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76 days in locked down Wuhan: Caixin reporters' notebook

Team says coverage was a mix of excitement, fear and journalistic responsibility

Medical workers wave goodbye to a medical team from Jilin at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on April 8.    © Reuters

WUHAN, China -- China's central metropolis of Wuhan opened its doors to the outside world just after midnight Wednesday, ending a 76-day lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

A team of Caixin reporters -- Gao Yu, Xiao Hui, Ding Gang and Bao Zhiming -- stayed behind as the city was cut off Jan. 23 to document the desperate battle against the virus. They produced story after story showing what life was really like in Wuhan and what really happened.

As the outbreak wanes, they sat down to discuss their experiences at the epicenter of the outbreak: the excitement and fears, mixed with a sense of journalistic responsibility as they witnessed history. These are personal stories from the journalists on the front lines that have never before been shared. Here is an English transcript of the Chinese-language podcast.

As a quarantine shut down Wuhan, a group of Caixin reporters decided to stay and continue covering the crisis.

Xiao Hui, an investigative reporter for Caixin Media who arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 21, two days before the lockdown started.

Xiao: We've spent more than 70 days as Caixin's front-line reporting team to cover the coronavirus outbreak in the city. Today is the first time we had a chance to take a group photo and also the last time for us to get together in the city. Tomorrow, my colleague Bao Zhiming will return to Shanghai with the Shanghai medical assistance team who finished their mission here. So today, I'll take the role as host to interview my colleagues and share with everyone our stories in the epicenter of the outbreak.

Let's start with the question about your feelings when you departed for Wuhan.

Gao Yu, executive deputy managing editor of Caixin who leads the coverage in Wuhan.

Gao: We gathered in Wuhan on Jan. 21. I remembered on Jan. 19 the official briefing said there were 17 newly added cases in Wuhan that day, which was unusually high. That night in Beijing, I sent an email to our current affairs and environment reporters asking for volunteers to go to Wuhan. I was on vacation starting Jan. 20 and planned to fly back to my hometown in Henan on the 21st. I haven't been back for many years.

But things changed abruptly on Jan. 20 when more than 100 new cases were confirmed in a single day. That night, epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan in an interview with the state broadcaster warned that the disease could be passed among people and there had been medical workers infected. Our publisher Hu Shuli messaged me late that night and said we should send people to Wuhan, not only reporters but also a senior editor. I thus returned my ticket back home and flew to Wuhan the next day.

It was raining when I arrived in the early evening, and I suddenly had a feeling that everyone in the city looked panicked.

Ding Gang, Caixin reporter and photographer.

Ding: I remember clearly the night when I arrived. I felt I was punched unexpectedly by the cold and rainy weather when I landed. Although there were not many people wearing face masks in Wuhan at that time, I had a strange feeling about the city, maybe because of the weather. In the taxi, I felt we were driving in the mist. There was no anxiety on the first day, but excitement.

Xiao: I was in my hometown in Hunan when I received messages from our editor Gao Yu asking who wanted to go to Wuhan on Jan. 21. I applied.

I had a plan to visit Myanmar with my friends on Jan. 26. I counted the days and thought there should be enough time for me to finish the task in Wuhan. Gao also told me that one week would be enough. So I bought a train ticket to Wuhan and took only a backpack with me.

Bao Zhiming, senior editor of society news and corporate news.

Bao: I decided to come to Wuhan on Feb. 2. On that day one of our senior editors called and said we needed to send someone who could drive to Wuhan to assist the frontline coverage. I had just returned home to Shanghai from my holiday and hadn't had time to unpack. I said I could go. Two days later, I departed with a truck of donations for Wuhan.

I didn't think too much at that time or explain in detail to my family. As I arrived I found things were more difficult than I imagined. First, all of the highway service centers and grocery stores were closed on our way. We had nowhere to buy stuff or take a break. We had to drive all the way to Wuhan. As we approached the city, people wearing protective gowns started to appear at checkpoints, making me feel nervous.

I arrived at Wuhan early in the morning, and the city was in heavy fog, reminding me of the feeling in the thriller film "Silent Hill." At that moment I had no idea what I could do here and whether I could leave safely.

