Responses to social isolation in China
Author: Yingru Chen. You can contact her at email@example.com. Yingru would also like to thank Dr. Shannon Mattern for her help during the research process.
At 2 am on the 23rd January 2020, authorities issued a notice informing residents of Wuhan that from 10 am, all public transport, including buses, railways, flights, and ferry services would be suspended. Basically, the lockdown of Wuhan consisted of two parts:
1) shutting down all transportation connecting Wuhan and other cities, including but not limited to, airport, railway station, and highways; and
2) suspending all internal transport within the city, such as subways and buses. The second part of the policy is more contentious. For a majority of residents, commuting and essential behaviours become rather difficult to perform.
In my paper, I am interested in investigating who is more visible in the context of a forceful, yet arbitrary lockdown? Whose needs, desires, and struggles are responded to and whose ignored? What kinds of needs are prioritized over others? Through what means are they present and visible, and to what ends? At a time when a distrust towards the government is intensified, how did a variety of the less visible, yet highly sophisticated networks of localized cooperation (alumni associations, fan communities, and such) emerge on existing digital platforms (for example, Weibo and Wechat) and became the means through which people make themselves more visible and their needs fulfilled at a time of social isolation?
Background 1)Before the Lockdown
The coronavirus COVID-19 is first reported from Wuhan, China in December 2019. COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. By now (May 2nd, 2020), the virus has infected 3,483,888 and caused the deaths of 244,772.
Let us look at a brief timeline of the major incidents related to the coronavirus in the first month after its discovery:
2019, December 31, China alerted WHO to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan
2020, January 1, shutdown of the alleged place of origin of the virus, Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
2020, January 3, officials announced there was no proof of human-to-human transmission
2020, January 7, officials announced they had identified a new virus
2020, January 11, The convening of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Hubei
2020, January 17, final day of the Congress and Conference. Officials announced no newly confirmed cases during the Congress and Conference.
2020, January 20, officials confirmed human-to-human transmission
2020, January 23, Wuhan was placed under effective quarantine as air and rail departures were suspended. Meanwhile, public transportations (subway, ferry, and bus) are all suspended in Wuhan.
2020, January 24, The number of cities under lockdown in Hubei rose to 13, affecting 41 million people.
2020, January 30, the WHO declared coronavirus a global emergency.
Though the virus was detected in December 2019, the government officials not only concealed this discovery from the public and claimed the virus would not transmit from human to human, but also made up fake numbers because of the procession of major political events (the convene of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from January 11-17, 2020). This delay in a public announcement with regards to the emergency of the disease, especially at a time of intense mobility of the population because of the Spring Festival, has unwittingly facilitated the spread of the virus.
Moreover, China’s Civil Affairs Ministry published on January 26th, 2020, a notice that banned any privately run charities or volunteers from entering Hubei. This decision intervened with the voluntary donation of medical supplies from individuals to hospitals, as all future donations are required to be handled instead by the official, state-run charities. According to the announcement, donated materials cannot be delivered directly to hospitals. All official charities must report donations to the Hubei provincial and Wuhan municipal disease control groups, and those agencies will allocate the materials to different hospitals. Unaffiliated with the Red Cross elsewhere, the local Red Cross Society is one of two government-controlled organizations through which the government monopolizes philanthropy. The Wuhan government has insisted that all donations must go through the local chapter of the Red Cross. Yet, a journalist of the China Central Television (Yangshi Xinwen) visited the storage of Hubei’s Red Cross and reported that most of the supplies remained stored and undelivered. This report showed that of two million masks donated from across China, the local Red Cross had only delivered 200,000 to hospitals, one-tenth of the total supplies received. Meanwhile, the officials on the interview still insisted that all medical supplies have been distributed evenly to maximally assist the hospitals from all ends.
To sum up then, from the very beginning of the emergency, the trusting relationship between the public and its government has been severely jeopardised by
1) misinformation that facilitated the spread of the virus (the announcement that there was no proof of human-to-human transmission in January 3rd, and no newly confirmed cases during the Congress and Conference, yet less than a week after the Congress and Conference, Wuhan was locked down, showing how difficult the actual situation was),
2) inefficiency of the government in regards to sending out medical supplies and controlling the spread of the virus, and
3) how, in general, the government officials seemingly chose their political lives over the actual lives of people.
