Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Escape from Wuhan

Patients being treated for the coronavirus at a makeshift hospital in Wuhan, February 17 (STR/Contributor/Getty Images)
An account of the coronavirus quarantine in China

The onset of the crisis in Wuhan startled me like a jump scare in a horror movie. You’ve seen the kind I mean. The audience is led to believe that the monster, psycho killer—or what have you—pursuing the intended victim is still distant. Then whatever it is stands up from behind, leaps out in front, bursts through the floor, or otherwise appears and delivers the jolt. 

In mid January, my girlfriend visited the hospital for an ordinary illness. She came back on edge about the new disease, which had alarmed the staff. She had to cancel her usual trip home for Chinese New Year, too. She was told that if she visited her family, who lived in a smaller town (by Chinese standards!) near Hubei Province, she would be quarantined for two weeks, as a precautionary measure. The same would be done to anyone who arrived from Wuhan. She advised me to avoid the subway at peak hours.

Ominous signs mounted after that. More and more I saw surgical masks—usually blue, sometimes white—on the faces of people walking on Guangba Street where I lived. These were different from cloth breathing masks, the ones used for filtering out pollution, that had, in a casually dystopian way, been incorporated into fashion. Those I think make people look like characters from the 1990s video game Mortal Kombat. The preponderance of these new masks on people’s faces was a rough barometer of the intensifying climate of fear.

On Wednesday, January 22, the proportion of people on the streets I saw wearing the masks jumped up precipitously from about 25 percent the day before to about 80 percent. Pharmacies were selling out of them. When I sat down in a coffee shop that evening, someone took my temperature with an electronic thermometer you pointed at the target’s ear, to make sure I wasn’t running a fever. They were doing this with all of the patrons. Other businesses were, increasingly, doing the same thing. This is getting weird, I thought.

The next day, the real shock came. 

At 2 a.m. on Thursday, January 23, the government announced that all transportation to and from Wuhan—all trains, auto traffic, and aircraft—would be halted at 10 a.m. Within the city, the public buses, ferries, and subway would also be shut down indefinitely. People rushed to train stations to avoid the lockdown. I didn’t wake up and hear the news until around 8 a.m., too late to plan a departure. And so at 10 a.m. the Chinese army surrounding the city sealed it off, trapping me and about 9 million others inside. 

Similar measures were taken throughout Hubei Province, so 50 to 60 million people unexpectedly found themselves in the largest mass quarantine in history. Shortly before the lockdown, the official coronavirus death toll stood at 17. That figure, and the figure of those believed to be infected, has grown every day, lockdown notwithstanding. The next week the death toll hit 100, and as of this writing over 1,770 have died, and over 71,000 people are believed to have been infected. Doubtless the numbers will be higher by the time you read this. 

I’m a veteran of both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars, so I know what it’s like to live in a war zone. Living in a peaceful metropolis and then waking up to discover that it had been transformed into a kind of war zone overnight . . . That was a new one for me.

Happy Year of the Rat, indeed.

I arrived in Wuhan on September 17, 2019, to take a position as an international research fellow in the school of philosophy at Wuhan University. I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2018. This was my first academic job outside that nest, and I was very happy to take it. My main responsibilities are to attend the biweekly guest lectures and to publish a few papers, in indexed academic journals, for the glory of Wuhan University. It has no teaching obligations. 

Several other Westerners in the Wuhan University school of philosophy have positions like this, though some also teach classes. Most of us share a room on the fourth floor of the building where the school of philosophy has its main office. Our room is marked with a Chinese sign that, roughly translated, reads “office of foreign experts.” On an ordinary workday, we’ll swap manuscripts and tips for getting around in Wuhan, as well as “your mama” zingers. It’s safe to say that we take our jobs seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

Locals would often ask me, “Why did you choose to live in Wuhan?” and I’d give the disappointing answer that this was the only job offer I had received. Did I mention my degree was in philosophy? I was enjoying my stay, however, and making a bit of progress with the language. I frequented events organized by the dance group Wuhan Swing. I met my current girlfriend at one of them. I’ve come to think that Wuhan, though intimidating to foreigners at first, has a lot of appealing features.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, isn’t as congested as you might expect for a city of 11 million people. It has the cleanest subway system of any city I’ve visited. I especially like how glass walls usually separate the tracks from the platforms; sliding doors open to let commuters on and off. Signs at the metro and elsewhere admonish people to be courteous. My favorite is the one in front of many urinals, which reads in English (alongside Chinese script I can’t translate): “A small step forward, one step civilization.” Presumably, that’s one step for civilization. 

