For Julie Zhong, this Chinese New Year was supposed to be a time of transition.
The 24-year-old native of Wuhan, China, had gone to celebrate the holiday with her family on the southern island of Hainan. After the three-week trip, she was going to move to Shanghai and take up a new job with the Canadian Consulate there.
Then the outbreak happened.
After an initial visit by local officials in Hainan to take the family members’ temperature, they began a self-imposed quarantine for 14 days. Daily life slowed down and focused on rituals like cooking and games of mahjong as they waited out their isolation in an apartment near the beach.
Hainan, a fast-developing holiday island that sits off China’s southern coast in the South China Sea, is sometimes called China’s Hawaii. Zhong’s family travels there regularly in hopes that the warmer climate will strengthen the health of her grandparents.
Each evening, her grandparents watched the television for updates on the epidemic. The family also shared news on WeChat, a popular messaging app. When the self-imposed quarantine was over, Zhong went to the beach with family members for exercise. The weather was cold and the ocean was gray. Still wearing masks, they stayed just 15 minutes before heading back to the apartment.
If the weather improved, she said, she would head back to the beach for fresh air. She was sanguine about her situation. Many people from Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, have fared worse under a countrywide campaign to identify and isolate anyone who has recently been to the city. Officials simply call her family to check on them.
Signs of the epidemic have followed them from Wuhan. Two cases at a nearby fresh food market caused it to be shut down. The local government sent vegetables, chicken, duck and fish to her neighborhood to make up for shortages, though the supplies disappeared quickly. Now they shop at a small supermarket by their building.
With draconian measures spreading across the country and some cities going under lockdown, her parents were worried that Shanghai might close off to outsiders and suggested she leave early for the city. She is supposed to start work February 17.
She quickly ran into a problem: No hotel there would take her without a quarantine. She received curt declines from two she called. Even though she was long through her quarantine period, she was told that people from Hubei were not welcome. One hotel that said it had rooms for people from Wuhan required a fresh 14-day quarantine.
“I’m innocent, but implicated,” she said. “It makes me really angry.
“Why are we being scapegoated for something that others did wrong?” she added. “If the knife doesn’t cut your own body, then you don’t know the pain.”
More broadly, she said, such prejudices and anger aimed at those from Wuhan were misplaced. Policies and their enforcement, not people, deserved the anger.
“Is it the fault of people from Wuhan? It’s not. If it comes from eating wild meat, then the problem is the government didn’t control it well enough,” she said, referring to the food market where the illness is thought to have originated. “You can’t just dump everything on the heads of those from Wuhan.
“People should try to step into our shoes. Everyone needs to have more empathy,” she said.
For Zhong, a solution came through the kindness of an acquaintance. As she was scrolling through the Facebook-style newsfeed on WeChat, she saw a post from a man she had met while taking the LSATs in China. It was an open offer to take in a person or two from Wuhan who might be struggling to find a place to stay in Shanghai.
“It was very lucky,” she said.
While Zhong now has a place to stay, she is still not certain that all will go smoothly. With word that local policies on people from Wuhan continue to be inconsistent, she knows it is possible she may still have to sit in quarantine once she gets to Shanghai.
To help, the local government in Hainan gave her a slip of paper attesting that she had passed quarantine. Still, she said she was taking a fatalistic approach.
“The policy execution doesn’t make sense,” she said. “If you’re not obedient, you will be kicked out and banned. There’s not a lot of equality between people and the authorities. What else are you going to do?
“My current thinking is that it doesn’t matter,” she added. “If they want to quarantine me, they can quarantine me.”
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