Background 2) Wuhan Lockdown
At 2 am on the 23rd, January 2020, authorities issued a notice informing residents of Wuhan that from 10 am, all public transport, including buses, railways, flights, and ferry services would be suspended. The Wuhan Airport, the Wuhan railway station, and the Wuhan Metro were all closed. The residents of Wuhan were also not allowed to leave the city without permission from the authorities. The notice caused an exodus from Wuhan. An estimated 300,000 people were reported to have left Wuhan by train alone before the 10 am lockdown. By the afternoon of the 23rd, January, the authorities began shutting down some of the major highways leaving Wuhan. The lockdown came two days before the Chinese New Year, the most important festival in the country, and traditionally the peak of the travelling season when millions of Chinese travel across the country.
Following the lockdown of Wuhan, public transportation systems in two of Wuhan’s neighbouring prefecture-level cities, Huanggang and Ezhou, were also placed on lockdown. A total of 12 other counties to prefecture-level cities in Hubei, including Huangshi, Jingzhou, Yichang, Xiaogan, Jingmen, Suizhou, Xianning, Qianjiang, Xiantao, Shiyan, Tianmen and Enshi, were placed on traveling restrictions by the end of 24 January, bringing the number of people affected by the restriction to more than 50 million.
The policy is quite contentious, not only because Wuhan is a populous city with a population of more than 11 million, but also because of the geographical characteristic of Wuhan. Today’s Wuhan consists of three boroughs: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. From the map above, it is noticeable how Wuhan is intersected by two rivers, the Yangtze River and the Han Shui River into three parts. For a majority of residents who either do not own a private car or are unable to afford taxi fees in the long run, commuting and essential behaviours become rather difficult to perform. Especially as the government provided no alternative solutions when the lockdown was announced, the anger of a majority was intensified the night of the policy implementation.
In this paper, besides the theoretical analysis of the human groups/social and political structures/infrastructures that have facilitated or foreclosed the spread of infectious disease, I am also interested in conducting interviews online with people who are quarantined in Wuhan, whose lives have been severely impacted and compromised by the forceful lockdown.
I had several conversations with my family who were in Wuhan during the lockdown. This is the family of my step-father, and all the members of the family are born and raised in the Hubei province, mostly in Wuhan. This household consisted of two grandparents, the father, the son and his wife and their daughter. My grandmother is a vocal professor at a music school; my father went back to Wuhan for the Chinese New Year’s Festival from Shenzhen; my brother works in the local TV station as a director, while his wife is taking care of their daughter at home. They had just welcomed their daughter to the family several months before the outbreak of the COVID-19.
I am a member of the group chat including all the members of the household and a few other relatives. I collected chat history throughout the lockdown. Before having the conversations, I browsed through the chat history and framed my questions accordingly. The questions revolved around 1) their affective and physical experiences during the lockdown, 2) which part of life had been compromised and which had not, and 3) what were some solutions to their problems.
The first conversation took place over Skype on April 10th, 2020, two days after the re-opening of the Wuhan after 76 days of lockdown. t was an informal conversation during which my step-father was making pancakes. Several conversations followed up both on Skype and on Wechat (a Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media app on which your posts can be seen only by friends you have added) through both voice messages and typed messages. The story I am presenting takes the first pronoun of my step-father. This is a narrative I constructed based on our conversations, and also our numerous chat history during and after the lockdown.
Due to the lockdown, numerous social networking platforms become the major way through which people acquire information and communicate with each other. Thus, besides doing interviews, I have also browsed through Weibo (one of the major Chinese microblogging websites) for posts concerning people’s lives and struggles in Wuhan during the lockdown.
The lockdown was official at 10 am, and I got up at 6 in the morning. Your brother was working in the TV station and they had overnight meetings those days, so we knew the news a few hours earlier than other people. Your aunt insisted on leaving, and I drove her to the railway station. Both of us were praying along the way, hoping the railway actually run several hours before the lockdown. That was two days before the Chinese New Year eve. We had not celebrated a New Year together for years. We did not this time. The railway was still operating. She got back to Guangdong by herself. In the next two months, that was the only good news I heard.
On my way back, I noticed how all the sirens on Wuhan ambulances went silent. On the one hand, there are not many cars on the road, so sirens were not needed to get cars out of the way. On the other hand, it was probably for fear of frequent blaring of sirens causing panic among the public.
