03/31/2020, 15.15
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I have seen life and death in Wuhan (I)

by Helena Xiang - Teresa Grazia Xiao

Fear during the Lunar New Year. Then the shattering tragedy: elderly mourned dead children; nurses watched their parents die; people committed suicide throwing themselves from their balconies. Families disintegrated. People became homeless so as not to infect loved ones. The loss of hope and refuge in prayer.

Wuhan (AsiaNews) - Helena Xiang and Teresa Grazia Xiao talk about the first moments of the epidemic crisis in Wuhan (Hubei), the epicenter of lung infection in China. From the joy of family reunions during the Lunar New Year, to the despair of the isolation imposed by the authorities to prevent the spread of the virus. The elderly who died on the streets. People who committed suicide by throwing themselves from the balconies of buildings to escape quarantine measures. The sick crowded in the corridors of hospitals, and the tragedy of doctors and nurses. Everything in those days in Wuhan spoke of death. Below part 1 or their story.

The pandemic, and the media that speak about it, bring death closer to us. Now suffering, anxiety, struggle, anguish and hope are part of our daily lives. Cities are lockdown, villages closed, transport halted, streets silent: everything speaks of death. Never as in these days, has death been so palpably close and strong.

It all began 70 days ago with the arrival of the Chinese New Year. China was bustling and vibrant in preparation for the festive season. People with so much joy, hope and so many plans were busy ahead of 10-15 days of vacation. Nobody could have imagined they would last such a long time, without ever knowing when these "forced vacations" would end.

We have to stop and think about the ongoing epidemic: "Men consume the life of animals in cages; they burn the life of trees in fire; now they close their lives in concrete boxes." We are living through an unprecedented moment, with daily news of deaths. Nobody knows if they will be next, infected with the coronavirus, facing death.

A rumor circulates on Wechat and many Chinese blogs. It is said that every citizen is asked three questions when they leave the house or return: “Where are you from? where are you going? Who are you?". When stopped for a police check, your temperature is measured and you have to fill in a form with these three questions.


On January 15th, Wuhan citizens were alerted to the virus. On the 16th, the newspapers reported two people who died from pneumonia. The city residents would joke that the world was panicking, but they are calm. When the first disturbing data emerged on 19th, everyone understood that it was serious. On the 23rd, New Year's Eve, the vast majority of Chinese returned home to their families; then, the authorities announced the isolation of Wuhan and the suspension of all public transport.

Although every family had already plenty of food stocked up for the celebration, the sudden closure of the city created panic: people were worried about their health and daily needs. On New Year's Eve, traditionally, Chinese families prepare the dishes for dinner, the midnight banquet and breakfast on the first day of the new year.

Jiaozi (ravioli) are the most popular dish, because they can be prepared together by all family members: someone rolls the pasta, others mix the filling and still others shape them. In the meantime, everyone talks about what they have done in the year that is coming to a close, and they share the dreams and plans for the year that is to come. However, this year the discussion was dominated by fears over the epidemic.

People have no desire to see the shows scheduled for the celebrations, especially in Wuhan. We turned on the TV, but only to create background noise. Medicines are in short supply, and masks cannot be purchased. Concerned, but also a little reassured, Helena and I discover that the New Year’s Eve, several medical rescue teams, with hundreds of doctors and nurses, flew from Shanghai to Wuhan by plane.

Holy Mass was not celebrated on New Year’s, but many families said the rosary. Prayer ceremonies immediately appeared on the internet. We prayed for a first novena. From that moment on, we never stopped, reaching the 10th novena. On January 26, when nationwide it was no longer possible to leave the house, Pope Francis' prayer for the Chinese gave us great comfort. Meanwhile, every day, more than a dozen priests and lay people posted homilies, poems and liturgical songs on Wechat.

Yet outside Wuhan, people still did not perceive the danger. In Chengdu (Sichuan), the real emergency was the earthquake those days. There city ​​was hit on February 3 by a 4.7 magnitude shock. Locals initially joked, but that was a tragedy that added to the other two: the epidemic in Hubei and the bird flu in Changsha.

However, it was also during this most difficult time, when people could not leave their house that Wuhan's air became cooler, without the usual haze. You could admire the blue sky and the bright sun. People seemed calmer and more in harmony with each other. More books were read, the dialogue between parents and children grew; the children began to show respect for the elderly. People were scared, but there was confidence: our sick city could heal.


The epidemic then began to worsen, and death appeared closer. Many tragic events happened in the building where Helena lives. An 80-year-old elderly man was infected and could not be hospitalized, as well as a married couple. The inhabitants of the building were frightened and constantly called the mayor and the emergency room.

Helena's cousin, who lives in another area of ​​the city, also got sick: she had a fever, but again there was no place in the hospital. Helena sought help online, phoned the mayor, but without success.

After 10 days, the elderly gentleman died, and the couple was hospitalized. Helena's cousin stayed at home and was treated by a doctor who is an expert in traditional medicine: luckily she recovered, and to continue taking care of her mother who is ill with cancer.

Tales of death also come from nearby neighborhoods. An old woman died while dragging herself along the street. A 90-year-old gentleman queued for five days and five nights to hospitalize his 65-year-old son, without success. Many had a high fever, but they were not diagnosed with coronavirus. They were not hospitalized, but they dared not go home. Refused even by hotels, they were forced to wander around Wuhan like homeless people.

There was no food, no medicine and many - especially the elderly - do not know how to ask for help. Some gave in to despair and committed suicide by throwing themselves from the windows of the buildings: many of these images have circulated online and Wechat.

In the meantime, hospitals were filling up. The hospitalized people also died in the corridors. Then the doctors and nurses began to die. Death made no distinction, it affected famous professors, artists, directors and entire families alike.

A nurse saw her parents die in the hospital where she served. After the tragedy, rather than going back to the empty house, she preferred to stay and treat the patients in the hospital: "When I help the sick - she said - I forget everything".

Another nurse worked for 25 days straight. One day she went home to have a bite to eat. Her husband and son prepared something that she then ate outside the house, without even going in, for fear of infecting them.

A patient shouted that she wanted to commit suicide: she was asymptomatic, and had infected her parents, her husband and her six-month-old son. She felt like a sinner: for her, living no longer had any meaning. A girl, on her knees, despaired at her father's death: "Daddy, why can't I see you or touch you?"

Then there is the tragedy of the rescuers. In a message on Wechat, a policeman assigned to control highway exits said he was forced to wear already used masks, to sleep in the office so as not to infect loved ones at home. Officials and members of the Communist Party are drafted in to control the streets.

In these first days of isolation, people were in great difficulty. They felt helpless, lonely, depressed, angry and scared. They were in the grips of anxiety and saw no way out of the situation.  They didn’t want to do anything: just to explode.

(End of Part 1)

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