Emotional scars remain after Wuhan’s COVID-19 lockdown

Olivia Siong

WUHAN, CHINA (CNA) – It’s been almost a year, but the Koh family still remembers vividly their disbelief and confusion when they heard the news: Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was to be sealed off.

The announcement in the early hours of January 23 came as officials sought to control the outbreak of a pneumonia-like disease, then still weeks away from being given its official name, COVID-19.

“My first thought was, how is that possible? How do you lock a city in?” Joshua Koh told CNA at his home in Wuhan. “There’s a sense of like, what’s going to happen next? The fear of whether everybody is safe.”

Koh and his wife Kay Lin Lee said they knew many people who had driven out of the city before the lockdown took effect eight hours after the initial announcement at 2am.

The Singaporean couple, who have four sons – aged four to 17 – have called Wuhan home for seven years.

“The question that came across our mind was: How are we going to get food? How are we going to get water, you know? How are we going to get medical care if you fall sick?” said Lee.

The family of six also had to make a difficult choice – whether to stay put or head back to Singapore on an evacuation flight.

A government exhibition in Wuhan showcasing China’s battle with COVID-19. PHOTOS: OLIVIA SIONG
The Koh family in their home in Wuhan
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. PHOTO: AFP

Koh said they initially decided to stay in Wuhan to ensure operations and staff at the international school that he and his wife work for were taken care of.

But as the lockdown dragged on, they made the call to get on the second evacuation flight back to Singapore in February.

“That’s the heart-wrenching moment when you may decide that you would leave and you know that not everybody will leave. Some will be left behind, and more importantly, the national (local) staff cannot leave,” said Koh.

“So that sense of abandoning them is there. It’s real and it’s a torture, I think it left a scar in me.”

Lee said the family did not want to burden Wuhan’s already taxed health system if they had stayed and fallen ill, one of the factors that sealed their decision to return to Singapore.

The couple also recalled conversations they had with the local staff they were close to.

“Although they were unwilling … they said, ‘Please go back, you have four kids, you need to look after your kids, we are fine. It’s safer for you to be back’,” recalled Koh.

There were also concerns about getting to the airport and making it through the night.

“The queue to go in was really long … and there were actually a lot of people at the airport all on evacuation flights, and so the risk was there,” said Lee.

“But I guess all these concerns, by the time we touched down in Singapore – it was like a relief.”

What they thought would be a one month stay turned into a long eight months back in Singapore. But the family said this was by no means a holiday as work and school continued remotely. The family also volunteered their time, distributing hand sanitiser and packing goodie bags for foreign workers.

It would not be until October that the Kohs were finally able to come back to Wuhan.

“Life has returned back to normal. But you know, that’s not true because you can sense that there’s something that has changed,” said Koh, pointing to the prevalence of people wearing masks and the businesses that shut down in the time the family were away.

Now they try to avoid crowded places like malls during the weekends and spend more time at home or at open spaces like parks.

For now, they consider Wuhan home. Given the constantly changing travel restrictions, they are not sure when they will return to Singapore.

For 42-year-old Jin, 2020 is a year she would rather forget.

The Wuhan resident, who asked that her identity not be revealed, had tested positive for COVID-19 in January after she returned to her hometown in neighbouring Henan province to celebrate the Spring Festival.

Her symptoms were mild and her biggest concern was whether she had unknowingly infected her son and elderly parents.

“I definitely was feeling very down but then I also thought to myself that I wouldn’t be so unlucky to die, although I already prepared myself for that,” said Jin.

“As long as my son and parents were all right, nothing else mattered.”

Her concerns were thankfully unfounded but little did she expect that her challenges would continue even after being discharged from hospital.

She recalled facing objections from neighbours and even relatives when she tried to return to her parents’ home in Henan and was forced to stay in a hotel instead.

“(My parents) really begged them, they wanted me to go back,” said Jin.

“They said: My daughter is already well, she has all the hospital reports and they are normal, why won’t you let her come back?”

Now, almost a year on, Jin is back in Wuhan where she continues to work.

She still faces lingering health issues, like loss of stamina. But it’s the emotional wounds, she said, that are harder to overcome.

She is not sure if she will return to her hometown again during the Spring Festival in February next year. And should there be a resurgence of cases, she is worried about getting infected with the coronavirus again.

“I try to forget this as much as possible and try not to think about it, but it’s not possible,” said Jin.

The latest reminder of the long-term impact of the virus was when she recently tried to buy an insurance policy. Her application was rejected and she believes it was because she had declared she was once COVID-19 positive.

“It was then that I realised it really does have a big impact on us,” she said.

During her stay in hospital, Jin said she was resentful and questioned why Chinese authorities had not heeded early warnings or taken the matter seriously from the start.

“There are some things where the damage that has been caused cannot be reversed, but we can only hope to do better,” she said.

But she was also careful to temper her criticism with some praise.

“I think what the government has done after that has been pretty good. People should recognise that.”

The 76-day lockdown in Wuhan remains a vivid memory for many, including actor Li Jinglun and his colleagues, who volunteered their time manning an exit and entry point at a community in the city.

“When we pass by the road occasionally, we will point at it and say we will never come back here again,” said Li with a laugh. “It was very tough, no one wants to go through something like that again.”

The last time CNA spoke to Li was when he had just completed his last volunteer shift as Wuhan emerged out of lockdown on April 8.

“There have been big changes,” he said. “My daughter has gone back to school, work has resumed, and we have started performances and rehearsals.”