I could not sleep for the first two months. Every day, I had my eyes wide open to meet the first light of dawn. Anxiety was overwhelming me, overwhelming our family, overwhelming every individual I spoke to. It was suffocating, yet there was nothing you could do. Wechat groups were the fastest way to spread the news. People were forwarding every article they read, every news they saw, every story they heard, to every group chat they had. Fake and real stories were bombing and overflowing. You heard everything, the moment you heard that aerosols were a way to spread, the next you heard the cure had been made. You learned how the number of deaths was far greater than we thought, and everyone you spoke with complained about the inaction of government. You heard about conspiracy theory. The local network would be established to forbid news in Wuhan to spread outward. Everything. I could not do it. Should you believe them or not? You could not simply close your eyes and block them out. Your family’s life is hanging upon the news.
People around you were dying. The closeness of death doomed you; your grandparents’ collages, friends, even students, they were all dying. It was like a war, and the commander in Hubei was so bad that we were losing. A war that has been lost. Yet a war you had to fight. In the first few months, I was remined the book you read to me every day, Night by Elie Wiesel. The same logic was operating here. Suddenly, your life became unrecognizable to you, and you did not know where the future lay.
Your brother had to go to work every day. He had to because he did the news on TV. They took turns to work. He went out at five or six in the morning and drove to pick up his colleague. That was the solution: we came up for people who did not have cars. All of them who could pick up other colleges were scheduled to work on the same day. They worked for two or three days, and took two or three days off. There were volunteers, for sure. People working for the government were assigned to communities. Usually three to five volunteers to each community. Gongwuyuan (public servant) were working during the epidemic in the form of “volunteers” as purchasers, delivery staff, and maintenance in various communities.
There was another type of volunteer that was no organized by the government. They were recruited online. The range of their services varied, from sending medical workers to the hospital, to pick up medicine for patients, to food delivery, sometimes at their own expense. Weibo was the major platform on which people sought out and received help. People posted online, and whoever was capable of helping would respond directly, creating this individual to individual network. In the first few months of the lockdown, this kind of post was all over the internet. And a pessimism was invading and conquering every individual online. A lot of people who were not available would repost and share until someone who was available appear. These posts usually got more than hundreds of reposts. This was catharsis.
There were other types of catharsis, for sure. Emotionally intensive ones were happening in our home every day. I was scared, but I have been a big, mature man who has been comforting others all my life. I should be fine, and I would be. Your sister was not doing very well. She checked her Wechat messages frequently. It was the source of her anxiety at first, but then it turned into a place where she felt rather calm. She was the one who attended the community group chat and updated what was happening in the community to us daily. She added to all the groups available and ended up adding to more than thirty different group chats to purchase groceries with people together. That was how we got our meat, condiments, and vegetables.
Besides the Wechat groups organised by the community, there were also other types of informal organisations mobilised through the platform of Wechat. My university alumni group was one of them. I graduated from Wuhan University, so most of my classmates from college were in Wuhan during the lockdown. In the first month of the lockdown, some of my classmates were suspect of being infected with COVID-19. They had nowhere to go. They could not go back home because they would not want their family to be infected as well, and there were no empty rooms in hotels. Some of them slept in their cars, and some of them slept on the street. It was early February. It was freezing on the street. Sometimes, they asked for help in the group chat. I went out by myself and brought some food to them several times. We sat six feet apart from each other. But all the words seemed said already. We usually sat next to each other in complete, deafening, silence.
While the news reports mainly focused on the authoritarian, top-down measures the Chinese government used to slow the rate of infection, the story I heard was comprised of the less visible, yet highly sophisticated networks of localized cooperation.
In the narrative we see, several bottom-up, dynamic, informal organizing in hyperlocal groups were emerging through online platforms in Wuhan as alternative ways to maintain an ordinary life, sometimes even life itself, when the government has failed its public. Neighbours were using social media to find food and medicine, support the sick, and help each other survive. These solutions serve to fill the hole left out by an arbitrary policy that deemed some population less visible. When the officials announced the lockdown, especially the suspension of internal transportation, some people’s needs, desires and struggles were ignored; inconvenience, even threats in numerous forms were presented to them: medical workers and other essential workers who needed to walk several hours to commute after an entire day of work, migrant workers who were sleeping in the parking lot because they could not afford hotels as they lost their jobs during the pandemic, patients who could not go to the hospital to get tested or pick up their medicine, and so forth.
I am not trying to discover perfect solutions that make every invisible person visible, and indeed many people still remain invisible even when these strategies are employed. In this paper, I am just providing some examples of how people are coping with the situation.
One of the major ways is posting on Weibo, the same solution employed by a majority of the local hospitals when the medical supplies were not distributed adequately. In response to the failure of the government, a large number of hospitals were effectively bypassing the local Red Cross and posting on social networks to directly ask the public for medical supplies, in response, many volunteers constructed websites on which posts asking for medical supplies are affirmed and then compiled together.
