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What I learned from two months under coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan

For a long time it felt like the world was ignoring us but the city was resilient

WUHAN, China -- The day before my departure from Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 20, I received a message from my aunt in Wuhan: "Don't come back. The virus is spreading." Thinking of my parents and the rare chance to spend the Chinese New Year together after six years of separation, I still hopped on my flight. "After all, the situation seems to be under control, right?" I replied to my aunt.

I was locked down in Wuhan on Jan. 23 in the city's quarantine to prevent COVID-19's spread, and my 10-day trip was extended into an unforeseeable future. Even now, after the lockdown was lifted on April 8, customs restrictions, flight cancellations and skyrocketing travel expenses keep me here.

Such closeness with my hometown has been rare, especially over the years I have been studying abroad. Although I was born and raised in Wuhan until I was 18, there is always a distance between us. I cannot master the local dialect, nor do I find it mentally difficult to emigrate elsewhere.

However, destiny seems to have brought me back just in time for the city's darkest moment. The COVID-19 quarantine taught me to recognize my city.

At the beginning, a friend asked me: "How's the morale in town?" There was panic; the surge of COVID-19 news and analysis had bombarded the locals. However, it is worth noting that the Wuhanese, known for their explosive temper, largely complied with the confinement measures. There seemed to be a consensus in the air that cooperation and solidarity would help us to overcome the crisis.

The state made its muscle evident in Wuhan by supporting the city with financing, logistics and more than 38,000 civilian and military medical practitioners. Wuhan was also sustained by its people. Volunteers aided marginalized communities and tackled important but less noticeable problems, like how the shutdown of public transport was keeping medical staff from their hospitals, so the Wuhanese organized a fleet of thousands of private vehicles to ferry doctors and nurses.

Despite the turbulence coronavirus had brought to the city, my daily life was repetitive: after disrupted sleep, I would sit in my study, open my computer, try to be productive with my schoolwork and occasionally look through the window at the trees when my concentration sneaked away. Initially, all the branches were bare. One day they were dressed in fine snow. Then some fresh green dots climbed along them. Now the leaves grow bigger and the color gets darker. My family stayed healthy.

For more than a month between the end of January and early March, Wuhan and Hubei Province were alone in isolation. Already in early February, through communication with my friends outside Wuhan, I realized that most breaking news was local -- not beyond China, not even beyond Wuhan.

Top: Snow-dusted statues adorned with "protection" against the coronavirus are pictured here on Feb.15. Bottom: An autonomous vehicle films cherry blossoms for an online livestreaming session on the closed campus of Wuhan University.    © Reuters

The distance I used to feel from Wuhan was reversed and I felt it now between me and the outside world. Skype images of my classroom in Berlin looked foreign. Pictures of my friends in fancy crowded bars in Shanghai seemed strange. My first reaction when I saw a photo was: "Why aren't those people wearing masks in public places?"

Since late March, quarantine has loosened its grip little by little. I started to receive notifications that my online shopping had been dispatched to Wuhan. Restaurants were activating their delivery services. Prices fell from their double or triple markups. I could hear people chatting and dogs barking more often from my study.

In the second week of April, Longjing green tea arrived, fresh from Hangzhou. For the first time, I drank this with my family in its proper season.

A man walks his dog on April 14, days after the lockdown was lifted.   © Reuters

If it were not for the virus, the warmth and the breeze would already have invited the whole city to go out for a spring walk. Some mobility restrictions are still in place but people are now returning to the parks and the restrictions can no longer flatten the city's desires. It is like water just before it is boiled.

As the virus transmission is contained, I can distract myself to deeper reflection. My quarantine experience in Wuhan rebuilt my connection with my hometown even as it disconnected me on many fronts with the outside world. I did not decide to draw a line between myself and my friends outside Wuhan, rather "disconnection" was a shift of my attention.

In this crisis, individuals' fear and happiness can be projected on to grand narratives, blame games, well-articulated pieces from experts with sophisticated arguments on economic prospects and geopolitical battles. Those high-level sober analyses are valuable, but I invite you to share more time with your "proximity": your families, partners, close friends with whom you can communicate through chats or calls. They construct the immediate responses to your emotions.

Firefighters disinfect Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on April 3, five days before the city lifted its travel restrictions.   © Reuters

More than two months of quarantine gave me an opportunity to rethink intimate relationships. I have been with my parents every single day. We worked together as a unit to maintain a healthy and rather comfortable life.

My family and I often discussed and debated COVID-19 news, and it was always their opinions which triggered most of my anger or delight. I used to think that the generation gap was to be resolved with neglect; now I believe that passively avoiding your closest ones and hiding behind the architecture of knowledge and public opinions may not be the best strategy in a time of crisis. Your proximity is not always supportive, but you can make it so.

COVID-19 introduced much fake news, discrimination and hate speech to my society and it unavoidably arrived at my door. If I am not ready to isolate myself completely from this chaotic world, why not participate in the exchange with my close families and friends, listen to their emotions and experience, discuss their perceptions and world views?

Freed from the lockdown, residents go for a riverside stroll on April 12.   © Reuters

This is not to reject all information from outsiders but to prevent a dissolution of our proximities and build the fence of common sense and empathy. Your surroundings are like the string tied to a kite, holding you tight from drifting away, alone, in the winds of the day.

Some people have said that COVID-19 will be the crisis of our generation -- that it will drive the world to a more fragmented landscape, a gloomier future.

Today I want to share a reflection that is not so grand; it comes from an ordinary perspective. Greetings, small talk, short-term decisions and trifling matters: these little things can be the inexhaustible source of micro-optimism in our lives. This provides stability in an unstable time, and sometimes we can rely on it and march very far.

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