Also ubiquitous on signs is the sprightly blue cartoon Bingbing, the official mascot of the Seventh Annual Military World Games, which Wuhan hosted October 18–27, 2019. I thought Bingbing was a dragon; apparently, though, he is a Chinese sturgeon, an endangered fish endemic to the Yangtze River, which bisects the city. Clearly, Wuhan took pride in hosting the games. I got the sense that the people of Wuhan care about their city’s international reputation.

So it’s a pity that so many people first heard of Wuhan through its connection with the coronavirus. That the disease is rumored to have originated from people eating bat soup, a dish so many find disgusting, doesn’t help matters. The World Health Organization now calls the disease COVID-19, but the looser designation “Wuhan coronavirus” is already lodged in people’s minds. There are other types of coronaviruses, too, apparently—but the term is now associated with Wuhan. It’s hard to believe that anything will soon dislodge the negative association.

The city seemed eerily quiet from my apartment balcony, 17 floors up, but it had for several days. I was living near the university, and many students had gone home for the holiday before the lockdown. Now it was even quieter than it had been, and dense gray smog hung over the city. At night, lights went on, reassuring me that there were other people around. I often slept with the curtains pulled back, so that I could look out over the cityscape. It seemed dimmer than normal. Like embers in a dying fire, only half-alive. 

I had no trouble passing the time inside my apartment. I gave myself the goal of finishing a draft of a new philosophy paper by the end of January and threw myself into writing it. I did household chores, read books on Kindle, stayed in touch with family members on Skype, talked to my girlfriend using the ubiquitous Chinese app WeChat, and kept up with my P90X workout routine. (I wonder what the neighbors below me, if they were home, thought was going on when I did plyometrics.) 

Against my better judgment, I couldn’t avoid looking at the maelstrom of rumor on Twitter and WeChat, especially in the first few days of the lockdown. Videos purported to show people collapsing in the streets from the virus, nurses screaming during mental breakdowns, and other disturbing scenes. A rumor was circulating that the smog I saw was the product of the government burning corpses in crematoria for 24 hours a day to hide the true number of fatalities. Where else could the smoke be coming from? Nobody was working.

I could believe that the Chinese government (or any government, really) would lie to hide the scope of a crisis like this. I could also believe that people would exaggerate or fabricate things on the Internet for attention, or because they wanted to discredit the government. In a situation as unprecedented and drastic as this, anything seemed believable, yet nothing seemed entirely credible. The uncertainty that had enveloped Wuhan felt heavier than the smog, whatever its true source.

One mitigating circumstance for me was that a colleague in the school of philosophy, Tim Perrine, lived seven floors above me in the same building. During the two weeks I remained in Wuhan under the lockdown, we got together about every couple of days to eat dinner, drink beer, watch movies, and bounce philosophy ideas off each other as in normal times. I once joked: “When this is all over, I’ll say ‘How come Tim doesn’t want to hang out with me anymore? We used to be so close!’”

Both of us were worried about running out of food. On Sunday, January 26, we ventured out to a supermarket. A security guard took our temperatures from our foreheads before we entered, and we were relieved to find it well stocked. Customers were backed up in the produce section, where you had to weigh your vegetables before getting in the main checkout line, but people didn’t act like they were worried about the food running out. I didn’t see anyone grab one of the large bags of rice lining the shelves.

After that trip, Tim and I each had enough food to comfortably last a month, and we rested a little easier. The sun came out for the next few days. From my window and balcony, I could see people out walking their dogs, which had probably been going stir-crazy. In the evenings, outdoor speakers broadcast messages in Chinese, followed by a few minutes of soothing, Enya-like music. I’m not sure how soothed anyone felt, but it seemed like the fear had subsided a notch.

A few days after the lockdown, the United States evacuated workers from its consulate. Other countries, including France, Japan, and India, were evacuating civilians from Hubei, and it seemed likely that I would eventually have a chance to be evacuated to the U.S. Now that I felt relatively secure in my apartment, I was ambivalent about leaving, especially given that I would have to pay for the flight and endure at least two weeks of stateside quarantine. But my family and girlfriend prevailed upon me to leave if I had the chance.

I sent an email to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, notifying them that I wanted to be evacuated, and a few days later I received a phone call. I was promised a spot on a plane but was also told that I would need to arrange a ride to the airport myself. I would need to give them the license-plate number of the car that would take me through the military checkpoint blocking the airport. Ride-share services had suspended operations, but my girlfriend made a few calls and found me a driver. 

I was told to be at the airport no later than 6 a.m. on Monday, February 3, and so I arranged for the driver to pick me up outside the apartment building at 5 a.m. But then, at 8 p.m. the night before, I received an email from the U.S. government saying that the flight would depart on a different date and that I would need to provide additional information about the driver. The next day, I received another call from the embassy. The person on the line said I also needed to provide the driver’s name and national-ID number.