Similarly, people in need posted on Weibo for help. In the pictures below, people posted about their difficulty generated by the lockdown, and after hundreds, sometimes thousand, of reposts, people who were able to offer help will message them directly to offer a solution.
In the first few days, this system operated in a one-to-one, and stranger-to-stranger model. After a few days, individual volunteers gradually became more organized, and more systematic networks were formed to provide help to different populations. For example, the post below is an HIV-infected individual recruiting on Weibo for more volunteers to join his ad-hoc organization that provides help for other HIV-infected individuals at this time of crisis.Another example is how ordinary car owners have organized themselves into groups on WeChat, where they swiftly respond to the requests of medics. These group chats usually consisted of more than 100 members-including drivers and health care workers. Most rides are arranged the night before, but someone in the group will usually step forward to accept emergency requests.
The examples provided above are all operating under a stranger-to-stranger model, usually in the bigger, and more public platforms such as Weibo. People are also utilizing existing social relationships for mutual help on more intimate platforms such as WeChat. In the post that is only seen by friends, instead of total strangers, acquaintances are recruited and past relationships utilized.
Many other existing relationships are utilized, some specific to the Chinese context. For example, the xiaoqu (小区) group, which literally translates to “small district,” serves as an exemplar. A xiaoqu is an official designation from the city grouping together all the homes in a given area. The majority of residents live in apartment blocks contained within residential compounds, or xiaoqu, originally built in the Soviet model. The compounds vary greatly in size, holding a few dozen people or a few thousand, and they tend to contain shops, swimming pools, restaurants, and even police stations. The xiaoqu also have their own security-critical during the coronavirus epidemic-and limited points of entry and exit, making monitoring the population inside easier.
Typically, a xiaoqu captain (a volunteer or someone appointed by the property management) invites one person in each household into one WeChat group, which can range from 50 to 500 people in size. Wuhan has at least 7,106 xiaoqu groups among its 11.08 million residents, many of which existed before the coronavirus took hold. In the group chat, the xiaoqu captain usually makes announcements, such as the swimming pool will be cleaned, and so forth. When the outbreak took place, group chats became the place in which people shared uplifting quotes, memes, home exercise regimes, and recipes, but also asked their neighbors to go out and buy food or pick up medicine for them, a way of limiting group exposure.
For example, when an elderly woman without a smartphone told her neighbour that she had run out of food, the neighbour posted to the xiaoqu group and her people donated their food to her. When people fell ill, members went out into other WeChat groups to help find hospital beds and get information on caring for someone with the virus.
Eventually, xiaoqu groups and businesses worked together to coordinate group purchasing. When it was not feasible for grocery stores to make deliveries to individuals, members of the xiaoqu pooled their orders for a single transaction with supermarkets. Sign-up sheets were made for bulk ordering of eggs, milk, and cleaning supplies.
These acts involve existing and newly formed networks, like those built across social media to purchase and deliver menstrual products to medical workers working round the clock. And in some cases, the efforts are more widespread, as friend and alumni networks worldwide create logistics supply chains for donations of masks, eyeglasses, protective suits and other needed equipment to hospitals in need.
These networks aim to serve as a supplement to fulfil the role of the government when the it fails; however, they do not aim to become a sufficient force to further challenge the authority of the government and question its general structure and organization. They only come into existence under the context of COVID and will go away once the situation changes. Moreover, the nature of the organizations (xiaoqu groups, alumni associations, fan communities, and such) actively engaging in this movement of decentralization undermine the potential transformation of the social structure. The attempts at resisting or disrupting circulation can be co-opted, contained, or absorbed (Chua, Danyluk, Cowen, and Khalili 2018). A potential emancipation (or forming of a civil society) comes about through the construction of a common memory-to remember what happened, and how have lives been discredited or sacrificed by power.
Hopefully, this paper may provide the readers with a more intimate touch with people being quarantined in Wuhan. Narratives have been rewritten already on the internet as the netizens are applauding the acts of the Chinese government in comparison to those performed by the U.S and some European governments. Yet, the arbitrary lockdown indeed neglected and compromised the lives of many, and I hope this paper may serve as a way to actively remember what has happened, how the government has failed, how the people have co-opted ways to suffice its own needs, and ultimately, to discuss the possibility to reflect on and interrupt the social, political narrative implicitly informing and justifying such arbitrary acts.
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