Sunday, Aug 14, 2022

'Wuhan Diary': How A Chinese Author Braved Backlash To Write About Life Under Lockdown

Fang Fang’s dispatches chronicle people’s anxieties, fears, and frustrations during the lockdown as well as the impact of isolation on them. They give us a glimpse into the beginning of the global health crisis and offer insights into the mistakes that were repeated by several countries after the outbreak, including the US and the UK.

Pharmacist Chen Yang calls her customer on her way to deliver the medicines in Wuhan.
Pharmacist Chen Yang calls her customer on her way to deliver the medicines in Wuhan. Getty Images

“When I first logged into my Weibo account to write my initial diary entry, I certainly never imagined that there would be 59 more entries to follow; nor could I ever have imagined that tens of millions of readers would be staying up late each night just waiting to read my next instalment,” writes Chinese author Fan Fang early on in Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Fang Fang’s account of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, for which she faced backlash in the country — both the author and the translator, Michael Berry, allegedly received death threats — was published as an ebook by HarperCollins India in May 2020. The ebook, originally published as diary entries and social media posts on microblogging sites like Weibo and WeChat in China, documents 76 days of lockdown in Wuhan from where the pandemic spread to the rest of the world.

Fang Fang began publishing an online diary on January 25, 2020, two days after the central government imposed lockdown in Wuhan. Her posts — about the psychological impact of the isolation and the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of the lockdown — resonated with millions of people in China, who eagerly looked forward to reading them till Wuhan officially reopened on April 8, 2020. In Wuhan Diary, Fang Fang captures the daily hum of life in Wuhan during the lockdown, the challenges its nine million residents had to face, and the changing mood of the city from despair to relief.

“Fang Fang’s dispatches were blasted out each night, offering real-time responses to and reflections on events and news reports that had transpired just hours earlier,” writes Berry, director, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in his translator’s Afterword. Wuhan Diary, which goes beyond the notion of the diary as a private literary form, has been a public platform from the very beginning: a virtual open book, writes Berry, whose areas of research include modern and contemporary Chinese literature, adding that Fang Fang’s 60 odd posts provided a platform to understand what was happening on the ground in Wuhan, even as the outbreak there spread and began to attract more attention, both within China and globally.

Fang Fang’s account, before it was met with the backlash, served as the guide to the suffering of people in Wuhan, a transportation hub and a highly dense city, during the lockdown, announced just before the Lunar New Year. Fang Fang, a novelist who has lived in the Literary and Arts Federation compound for nearly 30 years, ruminates on her neighbours, family, and friends, and coping with the crisis, alone. In her post, she also tries to highlight the administrative failures, for which she was targeted by trolls. While some of her posts were censored by the social media sites, she remained undeterred and continued writing. “It is absolutely essential that we continue to fight until those responsible are held accountable,” she writes in the introduction to the book.


Book cover.
Book cover.

During the lockdown, Fang Fang was holding up at her house near East River Garden Lane, one of Wuhan locals’ favourite destinations, along with her 16-year-old dog. When she ran out of dog food, she had to make do with rice. On the first day of the lockdown, while walking down the streets, she notes how “wide open and deserted” they appear. “I don’t think I’d ever seen the streets of Wuhan so wide open and deserted. Seeing those desolate streets made me very sad; my heart felt as empty as those abandoned avenues. That was a feeling I had never before experienced in my life — that feeling of uncertainty about the fate of my city, that uncertainty about whether my family members and I had been infected, and all the uncertainties about the future. All that left me with a strange feeling of confusion and anxiety” writes Fang Fang, who recorded “all the fragmented stories”, so that the authorities knew that besides the infected patients and the dead, “there are a lot of other victims of this calamity. All us ordinary people have paid a price.”