(Editor's note: Health authorities in Wuhan reported gradual, small increases in new infections in early January and repeatedly asserted that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Test results from multiple labs in December suggested there was an outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan. However, the results failed to trigger a response that could have prepared the public.

The remark by Zhong in late January was the first official confirmation on the potential severity of the disease, sounding an alarm to the public.)

Caixin's four reporters in Wuhan, Gao Yu, Bao Zhiming, Xiao Hui and Ding Gang, pose together for a picture after visiting a makeshift hospital in early March. Photo: Caixin

Staying in Wuhan

Xiao: I want to ask Gao Yu and Ding Gang about your thoughts when you heard the lockdown news. What was your judgment at that time?

Gao: Actually, the lockdown was no surprise to us. During our interviews on Jan. 21 and 22, we knew that things were very serious and the disease wouldn't be stopped quickly. Some of the interviewees said Wuhan should be declared a quarantine zone. At that time I had a total of eight reporters in Wuhan, and three of them were scheduled to leave on the 23rd. I remember we finished interviews late on Jan. 22 and I was working on the story. It was about 2 a.m. Jan. 23 when I saw the news about the lockdown popping up on my mobile phone.

My first thought was, What should I do with the eight people? I needed to decide whether should we stay and if so, how many of us needed to stay. I knew it was significant but also very dangerous, so I thought at least four of us must leave.

At around 2:30 a.m., I called everyone to gather in my room. I told them my initial judgment was that the coverage task might last four to eight weeks and it was more dangerous than we thought. I said they could decide whether to stay or leave.

Ding: [I decided] I must stay. I had already been here, and I thought it was a very important event. I think as a reporter, there was no choice but stay.

Gao: At last we decided three reporters and I would stay and the rest would leave. I was very worried that they couldn't get tickets as the city would be shuttered in seven hours. We borrowed a car and rushed to the Hankou train station. Fortunately, they all got tickets to depart at seven in the morning. It was the most unforgettable moment to me.

Ding: After seeing our colleagues leave, we returned to the hotel and planned to take a nap before we went to the Hankou station again to take some pictures of the lockdown. But both Gao and I were awakened by phone calls at almost the same time. A colleague called asking whether I was safe and whether I told my girlfriend about staying in Wuhan. It was the moment I felt a part deep inside my heart was falling. I didn't think too much before that, but at that moment I felt very sad and thought about a lot of things including my father and mother.

Gao: I remembered that clearly because we were staying in the same room. Ding was unable to fall asleep after he received the call.

Ding: Then I asked Gao: Do you think people are selfish? He said everyone is selfish. Even when we decided to stay we were selfish, because we might have chosen our journalism ambition or public interest instead of our families.

Gao: I told him it was meaningless to think of all that. The most important thing is to think whether you may feel regret about your decision in the future. If you do, then you should leave. If not, you can stay.

Xiao: The next question is to Bao Zhiming. Was there a most impressive thing or person during your stay in Wuhan?

Bao: I think there were two things that impressed me the most. Shortly after I arrived in Wuhan, Ding Gang and I went to report on the first batch of medical assistance teams dispatched to Wuhan. There were thousands of people arriving at the same time. To my surprise, most of the nurses on the teams were very young. There was a young nurse in her early 20s who took out a toy bear from her luggage when she arrived. I was so shocked by the scene. In my mind, girls their age should stay at home and be cared for by their families, but the pandemic sent them to the front lines and placed them under tremendous pressure.

The other thing is when we visited a funeral parlor to report on people collecting their families' ashes. It was raining heavily when I decided to leave. I saw a granny standing under a temporary shelter but still soaked by the rain. Her family was urging her to wait inside the car. But she insisted on waiting outside for her husband's ashes. Her husband had a fever after a urinary infection and was placed in isolation away from home. She never saw him again after he was taken away. The granny said they were married for more than 60 years and had never been apart for so long.

(Editor's note: The Wuhan city government issued an order to cut off the city from the outside world starting at 10 a.m. on Jan. 23. The Caixin reporters continued to follow the development of the outbreak in the city.

