Viral Reality

Julie Lam
9 min readMar 23, 2020

“Today is March 20, 2020!” I said to myself, amazed to be able to recognize the unusual numerical pattern in the date, as I set out to share another anecdote about Wuhan, the central hub of China that is now infamous for starting the pandemic.

If you believe the numbers on the official real-time report, there have been 0 new cases and just one death since March 17, after the city shut down for nearly two months. New cases have seemingly dramatically tapered after China’s president visited Wuhan. His recent presence since the city hosted the World Military Games last October was supposed to cheer up the locals. Wuhan Ren are not celebrating. Wuhan Ren are still not allowed to leave their residential compounds since their movement was strictly confined by laws on Jan 23 this year.

My friend’s sons took the elevator and went down the building for the first time after 55 days yesterday, but only for a brief moment.

When Wuhan was shut down in the beginning, with all the schools closed and public transportation suspended, my friend Sam used to shop for the family. While his wife watched their two boys, Sam would cover himself from head to toe with goggles, disposable face mask, hooded raincoat, rubber gloves, shoe covers before driving to the supermarket just ten minutes away.

Sam’s family of four live in a gated residential compound, which they call a “mini-district”. Located in the Hankou District (汉口区) of Wuhan, his mini-district has eighty elevator apartment buildings. All the gates to the multiple entrances have been welded shut except one when the announcement was made. Whenever Sam passed through the gate, his temperature would be checked by the security guards. When he entered or departed the supermarket, his temperature would be checked by the guards standing in front of a narrow opening. Following the emergency measures, everywhere in the city, shops used partitions to keep the entrances just wide enough for one person to pass through — a way to reduce the need for manpower and the screening “guns”.

To protect the workers, a pharmacy has a plastic curtain hung from the ceiling to cover the counter, with just a tiny opening for the good to pass through. With the mandatory masking policy on top of taking extra precautions, the owner was able to convince workers to come to work and keep the shop open.

“When you go out, you get “shot” at least 4 times a day, if you’re lucky,” he said.

To contain community spread, sick residents are warned against leaving their “districts,” which we call boroughs here in New York City. It means someone from Manhattan would not be able to get to Brooklyn or Queens without passing through roadblocks set up at the borders and entrances to bridges, where guards are armed with infrared thermometer laser guns. That’s how the authorities tracked and monitored people’s movement initially, before a Q-R code was put on everyone’s phone to identify the sick from the healthy.

One time, Sam was stopped at a normally sprightful intersection. His temperature read just a digit higher on the small screen. Steaming inside his make-shift plastic protective suit, Sam nearly peed his pants when the official asked him to step out of his car. Luckily, his neighbor was one of the guards. Though his neighbor was covered from head to toe in a hazmat suit, Sam recognized those squinting eyes above the mask. Sam was glad that he had been a good loser for their mahjong games — why his neighbor had invited him to join the table more frequently than his wife has agreed to. Sam called it the luckiest moment of his life when this old acquaintance, standing behind the guard with the screening gun, inched forward and addressed Sam as “Brother,” with pretended politeness. That’s how Sam got a second chance. On double-luck, after he ripped open his raincoat, his temperature also came down as he prayed to God.

Since the number of cases rose in thousands, Sam recalled S.O.S. messages sent by his friends who work in the hospitals asking for aid when medical supplies ran out. Videos show the chaos inside crowded corridors with patients sleeping on the floors. Three children sharing one bag before being taken away for cremation. Party members renewing their oaths of loyalty to the party as they quarantined in one of the twenty arks in Wuhan.

The officials branded these make-shift quarantine centers as “Arks”, like the ark the Christian prophet, Noah, had made for the menacing flood in the bible tale. Sam knew someone who was taken away in the middle of the night from another building in his residential compound. Buses were sent to round up the sick. Everyone stuck their heads out of the windows every time a bus arrived. Everyone kept their heads out till these buses were long gone. No one wanted to get on any ark.

He had taken his family to hear Lang Lang’s concert at the stadium that had been converted into an ark. Every year, he has set up his trade show booth at the convention center that has also been made into an ark. But none of these old memories could lessen his fear.

Sam couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from his wife and children — to be dragged and locked up in a hotel room, or worse, confined to one of the hundreds of beds stretching across a hall full of sick people, fearing not just the virus, but also cross contamination.

He could hear coughing and moaning, imagining himself unable to fall asleep under the light that never dims. “They’re going kill the wi-fi soon.” His high school friend has sent him messages from inside the sports stadium, one of these arks. His messages were never more than a sentence or two. But Sam could fill in the blanks. He has smelled death before. His father died two years ago. He remembered the rotting smell.

They can track us and shut the account. Sam told me. That’s why he stopped texting me and we just talked on the phone. Everything stopped after more and more whistle blowers vanished.