On January 20, 2020, Chinese infectious disease specialist Dr Zhong Nanshan revealed that the novel coronavirus was being spread by human-to-human transmission and news broke that 14 medical workers had already been infected. Fang Fang’s first reaction was shocking, but that later turned into anger. “This new information was completely at odds with what we had seen and heard earlier. Official media sources had been consistently telling us that this virus was ‘not contagious between people; It’s controllable and preventable,’” writes Fang Fang, whose dispatches give us a glimpse into the beginning of the global health crisis and offer insights into the mistakes that have been repeated by several countries after the outbreak. “Those people infected early not only die but they face hopelessness. Their cries go unanswered, their attempts for medical intervention are useless, their search for effective treatment proves fruitless. There are simply too many sick people and not enough beds; the hospitals simply cannot keep up with the demand. For those unlucky enough to be denied a bed, what can they do other than just sit by and wait for death?... The pain and helplessness they faced before death were deeper than any abyss you could ever imagine,” she writes.

Just as the outbreak started to ease up in Wuhan, the virus began to spread throughout Europe and the United States, and soon brought the world to its knees. On March 13, 2020, then US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency; days earlier, he had allocated $8.3 billion to fight the outbreak. According to Bloomberg, more than 79 million people have been diagnosed of Covid since the first US case of the new coronavirus was reported in January 2020 in Washington state.

A masked woman takes a bag of garbage out of a residential building in Wuhan in China's Hubei
A masked woman takes a bag of garbage out of a residential building in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Thursday, Getty Images

As Wuhan marks two years of lockdown, experts have already predicted another wave of Covid-19 in many countries, led by Omicron and BA.2 variants. The US Covid data shows BA.2 subvariant now constitutes 23.1 per cent of all Covid cases in the US vs 7.1 per cent last month. The UK, too, has seen another rise in Covid-19 cases. According to the UK government data, between March 16 and March 22, 2022, about 592,459 people had a confirmed positive test result. This shows an increase of 20.4% compared to the previous seven days.

According to a well-known data platform, as of March 13, 2022, Europe had 183,944,206 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the first confirmed cases in France in January 2020. With 23,495,797 confirmed cases, France has been the worst affected country in Europe, followed by the UK with 19,767,359 cases. Russia and Germany have approximately 17.4 million and 17.3 million cases respectively.

As for China, it is experiencing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic first began in late 2019. AFP reported that the country recorded 4,770 new coronavirus infections, including asymptomatic cases, on Tuesday. While Shanghai has denied rumours of a city-wide lockdown after the total COVID-19 infections hit 1,000 on Tuesday. According to reports, the lockdown rumours triggered panic buying late on Tuesday night, with slots on Chinese e-commerce and retail giant Alibaba’s “Freshhippo” delivery app running out a minute after midnight. Earlier this week, China imposed a lockdown in Shenyang, an industrial city of nine million people, amid a surge in Omicron cases.

In her account, Fang Fang underlines that when the pandemic was wreaking death and destruction around the world, politicians from both sides pointed fingers at each other, never facing up to the fact that everyone had made mistakes, taken missteps along the way. “China’s lax attitude early on and the West’s arrogance shown in its distrust of China’s experience fighting the coronavirus have both contributed to countless lives being lost, countless families being ripped apart, and all humanity having been dealt a heavy blow,” she writes. When a Western reporter asked her what lesson China should learn from the outbreaks, she responded: “The spread of coronavirus is not limited to China: it is something affecting everyone all over the world. The novel coronavirus has not just taught China a lesson, it has taught the entire world a lesson; it has educated all of humanity. This lesson is: Humankind cannot be allowed to continue to be lost in its own arrogance; we can no longer think of ourselves at the centre of the world; we can no longer believe that we are invincible, and we can no longer underestimate the destructive power of even the smallest things — like a virus.”  The virus, Fang Fang reiterates, is the common enemy of humankind — “that is a lesson for all humanity”. She writes: “The only way we can conquer this virus and free ourselves from its grip is for all members of humankind to work together.”