Since the first medical assistance teams arrived in Wuhan on the night of Jan. 24, Chinese New Year's Eve, more than 42,000 doctors and nurses from all over China came to Wuhan to help. Most of them returned home earlier this month as the outbreak wanes.)

Medical teams from Guangzhou and Shanghai arrive at Wuhan's Tianhe Airport on Jan. 25 as the local outbreak was nearing its peak. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin

Fearful moments

Xiao: I want to ask Gao, what was the most fearful moment since you arrived in Wuhan? Have you ever cried?

Gao: It seems I didn't feel panic about anything. But there was one thing that scared me whenever I thought about it. It was the night when doctor Li Wenliang died. Bao Zhiming and I were working on our stories, and rumors circulated about Li's death. There was lots of mixed information, and we decided to go to the hospital to check.

When we arrived, we were unable to figure out how to get into the ward where Li was hospitalized. Then we went to the underground garage and found an elevator designated for transporting medical waste. It was dangerous, but we decided to get in. We got out on the second floor right outside the intensive care unit. We had run out of protective gear at that time, so we only wore a mask and goggles without protective gowns.

Bao: At that time, Dr. Li was undergoing rescue efforts using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation [known as ECMO, in which the blood is pumped through a machine that adds oxygen].

Gao: We waited outside the door of the ICU. All other people were wearing protective gowns. At around 1 a.m. a security guard came to ask us to leave. He said: "Aren't you afraid to die?" Indeed, we were almost standing there without any protection. I called Ding Gang and asked him to come wearing the last protective gown we had. Then we left. It was the most dangerous time.

(Editor's note: Li Wenliang, one of the whistleblower doctors who sounded the alarm of the outbreak, died in the early morning of Feb. 7 in the Central Hospital of Wuhan. News of Li's death broke the previous night but was confirmed hours later after intensive medical rescue efforts.)

Li Wenliang’s colleagues wait outside the ICU while efforts to save him were under way. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin

Document the history

Xiao: Have you ever cried?

Gao: No, never. Nowadays, when I read articles about the outbreak, I always feel tears almost break out. But only almost.

The day when Wuhan was officially locked down, I called Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. My colleagues tried to persuade her to accept our interview request, but she refused. When I called her, she was very emotional because of the lockdown news. We learned later that her institute finished gene sequencing and related tests as early as Jan. 2 but was muzzled.

She rejected my interview request at first. I told her about a radiologist I interviewed earlier who said to me in tears that 143 out of 200 of his colleagues were infected, as well as his wife. When I talked about the disaster and the pain caused in Wuhan, Shi cried, and I also felt my nose start to run.

Xiao: As the leader of Caixin's investigation team, do you think you have found the truth?

Gao: I'd say we have reached 75% to 80%. There is still much key information that we haven't figured out. But the top mission of our coverage was to report the development of the outbreak and the second was to pursue the reasons behind it. So we put our main focus on stories during the outbreak. We have been here about 10 weeks and have produced an in-depth report almost every week. Our investigations were focused on the early days of the outbreak.

Xiao: The last thing I must mention is Gao's little notebook. Can you tell us about it?

Gao: I bought it for a work diary. Since Jan. 23 I started to record the health condition of everyone. Whoever felt sick must report to me, and I would write it down. Like here I wrote on Feb. 1: Xiao Hui had diarrhea and a headache. On Feb. 12: I coughed after smoking a pack of cigarettes. It's almost our health record for the two months.

(Editor's note: The Caixin team members avoided contracting the virus and were healthy as they prepared to depart Wuhan. Despite easing signs in Wuhan and China, the virus continues ravaging the world, infecting more than 1.4 million people worldwide as of Tuesday afternoon. The recovery of Wuhan offers a sign of hope that the virus can be contained by proactive measures. The city's successes and failures offer lessons that might be of use to other countries now battling their own outbreaks.)


Read also the original story. is the English-language online news portal of Chinese financial and business news media group Caixin. Nikkei recently agreed with the company to exchange articles in English.

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