How was I supposed to guarantee that a specific person I didn’t know would take me to the airport before I even knew when I needed to be there? What if he (reasonably) refused to give his ID number to me, a stranger? I let the person on the phone know how angry I was about this demand, and I regret probably making her already hard day a little harder. But she insisted that the Chinese government wouldn’t give the U.S. authorization to land planes in Wuhan until they had this information from each of the evacuees.

Fortunately, the driver entrusted me with that information. I passed it along and was confirmed on the manifest. At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, I met him in front of my apartment building with my bags, and he cautiously drove to the airport. The streets weren’t completely empty, but the traffic was about 10 percent of what you’d expect (and of course the metro wasn’t operating). The military checkpoint gave us no trouble. When the soldier saw I had a U.S. passport, he waved us through without bothering to examine it. I arrived at 5 p.m., one hour early, and paid the driver well. 

I entered the terminal and sat with the other Americans, who huddled together with their luggage and waited for further instructions. Then came a surprise. My girlfriend had said that her friend would bring me a gift when I was at the terminal, but she unexpectedly showed up to deliver it herself. She was there to assist with evacuation. The giftbag included an odd assortment of things that wouldn’t have made sense in any other context: surgical masks, sanitizing wet wipes, candy and fruit, and a scarf, which was a gift to my mother.

I was touched. Her gesture cut through the dispiriting circumstances, like a ray of sun through a dark thundercloud. It’s emblematic of the many acts of kindness, large and small, that have helped to alleviate the suffering of people in trying times. I wished I could have taken her with me, but that wasn’t possible. I wish I could say more about her, too, but there are good reasons for me not to. 

Stay healthy, darling. I’ll see you again when this is over.

I knew that I’d have my temperature checked before being allowed to board the plane. If I ran a fever, would I be able to return to my apartment, I wondered, or would I be sent to an overcrowded Chinese hospital? So I stood in line a bit nervously. The State Department officials wore so much protective gear that they could have been mistaken for the Chernobyl cleanup crew. When it was my turn, one of them pointed the electronic thermometer at my forehead and said it was 35.9. I couldn’t convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in my head, but his tone suggested no alarm.

The number of people at the gate was 100 fewer than expected, to the consternation of the State Department officials. I never heard an explanation why, but I suspect the lack of reliable transportation to the airport had something to do with it. Those of us who were present boarded two planes around 5 a.m. These weren’t ordinary airliners, but windowless cargo planes refitted to carry passengers. They looked like beluga whales to me. We remained stationary on the tarmac for three hours before being granted permission to take off. 

The flight lasted twelve hours. I slept only three. There were no movies for entertainment. On the plus side, the flight was remarkably smooth and free of turbulence. The State Department workers did their best to make us comfortable, carrying boxes of snacks, as if they were flight attendants in unusual getup. Twice we were called by row, to have our temperatures checked in the back. (And what were they going to do if I ran high here—hand me a parachute?)

When we landed at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, it was earlier on the same date than when we had left, February 5—a counterintuitive effect of crossing the International Date Line that added to my disorientation. It took a long time for the passengers to disembark, since we were called up one at a time by our seat numbers and again had our temperatures checked before we could step out. I was one of the last to step off. When I did, I had been on that plane for something like 17 hours. 

I was in a daze when someone from the Department of Health and Human Services (I think) handed me a stapled document and said, “These are your quarantine orders, read them at your leisure,” wryly adding, “and you’ll have a lot of leisure.”

In short, I have to stay at this hotel on the base until February 18 to make sure I don’t inadvertently transmit the coronavirus and endanger the public. Being quarantined is like being in prison where everybody knows that you’re innocent, feels bad for you, and generally tries to be as nice as possible. If I tried to leave, though, I could end up in real prison for a year. A chain-link fence surrounds the hotel. At night floodlights shine in to expose any would-be escapees. 

It’s warm and sunny outside the hotel. A girl chalks the sidewalk with pictures of American and Chinese cartoons. Others do tai chi in a circle on the grass. A couple of kids are playing lawn darts. I’m doing the “warrior workout” routine that a medic has organized. What makes this scene surreal is that just about everyone in it is wearing surgical masks, though they aren’t required. Look closer and you’ll also see bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere.

What a strange place to be, and what a strange sight to behold. And how strangely privileged I feel to have been a witness to this drama. In a few more days, I will, I hope, walk past that fence with a document saying I’m coronavirus-free. When I do, I hope I feel a newfound appreciation for the health and freedom of movement I’ve so often taken for granted.

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Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.

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