Fear, hope and grief: wuhan after the lockdown relaxed
They have delighted in the small things, like getting bubble tea and takeout noodles. They have rediscovered places like the neighborhood playground. They have searched for new vocabularies to describe their losses.
For more than two months, the people of Wuhan, China, lived under lockdown as their city buckled beneath the weight of the coronavirus that emerged there. Then, gradually, cases ebbed. On April 8, the lockdown was lifted.
Now, the residents of Wuhan are cautiously feeling their way toward an uncertain future, some of the first in the world to do so. There is trauma and grief, anger and fear. But there is also hope, gratitude and a newfound patience.
Here are four of their stories.
ELATION AND RELIEF
Her friends had posted all over social media: The milk tea shops had reopened! Wuhan was coming back!
But when Rosanna Yu, 28, took a sip of her first order in two months, she was unimpressed. “Did you guys forget how to make milk tea?” she posted jokingly on WeChat in late March. “How is it this bad?”
Still, disappointing milk tea is better than none. And while normalcy and good bubble tea may still be out of reach, just the prospect has Ms. Yu feeling buoyant.
In early April, after the lockdown eased, Ms. Yu and her parents visited a park to admire Wuhan’s famous cherry blossoms. Officials had urged residents to stay home when possible, but “we just couldn’t sit inside any longer,” she said.
She recently took a video of the long line at a local restaurant for takeout “hot dry noodles,” Wuhan’s signature dish. She now has to pause for traffic before crossing the street — a burden that has never felt less like one.
“Seeing a lot of cars, I’m actually so happy,” she said.
Her optimism is born, in part, of luck. None of her friends or family were infected. The lockdown was hard at first, but she soon distracted herself by learning to bake crullers and sweet buns.
Some things are undeniably harder. Ms. Yu quit her job as a secretary last year, planning to look for a new one in January. But her parents now want her to wait until the fall, for safety reasons.
She rarely sees friends, because there is nowhere to go; dining in at restaurants is not allowed.
But for the most part, Ms. Yu has embraced Wuhan’s new normal. She plans to keep baking. She may take online classes.
And she has discovered a new kinship with her neighbors. During the lockdown, residents who were barbers offered free haircuts. The neighborhood’s group chat, formed to coordinate bulk grocery buys, has became a virtual support circle.
“This was my first time feeling like the entire neighborhood, and all of Wuhan, was all in something together, working toward the same goal,” Ms. Yu said.
ANGER AND ALIENATION
Leaving Wuhan Behind
Liang Yi has not been home to Wuhan in the four months since he fled town right before the lockdown was imposed.
If he can help it, he won’t ever be back.
“We have a son now,” Mr. Liang, a 31-year-old marketing professional, said of himself and his wife. “If we can create better circumstances for him, then we don’t want to live in a city like Wuhan anymore.”
Around the world, many are eager to return to the lives they had before the coronavirus. But for some, that return has become impossible, even undesirable.
As the outbreak ravaged Wuhan, Mr. Liang — who had hunkered down with his wife and 2-year-old son at his parents’ home about 75 miles from Wuhan — stewed over the government’s initial denials of the outbreak’s severity. He fumed over its early refusal to allow hospitals to test many suspected cases, including that of his friend, who was sent home to self-isolate.
Yes, the Wuhan authorities eventually brought the outbreak under control. But he could not forgive them for allowing it to explode in the first place.
“This epidemic really must be related to the Wuhan government’s governing ability,” he said. “It makes me feel that living in this kind of city is unsafe.”
Now, as other Wuhan residents greet their newly reawakened city, Mr. Liang — who has lived in Wuhan for eight years, and in the surrounding province his whole life — is preparing his goodbyes.
He will have to return to Wuhan once, maybe in June, or whenever he feels the virus has truly gone. He will sell his property there, and he and his family will move elsewhere in China. Eventually, he hopes, they might immigrate, perhaps to Canada.
“It’s a last resort,” he said. “This is overturning your entire life. It means starting over.”
GRIEF AND REGRET
Finding New Ways to Talk
In the months after his mother died from the coronavirus, Veranda Chen searched daily for new distractions. He read Freud and experimented in the kitchen. He joked on WeChat about opening a restaurant. Its signature dish, he said, would be called “remembering past suffering, and thinking of present joy.”
But recently, cooking has lost its appeal. His mother used to ask him to cook for her, but he had said he was too busy applying for graduate school.
“I thought, ‘I’ll focus on getting into my dream school, and then after that, I can put all my time into doing the things they’d always asked me to,’” Mr. Chen, 24, said of his parents.
“Now, there’s no chance.”
Mr. Chen’s mother fell sick when the outbreak was at its height. An overwhelmed hospital turned her away on Feb. 5. She died in an ambulance on the way to another. She was 58.
She and Mr. Chen had been close, though they had often struggled to show it. She had insisted on saving money for his eventual wedding, rather than indulging a trip to the tropical island of Hainan. He considered her old-fashioned and often felt smothered.
After she died, he realized he had so many questions he had wanted to ask her — about her childhood, about his childhood, about how she had seen him change.
Mr. Chen had to learn to grieve in lockdown, when the usual rituals of mourning were impossible. He couldn’t see his friends. His father wasn’t around, either; he had tested positive and was in a hospital.
Mr. Chen turned to Tinder — not for romance but for conversation. “Sometimes, talking to strangers is easier than talking to friends,” he said. “They don’t know anything about your life.”
Now that Mr. Chen and his father are reunited, they, too, are searching for new ways to talk.
They don’t discuss his mother; his father finds it too painful. But Mr. Chen wants to invite his father to go fishing, and to ask him the questions he never asked his mother. He also wants to learn from him how to stir-fry tomatoes and eggs, a traditional dish his parents used to make.
He is most fixated on getting into a psychology program. After his mother’s death, that plan feels more urgent than ever. “I want to use it to ease other people’s suffering,” he said.
PATIENCE AND VIGILANCE
Spring in Wuhan marks the start of crawfish season. Crawfish braised, crawfish fried, crawfish coated with chilies — and always devoured with family and friends.
But Hazel He doesn’t plan to have another feast like that until at least next year.
“Anywhere where there are crowds, there is still some degree of risk,” Ms. He, 33, said.
Avoiding risk shapes everything Ms. He does these days. Though residents are allowed to move around the city again, she still chats with her friends by video. Before going outside with her 6-year-old son, she peers out her window to make sure no one is around. She recently let him play on the swings near their apartment again, but they don’t leave the neighborhood.
The anxiety is not nearly as overwhelming as it had been in the early days of the outbreak, when Ms. He would cry while watching the news, and her son would ask her what was wrong.
But, like others in Wuhan, she is still approaching normalcy only tentatively, understanding just how fragile the victory is.
Just last week, six new cases were reported there, after more than a month of no new reported infections.
“Wuhan has sacrificed so much,” Ms. He said. “Taking care of ourselves is our responsibility to everyone else.”
Ms. He is unsure when her company will resume the face-to-face meetings that are core to her job as a recruiter, but she reminds herself that her mortgage is manageable. She will have to wait until at least July to register her son for elementary school. But for now she is content to practice arithmetic with him at home.
“It’s as if we were running a race, and I’m currently 50 meters behind,” she said. “But as long as I catch up later, it’s the same.”