed—needs the same quarantine facilities, protective gear, trained medical staff, and treatments.

Staff at a local clinic remain constantly in protective gear when receiving patients. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

Trump and his coronavirus point-man, Vice President Mike Pence, parade corporate CEOs at televised press conferences and present the private sector as savior. China has taken the opposite stance. “China nationalized this crisis from the beginning and made it the country’s priority above everything else,” Lupin asserts. “With the solidarity of 1.4 billion people and the entire machinery of the Communist Party of China engaged, we came through the darkest moment.”

That socialization of the crisis response is something the West may soon be forced into copying. Trump Wednesday afternoon announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act, which gives the U.S. government power to control economic production and distribution, as well as control prices and wages. White House staff had been exploring the option in late February, but were dismissed by Trump.

Lupin says he has “witnessed the extent of efforts the Chinese government and its citizens have made.” Looking West, he believes “the things the U.S. and Canada are doing so far are nowhere close to it yet.”

Still looking ahead

It is still unknown when the lockdown will be lifted in Wuhan. With most international air travel coming to a halt and countries closing their borders, it doesn’t look like Lupin will be returning to North America any time soon. Canada has closed its borders to international arrivals, but since he has permanent resident status in the country, Lupin would be allowed in if he could find a way back. That doesn’t mean he wants to, though.

“Luckily, I am exempted from the ban, but I am not eager to fly back A.S.A.P.” He’s not sure he’d necessarily be safer in North America. “I have seen firsthand how things can unfold quickly, and I’m now scared that history will repeat itself in Canada.” In some areas of the United States, like Washington state, it looks like that might already be happening.

For now, he tries to keep himself busy amidst the boredom of quarantine and does what he can to stay fit. With a visit to the gym not an option, he climbs up and down the stairs from the 20th floor of his apartment building to exercise. “Sometimes I find childhood video games to play or books to read… I help my mom prepare dinner.”

The view from Lupin’s balcony at 3 a.m.: In the distance, only the lights of a designated coronavirus hospital are illuminated. | Photo for People’s World courtesy of Lupin

He’s trying to find the unexpected silver linings in the lockdown. “It is a rare family bonding opportunity.” On sunny days, he sits outside on the balcony, listening to the birds chirping—a sound rarely heard back when Wuhan was a bustling metropolis.

The days are not all pleasant, especially with bad news coming 24/7. “It can be hard to keep the optimism up, but I often think of the brighter days in the past.” But there is still plenty to look forward to as well; the coronavirus crisis will eventually end. The people of Wuhan are probably closer to the final stages than anyone else.

“Hope is a beautiful thing to have at a moment like this, and now the whole world needs it.”


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.