When people are mandated to isolate, the sick are at the mercy of the government employees to provide relief. In his chat group, some people have complained about their long wait for testing and hospitalization and losing precious family members — these kind of posts were quickly removed. Posts that praised that hospital meals were nutritious and tasted homemade never get deleted, same for sham images showing actors eating bats and curses about Wuhan. Sam said an elderly man didn’t have his medication with him when he was bused away. In one of these fleeting messages, his son complained that his father died of dehydration and neglect. Sam has also lost his uncle. The dead body was bagged up and taken away. He and his cousins mourned as they exchanged cryptic notes to comfort each other in their family group chat. Sam said this virus has made everyone realize that rituals really don’t matter.

“You can’t write about this,” he warned me whenever he shared anything important.

When local officials were all canned, with much tighter measures, the local supermarket only takes delivery orders from an entire community. Management of his mini-districts organizes the purchases for the residents. “You use your phone to choose what you want from very limited options.” My friend said they get dry bean curd, tomatoes, carrots, noodles, flour, ground pork for making stir-fry, noodles and buns.

Buns made by Sam’s wife.

To minimize the workload, my friend’s wife prepares two meals instead of three a day, just simple lunch and dinner. When groceries gets delivered, residents are notified. People pick up their own bags of goods from a designated building.

So why aren’t the quarantines lifted yet when there have been no new cases for days, you are probably wondering as you read my story. Apparently, according to Sam, only until they have 14 days of 0 new cases would they get the green light for the gates to reopen.

Wuhan already had 50005 accumulated cases to date. Out of this questionable official number, there are 41290 reported cures. 2499 have died and 6116 are still carrying the virus.

Based on what I learned from our own local officials in New York, a number is affected by the testing capacity, testing volume, testing accuracy as well as what a government allows the public to know. There are also testing preferences, meaning a person’s societal status and severity of the illness help cut the line. And you might not be aware of the fact that a doctor can also prescribe testing of other pneumonia coronavirus instead of COVID. I checked the public health record of Hong Kong, my birth home, and that’s where I learned that we can’t trust any information that does not reflect reality.

This virus is exposing a lot of buried truth. How all governments put economy above environment and public health. How we have been focusing too much on politics and forget about humanity. How we need to watch out for each other and work together. We are all vulnerable human beings in front of this common enemy.

It has been 57 days since the lock down in Wuhan. I heard that overseas Chinese, especially college students are rushing home since the outbreak is exploding outside of China. I wonder if everyone knows they are required to quarantine and have to pay 4500 yuan to14000 yuan for their 14-day hotel or hospital stays. Though, without doubt, the elite party members will make sure that home-cooked dinner boxes are left at the doorsteps for their princelings, while health workers dressed in hazmat suits deliver groceries and take out their garbage. So much for socialism.

Sam has been calling since March 1 when my home city in America finally got hit. I used to check on him every day. Now it’s his turn.

Because of my health condition, I was told to stay home by everyone. Though, tired of staring out of the window, I decided to venture a bit, to shop at a store instead of ordering. With the sun on a clear sky, it feels like a summer day outside. At 70 degrees, I had a hard time tolerating the reusable respirator I made myself wear. My glasses kept fogging up. My son couldn’t wait to take his off once we were out of Fairway Supermarket.

The Fairway Supermarket on the Upper Westside on March 20, 2020

Contrary to my speculation, the aisles were organized and well-stocked. Bountiful supplies of produce and meat greeted us. The butchers, the deli servers, the registers and almost all the customers wore gloves. Besides us, many people wore masks.

To replenish my refrigerator, I bought spaghetti sauce, eggs, bagels, packaged prosciutto, pork chops and fresh chicken and chicken bones to make broth. As a bonus, with a coupon, I also got a free bottle of private label organic olive oil. Since my boy carried the basket, the line didn’t bother me. The store wasn’t packed. The line was actually a bit less than NYC-normal. It’s different for Trader Joes. I suspect that the store was implementing crowd control. We saw the line bend at the corner and end at half a block down on our way there.

We avoided Broadway, the more crowded way to walk home. In front of our building, I noticed green buds starting to show on the dry branches of the trees that line the street I live. Pigeons kept coming and going in hordes around the mountain of garbage on the sidewalk, while my boy scanned his phone. These scattering signs of nature and normalcy help remove all the irrelevant numbers and images of anxious eyes from people’s faces.

Maybe I was imagining — the air outside wasn’t just fresh, it was sweet when I inhaled it. I made sure I took big gulps of it before stepping through the sliding door and returning to our hideout.

*I always keep a record of the data for anyone who is interested in authenticity.

This is clipped from a daily report by Dingxiang Doctor App:
This is clipped from The New York Times on March 21, 2020.
Julie Lam

Writer. Photographer. Founder. MaskTogetherAmerica & Mask with Us. Public Health Advocate.