The coronavirus is a public health emergency, but its threat is not only medical. Millions of lives have been altered by the outbreak, from those in self-isolation in China to Chinese nationals experiencing racism abroad. We talk to those affected in different ways by the outbreak, from Wuhan to the north of England.
Wi, a 29-year-old Chinese PhD student in the Midlands, is originally from Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak and where her parents have been in self-quarantine for more than 20 days. “They can’t walk, they can’t leave their own flat – it’s not a holiday, it’s like jail,” she said. “They are unable to even open windows for fear that the virus will spread through the air.
“Now the whole of Wuhan is closed, all public transport and private cars have been stopped, so they can’t even drive their own cars on the road. So they just stay at home, eating, sleeping and watching movies. That’s all they can do,” Wi said.
Wi’s parents have not been told when they’ll be allowed to leave their flat. Wi has become concerned about the mental health of those in isolation in the city, after seeing posts on social media with locals saying they would rather commit suicide than remain in quarantine any longer.
“The biggest enemy is not the virus, it’s mental health. When you stay in one room for half a month, that’s horrible, you cannot go outside or get fresh air.”
A hundred miles from Wuhan, nestled in the countryside of Hubei province, British teacher Claude* is in self-isolation with his Chinese girlfriend and her family in her hometown, which the pair were visiting for the lunar new year.
“After a day or two, it became a ghost town,” Claude, 46, said. “The first week I was just relaxing – I work near Hong Kong so this was my holiday. I thought I would have more cabin fever by now, but I’m actually pretty fine. My girlfriends’s family are cooking lots and cleaning for us, so I’m being spoilt,” he said.
He described the town as “post-apocalyptic”, with speakers playing American swing music on empty streets, and men in biohazard suits checking people’s temperatures before they enter Walmart. He and his girlfriend still do not know when they will be allowed to leave. But when they finally return to their home in Shenzhen, they will be required to undergo another two weeks in quarantine.
Claude said the mood in the town was “pretty chilled out”, but feared this could change in coming weeks as supplies run low. “As the days go on, more people are wearing masks, and people are standing further and further apart,” he said.
In neighbouring Hunan province, Yuhan, a 28-year-old Chinese national who lives and works in Melbourne, is also trapped, after returning to visit her family for the new year.
She has now been in self-quarantine with her parents for 29 days, leaving only to visit her grandmother who lives 200 metres away. Yuhan worries that the isolation could last another two weeks.
The family order groceries online once every two or three days, and spend most of their time cooking and watching TV. They usually go to her grandmother’s for lunch and leave food for her dinner. But Yuhan said many of her friends’ families would not leave the house at all.
“My grandma keeps wanting to go out for walks, especially when it’s sunny, but I always try to stop her and walk around the apartment with her,” she said. “It is sometimes hard to explain to my grandma how dangerous things still are, as official news on TV is mainly good news.”
In the country’s most populous city, Shanghai, many foreign teachers are beginning to fear for their jobs.
Rob, a 23-year-old teacher at an international kindergarten in the city, said about 25 other teachers had lost their jobs during the outbreak, after parents refused to send their children back to school for their final term. This has left the teachers with just 30 days to find work before their visas expire.
“The worrying thing is that once these teachers have their work visas cancelled, their medical insurance goes too,” he said. “The school has said they can’t do anything – they need to lay them off because the profit margins are too tight, and it’s illegal not to cancel their visas if they’re not working.”
Rob could not fly home to the UK as planned, so instead flew out to Bangkok. Now back in Shanghai, he told of people being charged £6 for face masks, and others having to go without if they missed the daily registration for them. He had also been warned of landlords taking their tenant’s allocation of masks, claiming that as homeowners, the masks given to each household should go to them.
En route to the UK
Some people who have travelled through China have criticised airline checks designed to prevent the spread of the virus. Dave* was on holiday in Bangkok with his partner and travelled back to the UK via Beijing with Air China, wearing face masks and swimming goggles.
Airline staff took the temperatures of passengers at Bangkok, where four people “blatantly tested far above the threshold” but were allowed to board after short arguments with flight attendants, said the 39-year-old.
“My partner and I both thought the flight was tense, and the flight crew were visibly nervous on both sides. Some people didn’t seem too fussed about it, and I got the impression that a lot of people were half-hearted, like wearing masks that weren’t properly over their face.”
At Heathrow, there were no checks or information. “It was just like flying to Heathrow on any other day,” he said. “I was expecting at least some information on contacting Public Health England, but there weren’t even any posters. Us and a litany of sick coughing people from an Air China flight waltzed right out the airport.”
“There was hand sanitiser everywhere but no one seemed to use it,” he added. “I felt it was all a bit half-arsed.”
In the UK
Back in the UK, the Chinese community are feeling the effects of the virus. Lee*, a Chinese PhD student in the north of England, was subjected to racist abuse on a night out because of the coronavirus. He said he and two Chinese friends were on their way to a shopping centre one evening when three men in a car began shouting at them. “They called us ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘you Chinese bastards’,” Lee said.
“We were really afraid. We passed them quickly and we kept silent because we were scared they might do something violent. There was nobody else out on the street and we wanted to stay safe. It felt very dangerous at the time.”
Lee said that since the incident he has stayed at home more, only going out for university meetings or shopping for food. He feels that since the outbreak cultural differences are causing issues. The British do not tend to wear face masks but it is normal for Asian people, he said. “Now my Chinese friends get stared at for wearing them.”
*Some names have been changed.